RALEIGH, North Carolina — A first deadline for compensation payments to those sterilized under North Carolina's past eugenics program is looming at the end of the month and less than a third of compensation claims have been approved.
Authorities who are reviewing claims say one main reason so few claims have been approved is that a state law setting aside $10 million for the qualifying victims doesn't cover many of those who had been sterilized.
As of Sept. 30, the N.C. Industrial Commission had approved 213 claims for compensation of the 731 claims reviewed, or about 30 percent. The Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims has received another 55 claims that the commission hasn't yet reviewed under the state law, approved in July 2013.
Major reasons for denials — which victims can appeal — include missing paperwork and a determination someone wasn't sterilized on orders of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina but on orders issued at the county level, said Graham Wilson, spokesman for the state Commerce Department. That department oversees the industrial commission tasked with approving claims.
North Carolina sterilized about 7,600 people whom the state deemed feeble-minded or otherwise undesirable between 1929 and 1974. Wilson noted that compensation is allowed only those sterilized under orders of the state eugenics board.
"It's the way the statute is written," Wilson said. "If counties took it upon themselves to do it under their authority, they do not qualify." Victims can appeal, he said, "but if the documents show the procedure wasn't done under the state authority, they really don't have any case in this process."
Some of the victims were as young as 10 and chosen because they were promiscuous or did not get along with their schoolmates, authorities have said. While most were either forced or coerced into having the procedure, a small number of them chose to be sterilized.
But that's just at the state level.
It's not known how many were sterilized at the county level, said Elizabeth Haddix, senior staff attorney with the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which is representing 40 victims. Of those, just 10 had files from the state board, she noted.
"The rest of them, their stories were almost identical in terms of having a social worker come to their delivery room or hospital room," she said. The social worker might tell the patient, usually a black woman, that she wouldn't be eligible for public assistance unless she was sterilized, Haddix said.
Others weren't even asked, she said, noting one client who went in for surgery to remove her appendix came out of the operating room sterilized.
"We're beginning to talk with legislators who are interested in this issue and helping them to understand just how widespread this eugenics philosophy was in this state," Haddix said. "It was a state statute, and I'm sure these DSS workers just felt like they were following state policy."
Some victims sterilized on county order plan to appeal, she said. "And we're going to hope the Industrial Commission answers the question by reading the statute broadly," Haddix added.
Sen. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth, said she didn't agree with limiting compensation to victims sterilized at the state level since many others were forcibly sterilized. "The thinking from the people that agreed with that is that they could not verify that those people had been sterilized with the authorization from the government," Parmon said.
Victims had until June 30 to submit their claims so that the state knows the maximum amount that each would get from the $10 million set aside for compensation. The first payments to those who qualified go out at the end of October, and final payments are due June 30, 2015. Those denied a claim can appeal to a deputy commissioner on the NCIC, then to the full commission and to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, the Industrial Commission is trying to qualify as many people as can be determined to be eligible, Wilson said. "Our goal is to make sure everybody who can be compensated under this law gets compensation," he said.
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