A real scandal that needs addressing

A real scandal that needs addressing

- in Weekly Briefing

The ongoing delay in compensation for victims of forced sterilization

Quick take: Despite the recent wall-to-wall media coverage of the Mike and Mary Easley scandal, there is another state policy scandal that continues to fester in relative obscurity. This one involves the continuing lack of compensation for victims of the state's long abandoned "eugenics" program. Last week, a committee in the state House approved a long overdue proposal that would begin to repay some of the damage.

Much of the oxygen in the state policy world of late continues to be sucked up by the unfolding story surrounding former Governor Mike Easley and his wife. Despite an unprecedented economic and fiscal crisis (and even though no one has yet been officially accused of any criminal wrongdoing), the media and the public seem transfixed by the story of special favors and ethically questionable behavior.

Here in Raleigh, the news outlet with the largest team of state government reporters (The News & Observer) has devoted great quantities of staff time and print space to the scandal. Indeed, some of the banner headlines that have accompanied the stories surrounding the former First Lady's job at N.C. State seemed big enough to have heralded the end of a war – or at least, perhaps, an NCAA basketball championship!

At a time in which so much of the news surrounding state government is bad, it's as if people have latched onto the story as an easy-to-understand symbol of failure in a scary and confusing time. In fact, one can't help but wonder if the story would have developed as much traction as it has if the state economy and government revenues were still riding high.

None of which is to denigrate the mostly fine reporting that has accompanied the Easley story. It is important news that needs to be fully investigated and fully brought to light.

Still, having said this, it would be nice if there were as much public and news media appetite for delving into some of the other public scandals that afflict North Carolina (arguably to much greater real world effect).

The eugenics scandal

Here's one such candidate for a new wave of fully-fledged, unrelenting news media coverage and public outrage: the scandal surrounding North Carolina's mid-Twentieth Century participation in the practice of "eugenics" and its forced sterilization of several thousand individuals.  

Here's a brief reminder of what's at issue – courtesy of the "whereas" section of a bill that was approved by a House committee last week and forwarded to key budget makers:

"Whereas, during the early part of the 20th century, social reformers advocated eugenics sterilization as a solution to problems such as mental retardation and mental illness; and

Whereas. in 1907, Indiana was the first state to pass a eugenics sterilization program, and eventually more than 30 states passed these laws, with North Carolina following in 1929; and

Whereas, from 1929 to 1974, North Carolina's Eugenics Board reviewed petitions for sterilizations, and sterilizations were ordered in more than 90% of the cases before the Board; and

Whereas, researchers estimate that more than 7,600 people were sterilized in North Carolina between 1929 and 1974, ranking North Carolina third among the states operating eugenics sterilization programs; and

Whereas, over the lifetime of the Eugenics Sterilization Program, approximately 38% of those persons sterilized under the Program were black, and 84% of all sterilized under the Program were female; and

Whereas, over the lifetime of the Eugenics Sterilization Program, approximately 71% of persons sterilized under the Program were classified as "feebleminded," who were predominantly people with intellectual disabilities; 24% classified as mentally ill; and 5% were classified as epileptic; and

Whereas, while most states sharply curtailed their sterilization programs after World War II, nearly four-fifths of sterilizations in North Carolina were performed after 1945."

In other words, for 45 years, North Carolina engaged in a long-since discredited practice that wrongfully harmed thousands of people. Today, 35 years later, surviving victims have yet to receive any just compensation.    

(It should be noted here that one reporter, James Romoser of the Winston-Salem Journal, has actually done a commendable job of reporting thoroughly and persistently on this issue. Just yesterday, for instance he reported on the state's unveiling of a new historical marker to commemorate the eugenics scandal:

"North Carolina will unveil a historical marker on Monday to remember one of the state's darkest chapters during the 20th century: the forced sterilization of more than 7,600 people under a state-sponsored eugenics program.

Justified by junk science and enshrined in state law, the program mainly targeted poor people and residents of public institutions. The victims were usually accused of being mentally ill, mentally disabled or a danger to society, and they were medically sterilized after approval from a panel known as the Eugenics Board.

The program began in 1929 and lasted into the 1970s. Thirty-one other states passed eugenics laws, but while most states began phasing out their programs in the 1940s, North Carolina increased the frequency of its sterilizations.")

So what's the hold up?

Predictably, the key roadblock for those seeking some kind of compensation for the eugenics survivors boils down to one thing: money. While the bill advanced by the House Committee last week would provide each eligible claimant with only $20,000 (a pretty darned modest sum when you think about it) the total cost is still expected to be as much as $18.5 million. Unfortunately, neither the House nor the Senate versions of the budget includes such an appropriation.

So is that the end of it? Is it simply unrealistic to expect lawmakers to appropriate such a sum for a new spending item at a time of profound budget crisis?

Let's hope not. Though certainly not chump change, $18.5 million is still less than one-tenth of one percent of the budget that lawmakers and the Governor will enact in the coming weeks. Moreover, unlike the vast majority of the state budget, such a program clearly requires only a "one-time" appropriation, rather than one that's "continuing."

More to the point, the impact on the state budget should not really even factor into the equation. Recent state history is replete with examples in which aggrieved citizens have won compensation for wrongs perpetrated by state government – whether for taxes wrongfully collected or property unjustly seized – in which full payment was immediately forthcoming regardless of its impact on state coffers.

This is how it should be for the eugenics victims. Yes, times are tough right now, but that's not the fault of the people who were forcibly sterilized. Their compensation was long-overdue when times were good, too.

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.