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Payment Determined For N.C. Sterilization Victims


Victims of a eugenics program may finally receive some compensation. Eugenics is the widely discredited notion of somehow improving the gene pool by encouraging some people to breed, and stopping others. And for many years, the state of North Carolina sponsored a drive to have some people sterilized - in many cases, without their consent.

Now, North Carolina is the first state to move toward compensating the people who were involved. Yesterday, a task force said people should receive $50,000 each. And here's Jessica Jones of North Carolina Public Radio.

JESSICA JONES, BYLINE: Sixty-three-year-old Lela Dunston says she didn't know she'd been sterilized until long after it happened.

LELA DUNSTON: I was 13 years old when they did me like that. And I think that was wrong. They didn't ask me to sign no papers about sterilization. They had my mama to sign them papers. I ain't never signed no papers.

JONES: Dunston had just given birth to a baby boy. She's one of more than 7,600 men and women who were sterilized under North Carolina's eugenics program between 1929 and 1974. Dunston says she still can't understand how state officials allowed so many people to be harmed.

DUNSTON: And I don't know why they done that to us; that's ridiculous. Chopped us up like we was animals, like we were hogs and pigs. You know, I think that's ridiculous. Something needs to be done better than this.

JONES: Dunston says $50,000 doesn't even begin to be enough for what she's been through. She was one of about 40 victims, family members and friends who crowded into a Raleigh boardroom yesterday to hear the final recommendations of the North Carolina Eugenics Task Force. Laura Gerald heads the panel, established last year to determine how to compensate survivors.

LAURA GERALD: We have heard gut-wrenching stories told at our public meetings, by victims who were deprived by the state of an opportunity to bear children. We've heard stories of people who, in most cases, needed help but instead, they were irrevocably wronged and betrayed.

JONES: Thirty-one states had eugenics programs decades ago. North Carolina's targeted people it considered undesirable, for everything from criminal records to simple poverty. Gerald agrees with many survivors that nothing can make up for what they've suffered, but the panel needed to come up with a number state lawmakers would be willing to pay for. The compensation will not include children of deceased victims.

GERALD: We are not attempting, through our work, to place a value on anyone's life. However, we are attempting to achieve a level of financial compensation and other services, that can provide meaningful assistance to survivors.

JONES: A report commissioned by the task force found at least an estimated 2,000 victims are still alive. So far, the state has verified 72 of them. Fifty-seven-year-old Elaine Riddick was sterilized when she was a teenager. She says she's satisfied with the panel's recommendation.

ELAINE RIDDICK: In order for me to get closure, I have to accept this and go on with my life. And that's what I'm going to start doing. I'm going to go on with my life. I know I will never forget it. But you know, at least I'm a little more satisfied today than I was yesterday.

JONES: Riddick says for her, it's not about the money. It's about making sure the world knows how wrong North Carolina's eugenics program was. State lawmakers are expected to consider the panel's recommendations this spring. They have the support of the governor and leaders of the state legislature.

For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones in Durham, North Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jessica Jones covers both the legislature in Raleigh and politics across the state. Before her current assignment, Jessica was given the responsibility to open up WUNC's first Greensboro Bureau at the Triad Stage in 2009. She's a seasoned public radio reporter who's covered everything from education to immigration, and she's a regular contributor to NPR's news programs. Jessica started her career in journalism in Egypt, where she freelanced for international print and radio outlets. After stints in Washington, D.C. with Voice of America and NPR, Jessica joined the staff of WUNC in 1999. She is a graduate of Yale University.