June 25, 2014 / 1:30 AM / 4 years ago

Advocates say more time needed to seek out N.C. sterilization victims

WINSTON-SALEM N.C. (Reuters) - An effort by North Carolina to compensate hundreds of people forcibly sterilized during the country’s longest-running eugenics program is facing criticism from some advocates, who say more time is needed to find possible victims.

A law passed last year calls for $10 million to be split among those who were stripped of their ability to have children as part of a state-sanctioned program that targeted the poor, sick and feebleminded as recently as the 1970s.

North Carolina is the first state to offer compensation to victims who were involuntarily sterilized or castrated after being deemed unfit to reproduce. A lawmaker who sponsored the bipartisan measure said it was important to quickly get the money out to those injured by the state.

Republican state Representative Paul Stam, the House Speaker Pro Tempore, said he opposed extending the year-long period for filing claims past the deadline next Monday.

“Any additional people who apply just take money from other people in the pot,” Stam said. “My guess is there are a certain number of people who are trying to move on.”

But with no money budgeted to spread word of the payments, some fear there will be victims who miss the chance to file a claim by the deadline.

“It would really help if it were extended by six months,” said Elizabeth Haddix, staff attorney at the University of North Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights, which held clinics to help victims. “The program itself would have more integrity if there were some outreach and some coordination.”

No one knows how many victims are living. As of June 15, 574 claim forms had been filed with the Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims, said spokesman Chris Mears.

The number is far short of the estimated 1,300 to 1,800 possible living victims in the state, but higher than the 176 living victims verified as of early 2013 by a foundation charged with identifying them prior to the bill’s passage.

Some victims have died since lawmakers approved the compensation package, adding to the sense of urgency to get claims certified and payments handed out, Mears said.

He said the state office sent more than 1,000 pieces of direct mail and made hundreds of phone calls to possible victims but did not buy radio or television ads due to the lack of funds for promotion.

More than 30 U.S. states had eugenics programs during the height of the movement aimed at ridding the population of characteristics considered unfit by its proponents.

North Carolina was the only state that gave social workers the power to petition for members of the public to be sterilized. The state sterilized approximately 7,600 people, mostly women, between 1929 and 1974.

Unlike most states that ended their programs after World War Two, North Carolina expanded its effort and carried out the majority of the procedures after 1945, leaving the state with more living victims as a result.

Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid

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