Special Report: Sterilization victims talk about their pain
WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) – Two women from southeastern North Carolina are among the thousands of victims of the state’s Eugenics program. For more than 40 years, officials ordered doctors to perform sterilizations on more than 7,600 men, women, boys and girls to keep them from having children that would likely need social services.
Many of the victims of this program had some mental disabilities, and were categorized at the time as “feebleminded” or “retarded”. Some patients diagnosed with epilepsy were also sterilized, according to state records. While officials cannot pinpoint the exact number of victims still alive, as of 2010 the State Center for Health Statistics estimated that number to be around 2,940.
Lela Dunston is one of those victims. Lela grew up in Wilmington, living with her family on Queen Street. A psychological examination at the age of 12 said Lela was in need of special education. “They told my mother I was feebleminded,” she says. “And that I wasn’t capable of having children.”
But Lela did have a child when she was 14. Her son James still lives with her today in Raleigh. After James was born in 1963, the Eugenics Board of North Carolina ordered doctors to sterilize Lela so she could not have any more children. A move she has trouble understanding nearly 50 years later.
“God put us in this world to produce children, not get rid of them,” Lela said from her home in Raleigh. “He didn’t do it so someone could take all your organs so you can’t have any children”.
Elnora Mills is another sterilization victim, but her story is different than Lela Dunston’s story. Elnora grew up in Brunswick County, and still lives in an area of Maco not far from her parent’s home. She had a nervous breakdown in June of 1966 and spent one month in a psychiatric hospital. The following year, at the age of 16, Elnora had to go to the hospital for what records say was an appendectomy. During that same surgery, after Elnora’s parents approved the state’s order, doctors at New Hanover Memorial Hospital also sterilized her. “My momma and daddy probably thought it was right for them to do it,” Elnora said from her home.
No one ever told Elnora about the sterilization at the time. It wasn’t until 1969, when Elnora and her husband Buddy tried to have children that she found out. She learned during a doctor’s appointment. She remembers walking out of the office and telling her husband. “When I read to him what they did to me, he cried,” she said, getting emotional during our interview. “They (the doctors in 1967) should have told me what they did to me. I didn’t think it was right that I had to wait until 1969 to find out my tubes were cut and burnt.”
Lela Dunston and some other eugenics victims testified in public hearings held in 2011 by the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation. Governor Beverly Perdue formed the group to work on identifying victims, and recommending compensation on behalf of the State of North Carolina. Elnora did not know about the effort until watching a report in January on WECT’s sister station, Fox Wilmington News at 10. After calling the newsroom, Elnora was put in touch with the Foundation, and along with Lela is now eligible for restitution the state might pay to the victims. Foundation members are recommending $50,000 to each surviving victim.
“I think it’s bogus,” Lela said when asked her opinion on the recommendation. “I would tell them they are wrong, and the state needs to compensate me better than they’re thinking about paying me”.
Elnora agrees that $50,000 is not enough compensation for the victims. “You can’t put a price tag on that,” she said. “My husband has missed out on not having children. Money can’t take care of what happened to me. They shouldn’t have done what they did without telling me.”
Lawmakers in the General Assembly are expected to take up the Foundation’s recommendation when they reconvene in May.