California is seeking forced sterilization victims to pay reparations

By ADAM BEAM | Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — About 600 people alive today are unable to have children because the California government sterilized them either against their will or without their knowledge, and now the state is trying to find them so they can each receive at least $15,000 in reparations can pay.

But after a year of searching, the state has only approved 51 people for payments from 310 applications. With a year to go before the $4.5 million program closes, the challenges remain great. State officials have rejected 103 people, closed three incomplete applications and are processing 153 others – but they say it is difficult to verify the applications because many records have been lost or destroyed.

Two groups of people are entitled to the money: those who were sterilized by the government during the so-called eugenics movement, which peaked in the 1930s, and a smaller group who were victimized in state prisons about a decade ago.

“We’re trying to find all the information we can find, and sometimes we just have to hope that maybe someone can find more detailed information themselves,” said Lynda Gledhill, executive officer of the California Victims’ Compensation Board, which oversees the program. “We’re just sometimes unable to verify what happened.”

California became the third state in 2021, after North Carolina and Virginia, to authorize a forced sterilization redress program. But California was the first state to also accept newer victims from its state prison system.

The eugenics movement tried to prevent people with mental illnesses or physical disabilities from having children. California had the nation’s largest forced sterilization program, sterilizing about 20,000 people beginning in 1909. It was so well known that it later inspired practices in Nazi Germany. It wasn’t until 1979 that the state repealed its eugenics law.

Of the 45 people admitted for reparations so far, only three were sterilized during the eugenics era. With victims surviving from that era into the ’80s, ’90s and beyond, state officials have sent posters and factsheets to 1,000 qualifying nursing homes and 500 libraries across the state in hopes of reaching more of them.

The state also signed a $280,000 deal with Fresno-based JP Marketing in October to launch a social media campaign that is expected to run through the end of 2023. The biggest push will begin this month, when the state will pay for television and radio advertising in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento, which will run through next October.

The hope is that victims’ friends or relatives will see the ads and help their loved ones apply for the program. Only victims are eligible for payments. However, if a victim dies after being approved but before receiving the full payment, they can designate a beneficiary — such as a family member — to receive the money.

“We take this mission very seriously to find these people,” Gledhill said. “Nothing we can do can make up for what happened to them.”

The second group of reparations claimants were sterilized in California prisons. A government audit found that between 2005 and 2013, 144 women were spayed with little or no evidence that they were counseled or offered alternative treatments. State legislatures responded by passing legislation in 2014 that would ban sterilizations in prison for contraceptive purposes, while continuing to allow other medically necessary procedures.

It was much easier to find records corroborating these victims since their trials were recent. State officials have sent letters to inmates believed to have been sterilized, urging them to apply, while they have posted fliers in state prisons promoting the program.

Wendy Carrillo, a Democratic member of the California Assembly campaigning to approve the program, said she will ask lawmakers to extend the application deadline beyond 2023. She wants to give victims more time to apply and expand the program to include victims sterilized at county-funded hospitals. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors issued an apology in 2018 after more than 200 women were spayed at the Los Angeles-USC Medical Center between 1968 and 1974.

“I’m not thrilled with the numbers we’re seeing so far, but I believe that as we exit COVID and begin to reach our full capacity – which means we’ll be able to hold community meetings and in person.” Meetings and more direct contact other than behind a computer and via Zoom – things will change,” she said.

Finding sterilized inmates is still a challenge, Gledhill said. “It’s a population that may not be very familiar with the government given what has happened to it.”

One of those people is Moonlight Pulido, who was serving a life sentence for first degree attempted murder. While she was in prison in 2005, Pulido said a doctor told her he needed to remove two “growths” that could be cancer. She signed a form and had surgery. Something didn’t feel right later. She was sweating constantly and didn’t feel like herself. She asked a nurse, who told her that she had a total hysterectomy, a procedure that removes the uterus and cervix and sometimes other parts of the reproductive system.

Pulido was shocked. She was 41 at the time, already had children, and was serving a life sentence. But she said the doctor took away her right to start another family – something that affected her deeply.

“I am Native American and as women we are connected to Mother Earth. We are the only givers of life, we are the only ones who can give life, and he stole that blessing from me,” she said. “I felt less than a woman.”

Pulido was released on parole in January 2022. Working with advocacy group Coalition for Women Prisoners, she sought redress and received a $15,000 payment.

“I sat there and looked at it and I cried. I cried because I’ve never had so much money in my life,” she said.

Pulido could get more money. The state has $4.5 million in reparations, and what’s left over after the program ends will be split evenly among the admitted victims.

Pulido said she spent some of the money repairing a car someone gave her when she got out of jail. She tries to save the rest. Pulido, who was known as DeAnna Henderson for most of her life, said she changed her name shortly before she was released from prison – she was inspired by the view of the moon outside her cell window.

“DeAnna was a very hurt little girl who was lugging around a lot of hurt luggage, and I got tired of lugging it all around,” she said. “I’ve lived in darkness for so long that I want to be part of the light that will be part of my name.” California is seeking forced sterilization victims to pay reparations

Dais Johnston

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