More openness for compensation process

Aug. 02, 2014 @ 07:47 AM

This editorial appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal

A state bureaucracy making big decisions about vulnerable North Carolinians without letting them, or the public at large, know much about its work.

That's the way we've often described the Eugenics Board of North Carolina, which forcibly sterilized more than 7,600 men, woman and children from 1929 through 1974.

And that lack of transparency is almost the way we could describe the N.C. Industrial Commission, which is now processing the claims of many of those victims. We're sure the commission means well and is taking seriously its crucial job, well knowing that reporters from across the nation are watching as our state becomes the first in the nation to compensate victims of a forced sterilization program. The commission is doing the basic correspondence with victims who've applied for compensation.

But several victims our editorial board has been talking to for years want more details about how the commission is conducting the claims process.

"I would like to know," 80-year-old Willis Lynch of Warren County, sterilized at 14, told us last week. "They could be throwing me off, not thinking of what's right for me. There must be some way for them to show me they are being truthful with the numbers. It should be some way or the other for them to prove to me that the numbers are right."

For example, last week, state officials told Journal reporter Meghann Evans that the commission had made "initial determinations" on 465 of the 500 compensation claims as of July 17. But, with many more claims to go, a spokesman for the commission declined to give a breakdown of those initial determinations.

The commission should do that. The victims, and the public at large, have a right to know.

Living victims whose claims are approved by the commission will share in that pool, each getting an equal share when payments go out by June 30, 2015. (If a state House measure survives the budget process, they'd get partial payments by the end of October.) A figure of $50,000 per victim has long been touted. But if the commission approves more than 200 claims, as it well could, that figure will quickly drop.

Victims like Lynch who've been courageously speaking out for compensation for years rightly want to know more from the commission. Nobody wants to know the names of applicants who choose to exercise their legal right to remain private. But the basic facts, including the breakdown of the initial determinations, should be provided to the victims and the public at large.

This nascent compensation process must have more transparency now, and it must retain it until the last payment goes out.