Hundreds of forced sterilization survivors are owed money from California. Only a handful have received it
On the final day of 2021, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a program meant to soothe some of the harm the state had inflicted on its wards over the span of a century.
Beginning Jan. 1, 2022, and continuing through the end of 2023, California would work to identify and compensate survivors among the 20,000-plus victims of involuntary sterilization in state institutions and prisons.
Well over a year later, the agency responsible for administering the program is reporting minimal gains.
By April 28, according to data furnished to The Press Democrat, the California Victim Compensation Board had approved just 80 applications, less than 20% of the number it had received.
More relevant to Sonoma County — where the former Sonoma State Home in Glen Ellen became the American epicenter of forced sterilizations in the first half of the 20th century — only three applicants from the so-called “eugenics era” had been approved. All three of those people had been sterilized at Sonoma State Home, later known as Sonoma Developmental Center.
“Do I wish more people (from the eugenics era) would receive compensation, given that we estimate there are 300 or more alive today? Of course,” said Alexandra Minna Stern, a UCLA professor whose work with the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab has guided modern research on the subject.
“I’m happy three have been compensated. I definitely think there is room for more.”
Those 300-plus estimated survivors are from the entire state institutional system. The majority of them were likely housed at Sonoma State Home at some point, Stern said.
Sherry Smith, a longtime Sonoma Valley resident and retired social worker who was employed at Sonoma State Hospital (as it was then called) from 1979-1981, was more pointed in her summary of the program’s achievements.
“I was kind of horrified,” she said.
The state compensation program is the first tangible form of redress for the women who underwent state-approved tubal ligation or salpingectomy (removal of one or both fallopian tubes), and men who were given vasectomies, without consent — or in many cases, without their knowledge.
But the challenges in locating victims are vast, and advocates say outreach by the Victim Compensation Board has been inadequate.
Newsom allocated $4.5 million for direct payments to victims, plus $2 million for program administration and outreach. An additional $1 million would pay for historical markers to memorialize the dark history of state-sponsored sterilization.
The fund is meant to compensate two very different sets of people.
One group is composed of somewhere around 250 female inmates who advocates say were coerced into being sterilized in California state prisons between the late 1990s and 2010. That group makes up 77 of the 80 applications that have been approved.
A second, much larger, population was sterilized while living in California institutions or group homes between 1909 and 1979. Those operations were associated with the eugenics movement, which sought to “improve” the human gene pool through selective breeding. The German Nazi regime closely studied the movement in America, and took it to grisly extremes during World War II.
Before consent requirements became more exacting in 1952-53, some 20,000 people were sterilized in California institutions. About 5,500 of those took place at Sonoma State Home, which opened in 1891 as the California Home for the Care and Training of the Feeble Minded.
Stern, who is dean of humanities at the UCLA College, and her lab team believe more of those operations took place in Glen Ellen than at any other facility in the nation.
The practice was outlawed in the United States in 1979.
Many of the people who were sterilized in Sonoma Valley had severe developmental disabilities. Others, researchers say, were simply delinquent teenagers, impoverished immigrants or girls who were the victims of rape or incest.
The Sterilization and Social Justice Lab, which began at the University of Michigan, found that female patients with Latino surnames were 59% more likely to be recommended for sterilization.
Though the eugenics era presents a large pool of victims, it is a diminishing population. The vast majority were sterilized at least 70 years ago, and many lived in poverty before and after institutionalization.
In 2017, Stern and her associates looked at life-expectancy tables, adjusted downward based on their assumption that victims of involuntary sterilization would have shorter life spans “due to a range of socioeconomic and social-determinants-of-health reasons,” she said. Her team reached an estimate of 838 survivors.
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