SACRAMENTO, California (AP) — About 600 people alive today can’t have children because the California government sterilized them against their will or without their knowledge, and now the state is trying to find them so it can pay them at least $15,000 each in repairs.
But after a year of searches, the state approved just 51 people for payments out of 310 applications. There is still a year to look before the $4.5 million program closes and challenges remain steep. State officials have turned down 103 people, closed three incomplete applications and are processing 153 more, but say it is difficult to verify applications as many documents have been lost or destroyed.
Two groups of people are eligible for the money: those sterilized by the government during the so-called eugenics movement that peaked in the 1930s and a smaller group who were victimized while in state prisons about a decade ago.
“We try to find as much information as possible, and sometimes we just have to hope that someone can find more detailed information on their own,” said Lynda Gledhill, an executive with the California Victims’ Compensation Board that oversees the program. “We just sometimes can’t verify what happened.”
California was the third state to pass a forced sterilization remediation program in 2021, joining North Carolina and Virginia. But California was the first state to also include the most recent victims of its state prison system.
The eugenics movement has sought to prevent some people with mental illness or physical disabilities from being able to have children. California had the largest forced sterilization program in the nation, sterilizing approximately 20,000 people as of 1909. It was so notorious that it later inspired practices in Nazi Germany. The state did not repeal its eugenics law until 1979.
Of the 45 people approved for reparations so far, only three have been sterilized during the eugenics era. With victims surviving from that period in the 1980s, 1990s and beyond, state officials sent posters and fact sheets to 1,000 skilled nursing homes and 500 libraries across the state in hopes of reaching more.
The state also signed a $280,000 deal in October with Fresno-based JP Marketing to launch a social media campaign that runs through the end of 2023. The biggest push will start this month, when the state pays for ads. television and radio shows in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento which will run until next October.
The hope is that friends or relatives of victims will see the ads and help their loved ones apply for the program. Only victims are eligible for payments. But if a victim dies after being approved but before receiving full payment, she can designate a beneficiary, such as a family member, to receive the money.
“We take this mission to find these people very seriously,” Gledhill said. “Nothing we can do can fix what happened to them.”
The second group eligible for compensation includes people who have been sterilized in California prisons. A state audit found 144 women were sterilized between 2005 and 2013 with little or no evidence that they were advised or offered alternative treatments. State lawmakers responded by passing a law in 2014 to ban sterilizations in prison for birth control purposes, while allowing for other medically necessary procedures.
It was much easier to find documents verifying those victims, as their procedures happened recently. State officials have sent letters to inmates believed to have been sterilized urging them to apply, even posting flyers in state prisons advertising the program.
Wendy Carrillo, a Democratic member of the California Assembly who pushed to get the program approved, said she will ask lawmakers to extend the application deadline beyond 2023. She wants to give victims more time to apply and wants to expand the program to include victims who have been sterilized in county-funded hospitals. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors apologized in 2018 after more than 200 women were sterilized at 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 come out of COVID and start working fully at our full capacity, that means we’ll be able to do community gatherings and in-person meetings and more face-to-face contact differently.” from behind a computer and via Zoom – things are going to change,” he said.
Finding inmates who have been sterilized is still a challenge, Gledhill said. “It’s a population that may not have much faith in the government given what has happened to them.”
One such person is Moonlight Pulido, who was serving a life sentence for attempted premeditated murder. While in prison in 2005, Pulido said a doctor told her she needed to remove two “growths” that could be her cancer. She signed a form and underwent surgery. Later, something was not right. She was sweating constantly and didn’t feel like herself. She asked a nurse, who told her she had a complete hysterectomy, a procedure that removes the uterus and cervix and sometimes other parts of the reproductive system.
Pulido was shocked. At the time he was 41 years old, already had children and was serving a life sentence. But he said the doctor took away her right to start another family, which deeply affected her.
“I am Native American and we women are anchored 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 paroled in January 2022. Working with the advocacy group Coalition for Women Prisoners, she applied for compensation and was approved for a $15,000 payment.
“I sat there and watched it and cried. I cried because I have never had so much money in my life,” she said.
Pulido could get more money. The state has $4.5 million in reparations, and whatever is left over after the program ends will be divided evenly among the approved victims.
Pulido said she spent some of the money fixing up a car someone gave her when she got out of jail. She is trying to save the rest. Known as DeAnna Henderson for most of her life, Pulido said she changed her name shortly before she was released from prison, inspired by looking at the moon outside her cell window.
“DeAnna was a very hurt little girl carrying a lot of hurt baggage, and I got tired of carrying all of that around,” he said. “I’ve lived in darkness for so long, I want to be part of the light that will be part of my name.”