SANTA ROSA, Calif. — 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.

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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.

That number has fallen by about 100 individuals per year, Stern said. But she also noted that the lab wasn’t counting people sterilized after 1953, because they couldn’t be confirmed through medical records. They do exist, though, and are entitled to compensation.

Stern puts the overall current estimate at a little over 300 people.

In light of that analysis, she and others were disappointed to hear the state had paid just three eugenics-era victims by March.

“It’s a pretty small number of survivors who have made it this long. But even out of that, I would have expected higher numbers,” said Silvia Yee, a senior staff attorney at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. “And maybe some faster processing.”

Stern agreed.

“The Victim Compensation Board got going quite late on outreach for the program,” she said. “I feel like it’s very difficult to make up that lost ground when there’s only eight months left now.”

California State Sen. Bill Dodd, whose district includes Sonoma Developmental Center, feels a similar urgency. He noted “the dark and despicable chapter” of forced sterilization in an emailed comment.

“But we need to confront that history and stand with the victims,” Dodd wrote in an email. “With this program on the books, the state now needs to make every effort to ensure the victims, many of whom are now elderly, are compensated before it is too late.”

According to the board’s data, it had received 420 applications in all by late April. Of the 420, the board approved 80 and denied 212.

Another 121 applications were pending, and seven were closed because the applicant failed to complete paperwork within the prescribed 60-day limit.

Four of the denials were from the eugenics era. The Victim Compensation Board can’t say how many of the pending applications are from that period, “as they are currently under review,” a representative said.

Some say the bar for proof of harm may have been set too high.

“I always thought that if it’s clear someone was in an institution in that time, and they’re relating a story they can remember, then we give them a huge benefit of the doubt,” Yee said. “Someone who went through this when they were institutionalized probably didn’t have a clue of what’s happening.”

The names and demographic data of the victims are confidential, but all three of the compensated eugenics-era victims were likely 15 or 16 years old when their surgeries occurred.

To locate survivors, the Victim Compensation Board sent posters and fact sheets to 1,000 skilled nursing facilities and 500 libraries statewide, distributed more than 900 posters to the state’s 35 correctional institutions to post in common areas and housing units, and launched an advertising campaign through Fresno-based JP Marketing.

Social media ads began appearing in October, radio and TV spots in January.

That still leaves gaping potential holes.

“Let’s say there’s 300 living sterilization survivors from the eugenics era,” Stern said.

“How many of those would actually see the flyers, or have access to a computer to print something out? Or have access to an iPhone or smartphone? Beyond just access, are they physically and mentally able to process this information, and then to act on it? And how many are just unreachable because they’re no longer living in California? The outreach is just happening in California.”

Smith, the retired social worker, is unimpressed.

If the program sent flyers to 500 libraries, she noted, that’s fewer than half in the state. (There are 1,127 statewide, according to the California State Library.)

Smith visited her local branch in Sonoma Valley, and a reference librarian there hadn’t heard of the flyers. So Smith tried the main branch in downtown Santa Rosa, and asked a librarian if he had received a poster. He had. He threw it away.

“He didn’t know the importance,” Smith said. “And the reality is, if you are in your 80s or 90s, we don’t know how many of those people go to the library every week and check the bulletin board. And they say posters were sent to skilled nursing facilities. But which ones? And what did they do with the information?”

Smith wrote a guest editorial for the National Association of Social Workers newsletter to alert its readers to the compensation program.

She also has taken a keen interest in the promised historical plaques, speaking before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to help ensure a meaningful marker is eventually placed at Sonoma Developmental Center, which is in the process of being sold to a developer.

Both Stern and Yee support the state’s effort to compensate survivors of coercive sterilization. Even the announcement of three eugenics-era beneficiaries is, in its way, a positive, Yee said.

“For those three, I’m really, really happy. And for anyone else reached by the end of the time period,” she said.

“For me and my organization, we’ll always be happy to have been involved in this. There is something very important to me about accountability and transparency.”

As Yee notes, part of what these victims lost, in addition to the hurt or shame they may have felt at having the right to procreate taken from them, was economic. Many suffered health complications that affected their ability to work, or absorbed related medical costs down the road. Some had given birth before they were sterilized, and had families to care for.

“To the extent they have borne the impact of that for all these years, yes, I think money is important,” Yee said.

Stern wonders why the state didn’t lean more heavily on her Sterilization and Social Justice Lab to locate potential victims.

The lab spent three years creating an expansive data set, cross-tabulated to make it easier to track patients who moved among multiple institutions and don’t recall which one they were sterilized in. The state has not asked to share that data.

“Given that we’ve been doing this research for more than 10 years, we have learned many things about how to locate individuals, some of the discrepancies in the records and how to work around them, and stuff like that,” Stern said.

“And I want (the Victim Compensation Board) to do good work and reach as many people as possible. So, I’d like to be supportive of them.

“But I feel we were an underutilized resource that could have enhanced their work, and we weren’t given the opportunity to do that.”

© 2023 The Press Democrat
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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