Thirty years had passed since the last state-sponsored sterilization when former Gov. Mike Easley formally apologized to the victims in 2002, the year before the Legislature officially struck the law from the books.
However, little has happened to compensate or bring justice to sterilization survivors. Charmaine Fuller Cooper, the newly appointed executive director of the N.C. Justice for Victims of Sterilization Foundation, is charged with changing that.
"Justice for the victims hasn't been at the top of the radar screen for people, and I intend to elevate it to the level it deserves," Cooper says. "Justice for the victims will involve some sort of compensation or service package as well as allowing them a venue to speak about what happened to them."
Gov. Beverly Perdue appointed Fuller to the post and allotted $250,000 in the state budget for the foundation, which is a new division within the N.C. Department of Administration. Cooper began transitioning to the new position earlier this month.
"I plan to move this foundation intentionally forward without delay," Cooper says. "Not a day goes by since I started in this new position that I haven't been looking at the research and formulating plans."
Cooper's responsibilities include working with members of the to-be-named Foundation Board, establishing a charter with guidelines for identifying survivors and descendants (some victims were sterilized after they had children); examining legal options for restitution and potential funding sources; and collaborating with other state agencies, the Governor's Office and the General Assembly, as well as advocacy groups.
Cooper understands that the victims have been waiting decades for benefits that have been promised but never delivered. "I don't take this work lightly. I realize that these are real people who have suffered as a result of the state's program," she says. "I also know that time is critical. The survivors are advancing in age, and many of the victims have already died. The foundation will be developing a protocol for developing and administering compensation in a timely fashion."
Cooper previously served as executive director of the Carolina Justice Policy Center in Durham, which she first joined as a volunteer coordinator and graduate intern in 2003. Cooper was instrumental in advocating for the N.C. Racial Justice Act, which ends racial disparities in death penalty sentences. The Legislature passed the act last year and Gov. Perdue signed it into law.
Cooper worked as a research assistant and intern to the late state Sen. Jeanne Hopkins Lucas, who, among many legislators, joined state Sen. Larry Womble in demanding that the state offer compensation to sterilization victims.
"I think most people tend to take for granted their ability to have children," Cooper says. "They don't stop to think about what it would be like to have that choice taken from them. In this case, the victims never had the chance to make that choice."
While many victims did consent to the procedure, Cooper says it is important to examine how the victims were coerced by medical professionals, family members or social workers. In the case of Nial Cox Ramirez, it was clear she did not want the procedure, but a social worker bullied her into consenting to it.
"I see [the foundation] as a turning point to bringing justice to so many families and individuals affected by this tragic moment in North Carolina history," Cooper says. "I aim to give them a voice so nothing like this ever happens in state government again."