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The News Virginian: Search continues for victims of Virginia sterilization program Print


Created:  Saturday, September 12, 2015 12:15AM


For decades starting in 1924, Virginia law permitted the sterilization of the mentally ill.

And one of the strongest proponents of the practice was Dr. Joseph DeJarnette, who served as superintendent of Western State Hospital in Staunton from 1905 to 1943. Sterilization also was performed at Virginia's training centers. The Virginia law allowing sterilization was repealed in 1979, but by then more than 7,000 victims had suffered the needless procedure that left them forever unable to have children.

DeJarnette wrote of his thoughts on sterilization in the mid 1920s, saying "the most humane and practical method of handling this unfit class is sterilization." He said "the feeble-minded, who are so from heredity, should all be sterilized." In a 1933 report to Virginia Gov. John Pollard, DeJarnette said the hospital sterilized 105 during that fiscal year, saying "sterilization we think, is our greatest work."

There are still victims alive today. A Virginia attorney and a member of the General Assembly are trying to find the surviving sterilization victims and offer them financial compensation from the commonwealth of Virginia.

Del. Patrick Hope of Arlington offered the Justice for Victims of Sterilization Act in the 2015 General Assembly. While the legislation died in committee, Hope was able to get a budget amendment passed. The $400,000 set aside by the commonwealth would go to 16 sterilization victims, paying them $25,000 each. Victims of sterilization will have to apply to Virginia's Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to be considered for the compensation.

Next year, Hope wants to pass legislation that would fund a museum detailing the sterilization in Virginia mental hospitals and training centers. The delegate is also talking with the Virginia Department of Education to see if this chapter of Virginia history can be put in school textbooks.

"It's a stain, a terrible chapter in Virginia's history,'' Hope said. He said compensation of any amount would never make up for what was done, but he said "it is some small token from the commonwealth. What was done to them was unacceptable."

Attorney and human rights advocate Mark Bold learned about sterilization while a student at Liberty University Law School, where he graduated in 2013. Bold's efforts in North Carolina led to that state budgeting $10 million to compensate sterilization victims.

"I was interested through law school,'' said Bold, who serves as president of the Christian Law Institute. He expressed disbelief that sterilization of the mentally ill ever happened. Bold's work in Virginia gained momentum when he was contacted by Hope. Bold will speak about his efforts Tuesday to the National Alliance on Mental Illness Augusta at 6:30 p.m. at the Valley Community Service Board offices on 85 Sangers Lane in Staunton.

NAMI is a national organization that offers support and education to families dealing with mental illness, said John Beghtol, the board president of the Augusta chapter.

Hope said when he saw what was happening in North Carolina it was time for Virginia to step up. "We should be the second if not the first,'' he said.

Hope has garnered a broad coalition of support for compensation and other acts of apology to sterilization victims. "Pro-choice and the right to life movement have come together on this issue,'' he said. "We were able to find common ground. A lot of people think this is the right thing to do and the right time."

In the three years that Hope has been pushing compensation, more victims of sterilization in Virginia have died. "The longer we wait, the more people will pass away,'' he said. Hope is optimistic publicity will bring more victims forward in the coming months.

And Hope and Bold will keep pushing. "It's never too late to do the right thing,'' said Hope, who will seek more compensation in next year's Virginia budget for sterilization victims.