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2004 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 9, No. 2
January 2004

Our Shameful Past

In the early twentieth century, most Americans believed people with cognitive limitations would produce “defective” offspring. Some even feared these people would weaken our country by “polluting the gene pool.” As a result the U.S. sterilized more than 70,000 people with mental retardation, many involuntarily.

North Carolina’s sterilization program, one of the nation’s largest and most aggressive, ended relatively recently, in 1974. Over its 40 years this program sterilized more than 7,600 people, most on the grounds that they were “feebleminded.” Many of these individuals were black and poor (Railey & Begos, 2002).

Using other rationales, for decades our society also routinely confined people with cognitive limitations in large, inadequate institutions. As a result, thousands lived out their lives under deplorable, dehumanizing conditions (Field & Sanchez, 1999).

In the past 30 years, attitudes have changed. Most institutions are closed, and there are services in place that enable people with developmental delays to live in their communities. Many Americans now feel people with intellectual limitations are valuable, legitimate members of society, and that we should help them lead full lives (Field & Sanchez, 1999).

If they are to be family-centered when it comes to serving this population, if they are to strike a balance between respectfully supporting parents and protecting their children, child welfare workers should reflect on this shameful history, and on their own true thoughts and feelings about parents with cognitive limitations.

References for this and other articles in this issue