The Life Penalty: Sterilizing California

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — “All I could hear was… snip, snip, snip… like scissors,” remembers Charles Follett.

It’s been 65 years, but Charles clearly remembers the sound of the operation that literally changed his life. He now lives in a care home in Stockton.

“That’s my sister that’s me,” he says pointing to an old photo in his hand.

Pictures from his childhood conjure conflicting emotions. His mother was an alcoholic. Charles was bounced from one relative’s home in Stockton to another. His parents divorced when he was young.

“My mother and dad used to fight all the time.”

At age 12, without explanation, he was institutionalized at the Sonoma State Hospital in Sonoma, California; its name has since changed to the Sonoma Development Center. The institution was originally created for the mentally disabled.

But as California laws not only allowed for, but also expanded, the practice of sterilization, people were forced to undergo the procedure for a wide range of reasons — pre-marital sex, truancy, being so-called dim-witted. Children were even sent here for masturbating.

Charles was held at the institution for nearly a decade. He says he was pretty much alone and only given a 6th grade education which made finding a job later nearly impossible.

“What I know of schooling now I’ve learned the hard way.”

It has been a hard life. Not long ago Charles was homeless living in his car for more than three years.

Charles became one of the more than 20,000 Californians sterilized between 1909 and 1964.

“I was on the table, felt helpless, couldn’t do anything about it.”

He was only 15 years old.

“Felt like they was pulling my whole insides out… they didn’t tell me why they were doing it or what was causing it. They just said they were authorized to do it,” he said.

Why he was sterilized was never made perfectly clear.

“According to my mother the reason why they sterilized me so I could come home earlier. She said I going to have you sterilized so I can take you home sooner.”

Following the operation, his mother did not take him home. Charles was held at the institution another six years until he turned 21.

The state issued a resolution (Senate Resolution No. 20) in 2003 apologizing to victims of the program called eugenics. The proclamation acknowledged that the goal was “racial betterment through the elimination of hereditary disorders or genetic defects by mean of sterilization…”

Eugenics is now history, but it’s a chapter of California’s past that’s uncomfortable for many to discuss.

“I think for the victims, we can call them victims, there is a lot of shame since that’s something they don’t want to share,” says U.C. Davis history professor Miroslava Chavez-Garcia. “A lot of them don’t know how to explain what happened to them.”

Professor Chavez-Garcia has an upcoming book which includes the use of eugenics on boys in reform schools.

“It was a way to identify those who they believed to be unfit, that they believed to be contaminating society,” she says.

Sound familiar? It should.

Adolph Hitler was heavily influenced by California’s eugenics program, which set the foundation for what he termed racial hygiene, which led to the Holocaust. California was manipulating its own gene pool.

There was no medical reason for Charlie to have the operation.

The state may have wanted to prevent him from passing on his mother’s alcoholism trait, but Charlie believes the real reason is more painful — that his mother wanted revenge against her ex-husband, Charlie’s father.

“Her was she had me satirized (sic) was cut off his name right now.”

The operation kept him from passing on the family name and doomed his adult relationships.

“There were two or three girls I was going with. As soon as I told them I couldn’t have any children they took off.”

Eventually he started hiding the truth, and married.

“She wanted a child so darn bad it was pitiful and I couldn’t give it to her.”

His wife died years ago. Despite how desperately she wanted a child Charles says he has no remorse he never told her about the operation.

“If I did tell her she would have taken off like the rest of them.”

In 2003 Charlie asked for a personal apology from the state and compensation for what it did to him. This May, his caregiver contacted his representative, Kathleen Galgiani, and CBS13.

After months of exchanging calls and e-mails, we went to Galgiani’s office. The representative was not in, but her staff did have information for us. They told us out of the more than 20,000 subjected to California’s eugenics program Charles is the only victim to come forward.

The state says it never tried to find any victims, and when it comes to money there is no fund for reparations.

“I think he is owed something. All the victims are owed something,” professor Chavez-Garcia told us.

Charlie believes the operation not only took away his ability to have children it took away the potential for a life he has only been able to imagine.

“I do know this. If I hadn’t been sterilized at the time I probably wouldn’t be here now. I’d be having a family somewhere.”

California does not have a plan to handle this issue. It has no money set aside during this ongoing down economy. Every lawmaker and state agency we contacted for comment on this issue refused.

As of right now the state appears to have its head in the sand, while its surviving victims grow older by the day.


    My God, you people are sick. This man had his life taken away by this state! Yet they all said Hitler was wrong! Not only is it hypocritical, it is beyond words and understanding!
    Do you people know anything about CA history? How they developed surgeries on prisoners without anesthesia? How they let mental hospitals be run by doctors crazier than the patients? And yes, they sent KIDS to mental hospitals for masturbation!
    These are horror stories from our past that still go on in some parts of the country today and no one is doing anything!
    It is disgusting and downright appalling that this nation who claims to be the best in the world, does nothing to help or change the core of abuse that is going on in its own back yard.
    God help us all.

  • Rudy

    I am Charles Follett’s caregiver and I want Charlie to get his formal apology and compensation/reparation from the State of California. I am soliciting for help. Charlie and I can be contacted on his facebook page: We can also be reached by email:

    Thank you!

  • Kirsten Anderberg

    I am very happy to see the first of 20,000 finally speak up on this issue. I was institutionalized in 1969 as an 8 yr old, in Los Angeles CA at MacLaren Hall, a horrific insitution packed with children mistreated by parents and the state. I have worked for decades now to try to get people to hear what we children experienced in Mac Hall to try to stop such maltreatment via the anonymous, never held accountable state of CA! I have talked to over 200 adults who were children in Mac Hall with HORRIFIC stories of abuse from the state. I, too, have asked the state for a personal and group apology for what they did to us in Mac Hall and received none. The State of CA lifted the Statute of Limitations for the Catholic Priest scandal so those people could get reparations but getting the State of CA to lift the SOL’s on its OWN abuse to repay its OWN victims is a whole other ballgame. I wrote the first article, then the first book ever written about MacLaren Hall ( and the pictures on the cover and inside were found by me while earning my MA degree from CA State University. Oddly, my archiving professor in college is the granddaughter of Mac Hall’s Santa during the 60’s and she gave me the photos in the book, and they are the first ever published of the inside of Mac Hall with the kids which are not from a newspaper such as the LATImes archives. I went to college to be able to better verbalize my strife over no one listening re Mac Hall, very similar to what Charles is experiencing, and got my MA degree in History and Archiving in Dec 2010 with a 3.86 GPA and my entire focus was on Institutional History of CA.

    In my research, I found out Mac Hall was run not by dept of social services or CPS but rather by the Probation Dept, and hired jail guards to run it, which explained a lot. My research re Mac Hall, led me to Camarillo State Mental Hospital. Though I am still in shock from what I saw as an 8 yr old in Mac Hall, which was open from the 1940’s until May 2003 and had 4,000 children a year during the 60’s, I am in more alarm over what happened at Camarillo State, which held 7,000 patients at a time in the 50’s and 60’s. People would raid Mac Hall in the middle of the night for kids to take over to Camarillo State’s Children’s Unit, which was much worse than Mac Hall. There is a connection between all of these institutions and their past of severe human rights abuse.

    When I heard Charles Follett say basically that his mother was committed to an institution for alcoholism by his father who was always fighting with her and he eventually became institutionalized due to basically being a living orphan, which is what I was/am, (parents not dead but not being parents – living orphans and most in child protection institutions/orphanages throughout history have had living parents, by the way) and then he said he believes he was sterilized as eugenics, which is something CA did…that all plays into the exact pattern I have seen regarding Camarillo State and women. I wrote a book about 23 women who were committed to Camarillo State and for what. It really was an eyeopener for me to learn how these women were committed, mostly by men, fathers, husbands, bosses…

    So little is written re these things. I am glad Charles stood up and spoke out. I began speaking out re these institutions and CA”s past re human rights and these institutions in my 30’s so I may live to at least see personal apologies but I am not holding my breath. I think at the very least the State of CA owes all of us who were institutionalized in its systems as minors a Carte Blanche re paid therapy for us to come to terms with what we saw and experienced. By far the most traumatic thing I have ever witnessed or experienced was MacLaren Hall at age 8. I have still not come to terms with it at age 51. Children were sterilized in Mac Hall and Camarillo State too. For the same reasons, to stop a genetic line. Eugenics. The mental experimentation that took place on minors and adults in Camarillo State Hospital which was open from the 1940’s until 1997, is akin to Nazi mental experimentation, there is no way to rebutt that truth. Lobotomies should never have occurred, and when the AMA saw what that lunatic was doing, some doctors fainted, and his license was immediately revoked, but not until something like 40,000 people had ice picks shoved up their eyelids into their cortex as experimentation by this nut. What happened in these institutions was most certainly EXPERIMENTATION ON HUMANS. In America, in CA, in my life time. And I hope before I die I see some sort of reparations set up for survivors of CA’s institutional past, not to mention some guarantee they are not still abusing people shut away in these places…You can read more of my work on institutional history on my website at I have devoted my life to trying to get people to hear what went on in CA’s institutions so that it will not continue to happen or happen again. I am haunted by what I saw and feel I cannot die with that secret. It must be outed and I applaud Charles courage in coming out with this horribly hard topic which has affected so many in CA;s history, so many of us still living with the wounds inflicted by the State of CA to date, and them, with all that past of human experimentation, genetic cleansing programs of eugenics, etc…they pretend it is just fine. It is not fine. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, actually, are walking around with damages directly caused by the State of CA and they are SILENT AS LAMBS on the topic. It is shameful and I will continue this fight to get light into this dark place my entire life.

    • dawneworswick

      OMYgosh Kristen, I too was in Mclaren Hall in LA and in Camarillo State. I am a survivor of CPS and I too am speaking out!!!!!

  • Kirsten Anderberg

    I am shocked that there are virtually no comments re this insanely important topic!!

  • North Carolina One Step Closer to Compensating Victims of its Eugenics Program

    […] occurred, a Senate Resolution was issued in 2003 apologizing for the program. California, however, has not yet made any attempts to provide compensation or to identify victims.5 In Oregon, where the last compulsory sterilization was conducted in 1981, it has been reported by […]

  • Thelma Wheatley

    Kirsten, Rudy and Charlie: Yes, this is a disgrace and shameful, but unfortunately not out of the ordinary. The eugenicists of Canada, mostly psychiatrists and medical men, were influenced by and had strong links to Dr Paul Popenoe of California who was instrumental in passing sterilization laws in California AND in Canada – most notably British Columbia. Canadian psychiatrists Dr Hincks and Dr Farrar joined Popenoe to influence the passing of the British Columbia Sterilization Act in 1932, were instrumental in the province of Alberta Sterilization Act of 1928. The opnly difference is that Alberta paid millions of dollars in compensation to its victims. Dont give up hope, Charlie, though California unfortunately is broke. Many of us are on your side. I sent you an email a few days ago and I’m trying to get in touch with Kirsten. We have a lot in common – I’m trying to get hold of her books, and would like to start up conversation with her. My own book on Canadian eugenics iand institutionalization of the so-called “feeble-minded” is coming out this spring and I think Kirsten would get a lot from it for her own research. Well done, Kirsten. You also are a brave soul. Look forward to hopefully hearing from you soon. Thelma Wheatley. Toronto, Canada.

  • Forced Sterilization « thelma wheatley

    […] settlement in 1999 to its victims of $82 million, including $2 million in legal disbursements. Read the article > On March 23rd, 2012   /   In the News   /   Leave a […]

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