Vt. lawmakers move forward to establish reconciliation commission

Published: Jan. 11, 2023 at 4:40 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont lawmakers are in the process of putting together a commission to acknowledge the impacts of racism, discrimination, and eugenics in state laws and suggest ways to make amends.

Vermont is looking to right the wrongs of the past. In the 1930s, the General Assembly passed the Act for Human Betterment by Voluntary Sterilization. The law led to the sterilization of over 250 people at the Brandon School and at the Waterbury State Hospital. The vast majority were people with disabilities and members of indigenous tribes.

Lawmakers last year formally apologized for the state-sanctioned eugenics program and set into motion a way to reckon with its legacy.

“Truth commissions have been established in contexts where there have been human rights violations, a disrespect of rights that is so massive or systematic that it can’t be handled through the court system,” said Virginie Ladisch with the International Center for Transitional Justice.

Lawmakers are in the process of creating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a vehicle for the state to confront its unaddressed legacy of eugenics, racism, and discrimination. They say it will be a long deliberative process spread out over several years.

“In order for us to reckon as an institution, as a system that did the oppression, we need to hear from people and they need to feel like they can tell their stories,” said Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury.

An independent panel is working on selecting the commissioners in a way that is removed from the government and shielded them from political influence. The commission will then spend the next three years interviewing survivors of state harm and their families. Stevens says it’s too soon to tell exactly what the commission’s findings and recommendations will look like. “It could take any number of solutions. Reparations may be a part of that. People think that reparations are cash -- not always the case,” he said.

The commission’s final report will include actions to eliminate ongoing systemic discrimination caused by the eugenics movement. “I often think of reconciliation similar to democracy -- we never attain it, its something that we strive towards,” Ladisch said.

Lawmakers are looking to have the commission up and running by March.

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