Kelli Dillon is a survivor of forced sterilization in a California prison. Alongside a coalition of advocates for reproductive and disability rights, she spent decades working to end these practices.
Her story and advocacy are featured in the 2020 documentary, "Belly of the Beast."
"California perpetuates a lot of oppression, a lot of systematic harm," said Dillon.
In 2021, the coalition's efforts led to the passage of a program to compensate survivors of state-sponsored forced or involuntary sterilizations, including in California prisons and under its past eugenics laws which were repealed in 1979.
But Dillon and others express disappointment over what's happened since them.
"I realized that the fight was not over," said Dillon.
Advocates said the agency administering the program, the California Victim Compensation Board, has done a poor job of reaching survivors.
It came down to unpaid peers and unpaid grassroots organizations spreading the word.Cynthia Chandler
"Those that were in prison were reporting back to us through letters and through phone calls, that after seeing 'Belly of the Beast,' after hearing about the compensation program in the news, they had nowhere, there was no information that was posted," said Dillon.
"Given the small population that we're dealing with, we're very proud of the work that we've done to try to reach as many people as possible," said Lynda Gledhill, executive officer of the California Victim Compensation Board.
The agency received $2 million for outreach and administration of the program. They had a challenging task: retrieving decades-old records, which are limited and identifying and contacting possible survivors, some of whom do not know they were sterilized.
"We have done this throughout the two years, including with a social media campaign, other outreach efforts," Gledhill said.
CalVCB said it also sent copies of applications and other forms to all state correctional facilities, which they say the facilities printed and made available to potential applicants. But advocates said outreach efforts were delayed and not enough.
"It came down to unpaid peers and unpaid grassroots organizations spreading the word," said Cynthia Chandler, senior assistant district attorney and policy chief at the Alameda County District Attorney's Office.
Before joining the Alameda County DA's office, Chandler spent roughly two decades working to uncover and end forced and coerced sterilizations in California prisons.
Some attorneys and advocates are also concerned with the application process. For example, if an application is denied, the applicant can appeal but does not receive a copy of medical records that CalVCB may have obtained.
"We asked if we could amend their consent forms in the application form to include a consent form signed by the applicant themselves that would allow them to hand over the records directly to the survivor," said Chandler. "They refused to cooperate. It showed a shocking desire to keep medical records out of the hands of people who had been harmed."
CalVCB began accepting applications January 2022. In March 2023, advocates learned that Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, who championed the program, was looking into using some of the funds for a different group of survivors. They were blindsided.
It's like taking from one hungry child to feed another hungry child.Cynthia Chandler
"When she made the press conference in East Los Angeles, she made it without our knowledge, without our support," said Dillon.
Carrillo said they're looking to compensate survivors of unknown or forced sterilizations at L.A. County General Hospital in the early 60s and 70s.
"To me, that's incredibly unfair," said Chandler. "It's like taking from one hungry child to feed another hungry child."
Chandler helped draft part of the law for the compensation program. She believes eligible applicants have been denied compensation due to CalVCB's interpretation of the law. Some cases are now in state court.
"Overall, I think that the state really should just freeze these funds until all of these legal issues are resolved," she said.
Eyewitness News reached out to Carrillo regarding the concerns that Dillon and others have raised.
Carrillo did not grant us an interview but in a statement said, "CalVCB is accepting applications through December 31, 2023 for the current program, but we are actively looking to extend the program to also compensate victims sterilized by Los Angeles General Hospital, thereby giving the Victims Compensation Board more time to continue outreach efforts," adding in part, "While Los Angeles General Hospital was not a state-run institution, it was following what were then California's eugenics principals, which gave medical personnel the power to decide whether individuals could reproduce."
Eyewitness News also spoke with Senate Budget Committee Chair Nancy Skinner, who authored the first iteration of the bill.
"One of the most notorious programs was at L.A. General Hospital, which largely targeted Latina women," said Skinner. "It was not in in our original program. So if there is money remaining from our original program, then we could make it available to those survivors."
$4.5 million was allocated for compensation, and the program's original language called for any remaining funds to be divided equally among qualified applicants. But right now, it is unclear how much money would remain after all payments are issued and if it would be also available for L.A. County General Hospital survivors.
Dillon does not oppose the compensation of those survivors, but she feels deceived over where those funds may be coming from.
"To me, Wendy Carrillo, (CalVCB,) the budget committee, no one is no different than the doctor that sterilized me, that lied and told me that they were going to do one thing, withheld information from me and then end up doing something else to me that brought further harm and further struggle and pain and disappointment into my life," said Dillon.
CalVCB said it has approved 113 applications for compensation and denied 376. Others are still being processed or under review. According to the agency, experts estimated there were about 600 survivors among the eligible groups.
For her part, Dillon wants to focus on healing and continuing to educate and raise awareness about this history.
"I've been living in this state of frustration with California system for over 20 years," she said.
"I've fought all I can fight, you know, I've done all I can do."
The last day to send in an application for compensation is Dec. 31, 2023.