As The Legal Genealogist has reported, the black hole of New York genealogy got darker in March when — disregarding essentially all of the more than 5,000 comments it received and all of the witnesses who testified — the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene adopted a rule making birth and death certificates unavailable for long stretches of time.
The new rule — which takes effect on April 17 — means that New York City’s records will be unavailable to ordinary folks like you and me for a very long time:
• birth records will be locked up for 125 years after the birth; and
• death records will be inaccessible for 75 years after the death.1
This is truly disappointing and dismaying.
And it’s not just that closing death records makes it easier to commit identity theft since being able to prove someone is dead is the easiest way to stop identity theft.
It’s also because there’s a hint that New York State may follow the City’s lead.
Sigh… Definitely not a good thing.
But there is a glimmer of hope for a little bit of light to be shined on these records if — and only if — we as a community continue to speak out and keep pressure on the Health Department.
Here’s the deal.
At the time the records were closed, the Health Department said it might consider another rule change that would expand the group of family members who can access birth and death records during the years when they’re not publicly available.2
That proposed rule change is now on the table, with a public hearing and deadline for public comments set for Monday, April 23. And we need to make sure we speak out in force as a community to ensure that the Health Department knows two things:
• access to these records DOES need to be expanded; and
• the proposed rule doesn’t go far enough.
As explained by the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society on its website:
While we support the amendment, it does not solve the true issues caused by the new, restrictive access rules.
You often can’t prove relation in the first place without a birth or death record
The fact is, a researcher often needs to view the information on an individual’s birth or death record before being able to correctly assert their relationship to that individual. Genealogists often ask research questions that make identifying a specific family relationship difficult – if not impossible – to determine without access to birth and death records.
The rules exclude modern family relationships
The categories listed above exclude important family relationships that are common today and will become more common in the future. Many families simply don’t fit the traditional approach proposed. For example, the exclusion of step-relationships from the list discriminates against thousands of families living in New York City today. These omissions, alongside the inability for adoptees to access information regarding their family history, create an unfair barrier to access.
The amendment discriminates against non-family research
What about researchers seeking to learn and educate others about families outside of their personal ethnicity or community? These rules may exclude entire groups and communities from having their history preserved. Additionally, the greatly expanded time periods (which are now amongst the most restrictive in the nation) prevent individuals from researching and educating others about important historical information such as military veterans, Holocaust survivors, and immigrant communities.3
NYG&B President Josh Taylor explained on Facebook Live today that many people aren’t adequately covered by the new rule: members of blended and step families, researchers looking into family health history and those helping to research and repatriate the remains of military members who served from NY in World War II, Korea and Vietnam are among those who won’t be helped as they should be, since the records they need most will be unavailable well into the 21st century.
The concern over this issue, and the concern that New York State may follow suit, has prompted various New York groups to join together into a new New York Records Preservation and Access Coalition — NYRPAC — with its own website, NYRPAC.org, to help lead the records access fight.
But NYRPAC can only lead the fight. It needs every one of us to join in, as foot soldiers in that fight.
So… what do we need to do?
Most of the same things we did the first time around:
• Sign the petition: Sign on to the NYG&B petition to keep records access open. You can do that right at NYG&B: https://www.newyorkfamilyhistory.org/nyc-vital-records-access.
• Send a comment: Don’t just sign the petition. Write your own personal letter explaining why this would impact your personal research. Government agencies sometimes do pay attention when lots of people speak out. Information on how to comment is on the issues page of the new NYRPAC: https://nyrpac.org/the-issues/.
• Attend the hearing: If you’re local or you’re going to be in New York on April 23 when the Department of Health is holding its hearing, be there. You don’t have to say a word. Just be there to show support for records access. And, of course, if you do wish to speak, keep it short, to the point, polite — and on message.
• Get others involved: Send the info about this problem to others you know research in New York City and all those who care about records access. There’s more on the NYG&B action page on how to do this easily.
Plus one more thing. As Taylor said, “Part of our mission going forward is to educate the Department of Health about what we really do.” So we need to take one more step:
• Share our stories: To really educate the Department of Health on why we need access to these records, NYRPAC needs our personal stories as to why it’s so important — what we use them for, what problems we’ve had accessing them, why it means so much to our families, our communities, our health and more. There’s a link on the new NYRPAC.org website to do this easily.
Yeah, it’s frustrating and disappointing when we speak up and aren’t heard.
But it’d be even worse if we didn’t speak up at all.
Let’s keep the pressure on.
- See Judy G. Russell, “NY’s black hole gets blacker,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 8 Mar 2018 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 10 Apr 2018). ↩
- See Notice of Opportunity to Comment on the Amendment of Provisions of Article 207 of the New York City Health Code, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (http://rules.cityofnewyork.us/ : accessed 10 Apr 2018). ↩
- “Support Access to New York City Vital Records,” NYG&B (https://www.newyorkfamilyhistory.org/ : accessed 10 Apr 2018). ↩