… and threatened with closure now

Heads up.

Here we go… again.

Here in this 400th year since the landing of the Mayflower on the shores of what was to become the Bay State, public access to vital records in Massachusetts is under attack.

Birth, marriage and death records have been open records in Massachusetts, with few exceptions, since those records were first required in 1641.

But if the Governor of Massachusetts has his way, that will stop — dead in its tracks — in July of this year.

Massachusetts budget

The proposal to effect a fundamental change in vital records is set out in a bill called House Bill 2 — it’s the required annual budget proposal of the Governor that must be submitted each year by the fourth Wednesday of January, titled “An Act Making Appropriations for the Fiscal Year 2021 for the Maintenance of the Departments, Boards, Commissions, Institutions, and Certain Activities of the Commonwealth, for Interest, Sinking Fund, and Serial Bond Requirements, and for Certain Permanent Improvements.”1

Do you see anything in that title that says the Governor wants to close public records for decades? The Legal Genealogist sure doesn’t — but it’s sure in there, tucked away in a set of proposals blandly described as part of a package of proposals that “updates the laws governing the registration of births, deaths, and marriages and the disclosure of corresponding records to align with national best practices for the protection of personally identifiable data and confidential health information.”2

And, sadly, it’s the same old tired “model” vital records act stuff that came out almost a decade ago from a conference of vital records officials that even that group no longer fully supports: if adopted, records that are absolutely open today — and have been for nearly 380 years — will be shuttered away for decades — birth and marriage records will be closed for 90 years from the date of birth or date or marriage, and death records will be close for 50 years from date of death.3

Sigh…

There is no evidence that closing vital records for long time periods prevents identity theft.

You know that. I know that. Even the people in charge of vital records around the country have started acknowledging that. At the Federation of Genealogical Societies conference in Washington D.C. in September, the executive director of the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems (NAPHSIS) — the vital records registrars of the states — “specifically acknowledged the absence of statistical data demonstrating that longer embargo periods help thwart identity theft.”4

Which means, of course, that closing public records is not going to “align with national best practices” no matter what the Governor of Massachusetts thinks.

Other parts of the proposal are no better, and one would have the effect of deleting family information from some of these records (“Reports and certificates of individually identifiable births, deaths and marriage shall contain only such information minimally necessary to establish fact of birth, death or marriage”).5

Make no mistake: there will be a concentrated effort to defeat this poorly-considered proposal. The Massachusetts Genealogical Council and other records access groups will be leading the fight, and we will all be asked to add our voices at the right time.

For now, heads up.

The fight to keep public records open and public rages on…


Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Open since 1641…,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 31 Jan 2020).

SOURCES

  1. An Act Making Appropriations for the Fiscal Year 2021 for the Maintenance of the Departments, Boards, Commissions, Institutions, and Certain Activities of the Commonwealth, for Interest, Sinking Fund, and Serial Bond Requirements, and for Certain Permanent Improvements,” Bill H.2, Massachusetts Legislature (https://malegislature.gov/ : accessed 31 Jan 2020).
  2. See ibid. at §§ 12-13, 36-46 and 62.
  3. Ibid., §42.
  4. Fred Moss, “RPAC at FGS 2019 in DC — Is This A Breakthrough?,” RPAC Blog, updated 3 Sep 2019 (https://fgs.org/category/records-preservation-and-access-committee/ : accessed 31 Jan 2020).
  5. §37, Bill H.2.
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