Save vital records access: Why we all should act

Monday, October 9, 2017 - 1:45pm

New York City is trying to restrict access to important records, and we need you to help us act now to stop this from happening! 

Anyone - even those outside of New York - can help us in our endeavor. To keep these historical records accessible to the millions who have New York ancestors, we need to mobilize quickly and act decisively.

Even if you don't have New York research interests, this is an important fight to join - other states and municipalities may follow suit if New York City is successful.

Visit our Save NYC Vital Records Access page to see how you can help - the deadline for action is October 24, 2017 at 5:00 pm ET. 

Read below for some questions and answers that will explain exactly what is at risk, how you can help, and why it's an important initiative for all members of the genealogical and historical communities to participate in. 


What records are being threatened? 

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is proposing a new rule that would affect when birth and death records are made available to the public and transferred to the Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS).

If this rule is passed, New York City

  • birth records will be locked up for 125 years;
  • death records will be inaccessible for 75 years.

If this rule were to be applied using today's dates, in 2017, you still wouldn't be allowed to view the birth certificate of any ancestor born after 1892, and the only way you could see an ancestor's death certificate would be if that ancestor died before 1942. 


What will happen if this rule is passed?

Fortunately, some vital records have already been transferred to DORIS, and those would not be affected by this new rule - the new proposal would impact those that the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has yet to release. 

Even so, this new rule would have an immediately negative impact on researchers and prove even more burdensome to those researching in the future. 

The earliest death records that have not yet been transferred are from 1949 - under the proposed rule, these would be inaccessible until 2024. All death records after 1949 would be subject to the 75-year restriction. 

The earliest birth records that have not yet been transferred are from 1910 - under the proposed rule, these would be inaccessible until 2035. All birth records after 1910 would be subject to the 125-year restriction. 


Are any other records threatened?

This proposal would only apply to birth and death records, but in our eyes, all records are threatened.

Genealogists across the country are constantly battling with state and local governments to keep public records easily accessible. We fear that if this proposal succeeds, state and local governments everywhere will attempt to impose similar restrictions in an effort to save themselves time and money. 

We strongly feel that now is the time for us all to take a stand - if New York City receives a resounding no from the genealogy community, other governments elsewhere will think twice before trying the same thing. 


What is the reasoning behind the proposal? 

At the moment, there are no formal guidelines or schedules under which birth and death records are transferred to DORIS. The underlying purpose of this proposal is to establish official guidelines for this process. But why such long lengths of time until these records are made available?

The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene asserts that these lengths are necessary in order to protect privacy. According to their official Notice of Opportunity to Comment, which outlines the key information about this proposal, "The Department believes that these proposed schedules balance the need to protect the personal information of people who may be alive, especially as it relates to the problem of identity theft as well as other privacy issues, with the public’s right to access historically important records, including the specific interests of families, genealogists and other researchers."

In our opinion, this is a weak argument. Given the massive, and increasingly routine electronic data breaches that we read about (and are all affected by) monthly, we feel that governments should be dedicating their limited resources to protect citizens' privacy by focusing elsewhere. 


What can I do to stop this?

New York City is accepting public comments on the matter until October 24. A big public outcry might just be enough to convince them to drop the idea. Please visit our Save NYC Vital Records Access page to read about everything you can do to help. In short, there are four things: 

  1. Send your own public comment: Your individual written comment to the NYC Department of Health matters. Draft your own, or simply download the letter from our website, sign your name, and send it in. 
  2. Attend the hearing: There will be a public hearing on this issue on October 24. The NYG&B is gathering as many community members as possible to pack the house and show our support for open access to historical records!
  3. Sign our petition: We have prepared our own official public comment that will provide an authoritative and well-reasoned argument in support of our position, and we're inviting anyone with an interest to sign on in support. Click here to read the letter and sign
  4. Share the news: The key to our success is to mobilize massive numbers of vocal citizens who support our position. Click here for links to Facebook posts, Tweets, and emails that you can share to spread the word. 


I noticed that the letter requests that death records be granted after 25 years to registered members of a New York genealogical society. Why is the NYG&B proposing this?

As noted in the Notice of Opportunity to Comment, "Previously, [birth and death records] had been made public and released to DORIS at inconsistent intervals." Effectively, there isn't any formal rule or schedule for when these records should be made publicly available.

It's unrealistic to expect that things will remain this way - the Commission will ultimately create some rule or schedule. Therefore, our public comment contains an alternate proposal that we believe should be acceptable to both the City and our community.  

In our official public comment, we suggest an alternate proposal:

  • Access to birth records after 75 years (if the individual’s death can be verified) or 105 years if no death date is verified.
  • Access to death records after 50 years; or after 25 years to registered members of a New York genealogical society.
  • Access to the index to death records after 25 years (providing the name, date of death, place of death, date of birth, and burial/cremation information)

This request is modeled after a few other states that have been successful in extending access to vital records through an affiliation with a genealogical organization.

This proposal is meant to serve as a safeguard for the Commission to consider to ensure genealogists are still able to access these important records and is being presented as a possible means to ensure genealogists and other researchers do not lose access to these records entirely.


Why are you asking for the possible creation of an informational copy?

Our letter also asks that the Commission consider "creating an informational copy of birth and death records, which could not prove identity for financial and other transactions, but would instead provide the information necessary for researchers."

In working to learn from other states, we are also providing an option for the Commission to provide access to the essential information on these records for genealogical research in a format that cannot be used for identity.

This alternative is being presented as a possible means to ensure genealogists and other researchers do not lose access to these records entirely.


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I am writing today to provide my comments to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene regarding the proposed changes to access birth and death records. As the son of woman adopted at birth in Brooklyn, NY in 1930 who went to her grave in 2011 NEVER knowing who her biological parents were despite decades of endless search. The negative impact on her life and that of her 8 children cannot be dismissed or ignored. The negative impact on my life as I search for the biological underpinnings of my health and that of my two children. Finally, the overstepping of government regulation to deny my legal challenge to NYS law should be immediately rectified. As a genealogist, timely access to these records are critical and essential for my research. The proposed restrictions on when birth and death records would become available for public access would create an unnecessary hindrance for myself and millions of others seeking to trace their families within New York City’s vital records. Like many, my genealogical pursuits involve multiple records from numerous repositories. My intention is to discover information about my ancestors and understand their place within a larger social and historical context. I ask that the commission consider the following guidelines for access, namely: • Access to birth records after 75 years (if the individual’s death can be verified) or 105 years if no death date is verified. • Access to death records after 50 years; or after 25 years to registered members of a New York genealogical society. • Access to the index to death records after 25 years (providing the name, date of death, place of death, date of birth, and burial/cremation information). Providing paying members of a state-based genealogical organization has seen a tremendous success in states like Connecticut, and access to the limited information from the death index would allow a genealogist key information to identify particular records necessary for research. Further, I ask that you consider developing and implementation of an informational copy of birth and death records, which would provide important details for genealogical and historical research in a format not suitable for proving identity. Also, items related to an individual’s cause of death can be extremely important to those tracing and understanding their medical history, relating to those with genetically inherited diseases. Thank you for your attention to this important matter. Sincere regards, Keith C Kocis MD BORN in Brooklyn NY (1962) Currently, Las Vegas NV USA
I have already retrieved a death certificate of my grand father from the Bronx giving me vital info necessary for my acceptance into the DAR (Daughter's of the American Revolution). Noone should be blocked from obtaining the vital records of their ancestors.
I am submitting a request to please stop this. My adoption took place back in 1971. I have found out that I was adopted when I was 16 17 years old. I tried avenues to find out my research, all it lead to is dead ends. In 1999 I tried to find out, to only discover nothing more then I was told. I'm currently 45 years old still do not know anything,race color origin brothers sisters...etc. In the past several weeks I did find out that my adoption took place with an attorney firm Fenichel & Lauer. "Rabbi" Seymour Fenichel had received a slap on the wrist for WHAT HE HAS DONE..This man and others who were involved manipulated my biological and adoptive parents family members..etc..So for what this and trying to be polite "Rabbi" has done to MYSELF and others in today's standards is "IDENTITY THEFT". We are allowed today to pay 10 bucks or so and see who is accessing our "private info" but if this bill is passed then I CAN OR WILL NOT KNOW OF WHO AND WHAT I AM...This is not fair or right in any way shape or form to me,my biological mom and or dad my adoptive parents..brothers and sisters who might exist..and for others who WILL NOT BE ABLE TO FIND OUT what should be their AMERICAN RIGHT, whether it is for identifying non-identifying or medical information we should not suffer by being left out in the dark. I strongly believe that a lot of adoptees feel empty uncertain not all answers can be answered but some information would be nice for closure. If the powers to be would read this info....maybe just maybe would understand how much this can impact a person's life..
This move would freeze the practice of genealogical research, with no discernible benefit. These restrictions. are egregious and patently unnecessary. Please reconsider. Audrey Gregg
My German and Irish ancestors came to New York City in the mid-1800's. Their children were my great-grandparents and their siblings. Your attempt to block all access to their vital records will block all genealogical research into them and their children, some of whom died less than 100 years ago.
I am a family history researcher who sometimes needs to follow an ancestor who may have been born in NY City during the time you would be restricting. That means I would not be able to find the information on that person's birth or their death to fill in my family tree. I only do my research when I have spare time, so not being able to get information for a time within the time you would be restricting would really hamper my research. I sometimes do research for friends families who might very well have an ancestor born or dying in NY City. I would not want this research restricted by your rules. I support the suggestions and reasoning of the NYG&B.
I am the Registrar of my local NSDAR chapters. We have ladies who do not know about their grandparents! Please keep these records available and open for them to find out about their Family History. They need to use these documents to get into fine non profit lineage societies!
My great grandparents and grandparents immigrated to NYC in the 1900s and were buried in NYC. My grandparents met their spouses in NYC, were married in NYC and gave birth to their children in NYC. Therefore, NYC vital records are critical to my genealogical research. I really need to be able to access the records associated with my family members. The proposed policies would prevent me from accessing this information during my lifetime. I am sixty eight years old!
As a genealogical researcher whose family on both sides lived in NYC for over 100 years, I frequently use New York City Vital Records to track down my more distant relatives. I have also used them to help others. Timely access to these records allowed me to arrange reunions between elderly relatives that helped to re-establish connections and to discover family history which provided important medical information and information about previous generations. The proposed regulations on when birth and death records become available would create unnecessary difficulty for myself and the many, many others who seek to trace their families through these Vital Records. I propose that the Commission consider alternative guidelines for access, namely: 1) Access to birth records after 75 years (if the person's death can be verified) or 105 years if no death date is verified; 2) Access to death records after 50 years or after 25 years to registered members of a New York genealogical society; 3) Access to the index to death records after 25 years (providing the name, date and place of death, date of birth, and burial/cremation information). These proposals have been implemented in Connecticut and work well there. Further, I urge you to consider developing and implementing provision of informational copies of birth and death records that would provide important details that help genealogists and historians in their research in a format not suitable for proving identity. I would also urge that there be a way to access information on cause of death, as this is vital for those seeking to trace their medical history of heritable diseases. Thank you for your attention and consideration of these proposals. Juliet Beier
I have been researching for 40 years now and always, NYS is the most difficult state to try to receive records from. Many states work with genealogical groups and allow you to download records through the groups for a nominal fee. New York needs to move into the 21st century and do this, not go back to the 19th century. The sale of records for genealogical purposes is a tremendous source of income for many states and New York, one of the highest taxed states could give taxpayers a little relief with this revenue.
The proposed restrictions on when birth and death records would become available for public access would create a burden for me and others creating an accurate history of our families whose birth and death records are within New York City’s vital records. After all, death information is already public in the Social Security Death Index.
I have spent a good part of my adult life researching family history. Probably 90% of it has been in NY - some in NY city. I would be very sad to have to drop years of research because the information is now blocked. I agree with Keith Kocis that records without "identity theft" information should still be available to genealogists, and I certainly would have no problem with joining an organization to guarantee access. I belong to more than one organization in upstate NY, but do enough research in the city that I would be happy to join there, as well. Please reconsider these unnecessarily restrictive proposals!! Marilyn Meyers
The link to the petition doesn't work.
If they don't allow researches to have access to vital records then soon many family history will end or disappear. Think of those genies in the future!
Want access to vita records sooner.
Essential research for historic preservation and medical information is necessary!
I am astonished that my native city is once again attempting to deny all citizens access to vital records that belong to the public (not to the agencies and employees who work for us). Professional genealogists such as I and other citizens have a right to access our records in a timely, unhampered way. By closing more and more records, professionals, family researchers and other citizens will have tremendous barriers to our livelihoods and ability to conduct family research, and all historical research will suffer too. There is absolutely no evidence to support the notion that closing records for greater lengths of time would benefit anyone regarding security or any other issue. I have been accessing records for over 44 years and find New York to be one of the most hostile states in the country concerning access to vital records. It is time for citizens everywhere to resist and protest these nonsensical attempts to whittle away our rights. Other states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut have had very liberal vital record access policies for decades without adverse effects; it's time for New York to follow. In Massachusetts, all vital records (with limited and sensible restrictions) are available to the public; in Connecticut, where I live, a genealogist may access ALL birth, marriage and death records FOR ALL TIME with membership in a Connecticut genealogical society. And There has been no harm. New York should be going the other way and opening all records for all time to the public as other states do. With a thoughtful, rational approach, this can become a reality. Rev. Robert L. Rafford, D.Min., professional genealogist, historian
This is not fare.
Please do not go through with this. It's important to know your accessory. Medically & personally.
These records belong to the people whose names are on these records, and their descendants. They are treasured reminders of personal family pasts that are a historical record of forefathers and their lives. We don't wipe out books and documents belonging to the nation. Why are you intending to wipe out our families' histories that are so dear to us and that can be learned from? I am Canadian but one quarter of my family left Europe and settled in New Amsterdam and Pennsylvania in the 1600's. I cherish their lives and records. You may not destroy my family records.
I am a retired librarian who worked with Sloan Kettering on causes of death for selected Idaho residents. With the need to know our historical genetic history, restrictions could cause public health issues. I used microfilmed newspapers but having the actual death certificate could be a life or death issue for some families. Most newspapers did not provide the information needed.
Genealogists do a great service not only to their families but to American history in general. Limiting access to vital records makes our job harder if not impossible. Please do not restrict access. Many of my ancestors were from New York State and restrictions were be a major loss for me and others like me.
This alternative seems perfectly reasonable, and allows continued research and protects privacy. Why NOT consider it? Many have spent considerable time and effort adding to family histories that can be protected and passed down. Others have made professions assisting others in their quests. Doesn't seem responsible to add more red tape and hindering.
Please do not completely shut off access to this historic records. This is far too extreme an action. Please consider instead the alternative proposals suggested by the New York Geneological and Biographical Society which could meet your concerns and also allow individual researchers access to records of their family history.
My great-great-grandparents were married in New York City c. 1855. I'm still in the process of finding and obtaining their marriage record. With restricted access, my quest would be more difficult.