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.