21 October 2011

Serious Threat to VA Vital Records Access -- Your HELP is Needed NOW!

The genealogical community has been trying to improve access to vital records in Virginia. SB 865 which was introduced in the General Assembly earlier this year was referred to a legislative commission for further study. The Joint Commission on Health Care issued a report in September which proposes even worse restrictions on Vital Records access in Virginia.

The genealogical societies have responded, but the members of the commission need to receive personal emails from many genealogists before 22 November 2011Even If you are not a resident of Virginia but have ancestors who lived in Virginia, mention where your ancestors lived and why it is important for you and your extended family to have access to death records to determine your family's health history.

This is a serious threat to vital records access in Virginia. The Virginia Genealogical Society has been actively involved and has provided the attached detailed summary about the status of the legislation and how you can help. The names and email addresses of the members of the commission are also included in this summary – reproduced below in its entirety.

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WILL THERE BE IMPROVED – OR EVEN MORE RESTRICTED –ACCESS
TO VIRGINIA’S VITAL RECORDS?

            For genealogists, vital records - public registrations of births, marriages and
deaths - are critical building blocks in genealogical research.  Lineage societies typically require vital records certificates as proof of 20th century births, marriages and deaths. Apart from providing the proof necessary to establish a direct line, the vital records of an ancestor’s siblings may help trace a family’s movements and provide critical clues.

            Access to vital records for genealogists varies widely across the country; some jurisdictions make their vital records “open” records accessible to the public with no delays; others can have records “closed” to the public for as long as 125 years; and whether genealogists or remote family members can access any “closed” records also varies from state to state.

            Virginia is unfortunately among the more restrictive states for its vital records, which are held by the Division of Vital Records of the Virginia Department of Health (“VDH”).  Birth records held by VDH are currently “closed” for 100 years; marriage and death records held by VDH are currently “closed” for 50 years.  Marriage records at the city/county level are public “open” records; death records at the city/county level are often “open” as a practical matter (when they can be found) though whether they are legally “open” may turn on exactly which local office holds them.

            VDH unfortunately restricts access to its “closed” records to “immediate” family members, excluding grandchildren, nephews, nieces, etc.  VDH also refuses to turn over its vital records to the Library of Virginia (“LVA”), the Commonwealth’s archival agency, even after the “closed” period ends, or places restrictions on widespread release of the “open” records which VDH provides to LVA.

            In the 2011 Virginia General Assembly (January-February 2011), Senator Harry Blevins of Chesapeake introduced a bill (at the request of a local family history researcher) modestly designed to provide for public release of VDH vital records once the “closed” period ends.  This bill, 2011 SB865, was not passed in the 2011 General Assembly, but was referred for study to a legislative commission, the Joint Commission on Health Care (JCHC).

            The Virginia Genealogy Society (“VGS”) became aware of the study in March, 2011 and offered comments urging i) that death certificates held by VDH should become open records immediately, since there were no legitimate privacy or identity theft reasons for keeping death certificates closed, and ii) that the definition of family members who could access “closed” vital records should be significantly liberalized.

            VGS and LVA worked with JCHC staff in June and July to try to educate staff about genealogists’ need for these records.  This included supplying articles on the use of vital records, samples of records, copies of the U.S. Surgeon General’s materials emphasizing the importance of family medical histories, and supplying information from physicians about the importance of death certificates in compiling family medical histories.  The staff were also told about the frustration of researchers in being unable to access family members’ records, and wondering why Virginia’s 20th Century vital records are not being put online, as the vital records of many other states are.

            VGS was therefore very disappointed when a JCHC staff study was released on September 19, providing eight options to legislators on the Commission which were confusing at best, and included potential new restrictions, not liberalization, on access, as options.  Indeed, staff verbal comments suggested support for closing all records (including the open county and city marriage and death records) and lengthening the closed VDH period to 125 years for births and 75 years for marriages and deaths.

            While the staff report suggests exploring an Ancestry-type indexing system of the VDH database to allow improved access, the staff made it clear that VDH, not LVA (which has the genealogical experience) should do this, potentially taking vital records away from LVA.

            The deadline for comments to the Commission was October 6, only seventeen days after release of the staff report.  VGS attempted to spread the news about the report and the eight options it offered, and suggested positions for the genealogical community, along with legislators’ addresses. 

            VGS filed its own comments with the Commission, pointing out omissions and inconsistencies in the staff report, and broadly urging vital records reform.

            A large number of comments from genealogists and societies were submitted to the Commission, and copies sent to individual legislators.

            However, whether or not VGS members commented earlier to the Commission, there is still time to contact the individual legislators who are members of the Commission.

            The Commission is scheduled to take up the issue of public records access at a November 22 meeting in Richmond.

            Even though the official comment period to the Commission has closed, individual legislators will still pay attention to your emails received before November 22.

            Please take the time to send an email to the legislators who are on the Commission (at the email addresses below), emphasizing the need for reform of Virginia’s vital records.

            Messages to legislators should mention SB865, and ask legislators to support reform of Virginia’s vital records, at the November 22 meeting namely:
1.                Family members (liberally defined) should be granted liberal access to “closed” records. 
2.                Death certificates should become “open” public records immediately, not after 50 years (or longer).  There are no legitimate identity theft or privacy reasons to keep death certificates “closed”.
3.                Once vital records held by VDH are no longer “closed”, VDH should turn over these public records of LVA and make them available to researchers.
4.                Please thank Senator Blevins for leading this important reform effort.
This study may be the only opportunity for Virginia vital records reform in a generation; and there is a real risk that if enough genealogists or societies do not write Commission members and their own legislators, that the “closed” periods could actually be lengthened.

Please send your email to Commission members as follows:

Senators, General Area, Email address
Linda T. Puller, Fairfax, Prince William, district36@senate.virginia.gov  
George Barker, Fairfax, Prince William, district39@senate.virginia.gov  
Harry B. Blevins, Chesapeake/Portsmouth, district14@senate.virginia.gov  
Edd Houck, Fredericksburg/Orange, district17@senate.virginia.gov  
Louise Lucas, Portsmouth - Brunswick, district18@senate.virginia.gov  
Ralph Northam, M.D., Norfolk, Matthews, Eastern Shore,  district06@senate.virginia.gov  
William Wampler, Bristol and Southwest, district40@senate.virginia.gov  
Patricia S. Ticer, Alexandria/Arlington/Fairfax, district30@senate.virginia.gov  

House of Delegates, General Area, Email address
Ben Cline, Amherst – Lexington, delbcline@house.virginia.gov  
Bob Brink, Arlington, delrbrink@house.virginia.gov  
David Bulova, Fairfax, deldbulova@house.virginia.gov  
Rosalyn Dance, Petersburg, delrdance@house.virginia.gov  
Scott Garrett, M.D., Lynchburg, delsgarrett@house.virginia.gov  
Algie Howell, Norfolk, delahowell@house.virginia.gov 
Harvey Morgan, Gloucester, delhmorgan@house.virginia.gov  
Dave Nutter, Radford/Roanoke,   deldnutter@house.virginia.gov  
John O’Bannon, M.D. Henrico, deljobannon@house.virginia.gov  
Chris Peace, Hanover, delcpeace@house.virginia.gov   

            In block form, these email addresses are:
district36@senate.virginia.gov; district39@senate.virginia.gov; district14@senate.virginia.gov; district17@senate.virginia.gov; district18@senate.virginia.gov; district06@senate.virginia.gov; district40@senate.virginia.gov; district30@senate.virginia.gov; delbcline@house.virginia.gov; delrbrink@house.virginia.gov; deldbulova@house.virginia.gov; delrdance@house.virginia.gov; delsgarrett@house.virginia.gov; delahowell@house.virginia.gov; delhmorgan@house.virginia.gov; deldnutter@house.virginia.gov; deljobannon@house.virginia.gov; delcpeace@house.virginia.gov
and write your own legislator if you live in Virginia.  If every VGS member were to email the members of the Commission in early to mid-November, the cumulative effect of this would be hard for the Commission to ignore.  VGS will continue to work for improved access to vital records, and will report on this in future issues of the newsletter.


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