SSDI: Genealogy’s Public Enemy No. 1

Say hello to the genealogical community’s Public Enemy No. 1.

Michael Astrue

Commissioner Michael Astrue

The man pictured to the left is Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security. And he’s out to get us.

More specifically, he’s out to get our access to the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) and to the social security records that underlie the index, such as all those wonderful SS-5 forms (applications for a Social Security number) that we use all the time as evidence in place of the birth records that — for most of two or three generations — just don’t exist and the death records we’re not allowed to see.

If you don’t believe me that he’s out to get us, take a gander at the video clip Michael John Neill has posted on his website RootDig.com. Astrue isn’t bothered one bit about closing off records for 10 years… or 75 years. After all, he says, genealogists can get the information they need from other sources. We’re just overreacting.

Folks, make no mistake: Astrue would be perfectly happy closing off the SSDI, and he wouldn’t stop there. Read his formal statement to the House Ways and Means Committee’s Subcommittee on Social Security when it held a hearing on the bill by Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) to close the SSDI. I highlighted this comment in my report on the hearing, and I’ll highlight it again:

“Trying to keep up with individual FOIA requests for information on millions of deceased individuals is a resource issue at a time when the agency is struggling to keep up with rising demand for services in a time of dwindling resources.”

Note that he never mentions that we pay for each and every one of those FOIA requests. You’d think if resources were really an issue, the agency would just increase the price, wouldn’t you? And how about transferring the records of deceased individuals to the National Archives when they’re not being used by Social Security anymore? Wouldn’t either of those be better solutions?

Now before the loonies come out of the woodwork, kindly note that no, Commissioner Astrue is not an Obama appointee and, no, he was not put into office to hide the truth about Obama’s birth certificate or Obama’s social security number. He was appointed in 2007 by President Bush and before that he served in both the Reagan and Bush Administrations.1 And the bill he’s supporting was introduced by a Texas Republican. So enough with the conspiracy theories already yet!

Back to business here. You know what those individual FOIA requests are that Astrue wants to stop? They’re the ones you file and I file asking for the SS-5 forms. But hey… we don’t need these, right? We have lots of ways to get the information we need. Sure we do. And I have a bridge to sell you. It’s a great bridge. It’s right on the waterfront. In Arizona.

There’s a bit of a mystery about my Alabama-born maternal great grandmother (who was her father? what maiden name did she use?). My grandmother’s birth and death records might help solve the mystery. But my grandmother was born in Texas in 1898. There are no Texas birth records between 1876 and 1903.2 She died in Virginia in 1995. Under Virginia law, I am not closely related enough to be entitled to get a copy of her death certificate.3 Thank heavens I have living aunts and uncles. But what if I didn’t? Mr. Commissioner, just what other easy source of information do I have?

There’s an even bigger mystery about my father’s German-born relatives who emigrated to the United States. They’re all in Chicago until the late 1940s, and then — just after my own paternal grandparents died — they all completely disappear from the records. My father is long gone, there are no family records that even hint at what happened. Did they go back to Germany after the war? Move to South America? Settle somewhere else in the United States? Where do I start looking, Mr. Commissioner, if you close off my chances to find the one great aunt who lived long enough to make it into the SSDI… and whose one line of information gave me the clue I needed to find a mass migration to sunny southern California?

I did some research for my brother-in-law last year. His grandfather was born in Virginia in 1898. Guess what, Mr. Commissioner? No birth records on him either — they don’t exist between 1896 and 19124 — and my brother-in-law isn’t eligible to get a copy of his death certificate. Where does my brother-in-law turn?

And these are the easy cases, Mr. Commissioner. What about the estate cases where there’s real hard cold cash available for American families if only the many forensic genealogists who research probate matters for lawyers and courts are allowed to do the work they need to do to find those families? Can they wait 10 to 75 years? And what about the really hard cases? What about the forensic genealogists working day in and day out to bring the remains of service members home to their families? They need those records every day to make the links to living family members. You want them to wait 75 years, Mr. Commissioner? Do you really want them to wait even another 10 years?

Look. I teach law students practical skills, including how to answer questions asked by judges. I always advise my students not to start an answer with the phrase “with all due respect.” Why? It sounds good, doesn’t it? Nice and polite?

The fact is, it usually annoys the judge who asked the question, who knows darn good and well that what the person really means is, “Boy, are YOU full of it!”

So, with all due respect, Mr. Commissioner, I beg to differ with you on the value of the SSDI and SS-5 forms to genealogists. And I’m planning on continuing to “overreact” as much as necessary to protect our access to this information.

Anybody who agrees with me should stand up and be counted. Start now by adding your signature the RPAC petition to stop identity theft by using the records, not hiding them. (Read more about it here, and talk to your family and friends — RPAC needs a total of 25,000 signatures by March 8th.)

And speak up to save our access to the SSDI.


SOURCES

  1. “Michael J. Astrue,” Press Office, Social Security Online (http://www.ssa.gov/pressoffice/factsheets/astrue.htm : accessed 15 Feb 2012).
  2. Vital Statistics, About County Records, Texas State Library and Archives Commission (https://www.tsl.state.tx.us/arc/local/aboutrecords.html#5 : accessed 15 Feb 2012).
  3. 12 Virginia Administrative Code, Chap. 550, 12VAC5-550-5 (defining immediate family as mother, father, sibling, current spouse and adult children) and 12VAC5-550-470 (death certificate limited to immediate family) (http://www.vdh.state.va.us/vital_Records/documents/regulations.pdf : accessed 15 Feb 2012).
  4. See “Using Vital Statistics Records in the Archives at the Library of Virginia,” Library of Virginia, Research Notes Number 2 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/rn2_vitalstats.htm : accessed 15 Feb 2012).
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41 Responses to SSDI: Genealogy’s Public Enemy No. 1

  1. Thank you once again for a posting that gets to the point. Your common sense is a breath of fresh air. The testimony before the House subcommittee was a piece of designed theatre that had nothing to do with reality.

  2. Oxa says:

    Astrue and the Congressional committee appear to be logic-challenged. If the information really is available in other sources, then closing the SSDI is a futile effort to control identity theft.

  3. Myrt says:

    You’ve done a wonderful job composing this post! I’ve posted the link to all my friends in FB and G+ with the notation “You’ve GOT to read this post, even if you aren’t a genealogists, this just doesn’t make sense, Commissioner Michael. — This post is well composed, complete with footnotes, so it isn’t just some hysterical drivel.”

  4. Judy G. Russell says:

    A reminder to all from The Legal Genealogist: NO POLITICAL RANTS. This isn’t a political issue, it’s an issue of information access. Any comment trying to make political hay out of this for one political party or the other will be deleted.

  5. Laini Giles says:

    I thank goodness that I started my family’s genealogy back in 2005, when there was ready access to these records. I’m researching SMITHS for God’s sake.

    I didn’t even need to order the records most times. I just needed the listing of these people’s last place of residence and the death date to look for an obituary. Then I used the late, lamented Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness for some kind soul to dig up an obituary, or I would travel and find the courthouse records and obits myself. I have over 1600 PAGES to this thing, and most of it was written with SSDI pointing me to clues as to where these people lived. When I publish, this book will be the ultimate history of a huge chunk of the American population that would have remained UNKNOWN with no research and no SSDI.

    This ruling is so utterly ridiculous. People need to pay attention. Good luck to any future budding genealogists, who won’t have the resources we do if we don’t protect this access.

  6. John Wylie says:

    I’m not comfortable calling anyone in government, ‘public enemy number 1′. I watched the hearing and it was clear that Rep Sam Johnson managed the session to be a public display of the support he currently has for the Bill. One that SSA also wants. We have an opportunity to be pro-active here and support that WH.gov petition, which doesn’t take sides. It just ask federal agencies to work together so the SSDI need not be closed. Lets not stereotype Commissioner Astrue as a lousy genealogist any more than we would want him to stereotype us as people only interesting in joining an elite lineage society. Name calling just doesn’t work here, folks.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Your comments are well-taken, John. We may not see eye to eye on Astrue, but we surely see eye to eye on the need to be pro-active.

      • John,
        While Judy is correct about your “discomfort” being appropriate, as she herself acknowledges in her reply, it was her intent to make you uncomfortable. She succeeded. Professional writers of all genres know that “shock value” is perhaps the most effective way to make a point, though it can lose that effectiveness when it is obscene (which Judy’s clearly is not) or it used repeatly, i.e., it is expected from the writer by his/her readership.
        Those familiar with my writing know that I use it. As such, I am a bit jealous because I wish I had thought to use that as the title to my posting on this topic at Area-Info.net!
        I also see nothing in her remarks that classifies Astrue as a “lousy genealogist”. She does classify him, and rightly so, as, at best, apathetic to the interest of genealogists, meaning he will do nothing to help us, and at worst, hostile to us, doing everything in his power to oppose our interests. The “lousy genealogists” would be those who do not speak up in opposition to him!

  7. Jennifer says:

    I am starting to think that Commissioner Astrue made the 100-year-rule for redacting parents’ names to discourage us from requesting SS-5 forms for our ancestors. You are spot on about not being able to find birth and death info, as well as parents’ names, elsewhere. He seems to think it is our first resort, but the SSDI is usually my last resort, primarily because of its cost. I can usually get a birth/death/marriage record from a local agency for under $20, so I always save the $27 FOIA request for an SS-5 for times when I have no other options. In fact, I have probably only ordered three of these in my 20 years or so of genealogical research. I have heard the same reasoning from other genealogists, so I don’t think they requests could be THAT burdensome. Give me a break, Commissioner Astrue.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I have a request in now for an SS-5 that is less than 100 years old. I expect to receive a redacted copy. It’s my intention to appeal. It’s a misuse of the FOIA exceptions to redact that data.

      • TC says:

        what? I have 4 requests out (no other way to find the info I needed as there must have been name changes and I cannot find records of the parents at all!) so I may be getting NOTHING in return for all that money I sent in? all involved passed away in mid 1900s

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          Yup. You may be getting nothing. You can get the names of the parents if you can prove the parents are dead. Talk about a Catch-22!

  8. Joan says:

    “Over-Reacting” my eye!

    The following link to Roots-l mailing list archive contains a true story of how the SSDI helped me to solve a family mystery that was over 100 years old.

    If you are interested you can find it here:

    http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/ROOTS/2012-02/1329323914

  9. Taco Goulooze says:

    I can’t believe he uses that photograph for promotional purposes. Some people are just not born to smile.
    This is a fine example of implementing cosmetic solutions to real problems. Nothing gets solved, but someone’s striving for an ‘A’ for effort, this time at great cost for the genealogy community.

  10. Emily Garber says:

    Judy:
    Thank for a very interesting post. As a federal employee (I’ve worked for many years for natural resource management agencies), I can tell you without a doubt that the written statement by the Commissioner was, in no way, his alone. Congressional testimony is usually vetted at high levels and written statements must be the administration’s perspective (since the Executive Branch agencies work for the President). It is during the Q&A after the written statement is read that a federal employee may get a chance to say a little bit more what they really think.

    In addition, the fees paid for FOIAs do not go to the agency. They go directly to the Treasury and that may be why the Commissioner is unhappy about FOIAs. When one watches one’s budget declining, even if one is supportive of public access, it’s a trial and tribulation to respond to all these requests without additional staff.

    I think if we were to work with the Commissioner and ask him what would help his agency, one thing would be for the money to come to the agency for FOIA processing. Of course, while $27 may seem a lot to us, I’m sure it doesn’t cover the costs. Genealogists might consider asking Congress pass a law for “cost recovery” on SS-5 FOIAs for the SSA. Maybe then they wouldn’t be so negative about the SS-5 info requests.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I would certainly be willing (not happy, mind you, but willing) to pay the real cost of these document retrievals. I’d also think that a large bulk of these records could be transferred to the National Archives and digitized by the many genealogical partners who are doing the same with the census and other records.

      • Emily Garber says:

        I absolutely agree. He said the identity theft problem could be solve “simply” by making the records unavailable. We all know that no complex problem is solved “simply.” The more simple solution would be to transfer the older records to an agency that has the ability and desire (and mission statement) to serve the public’s thirst for information.

  11. Bob Miskimen says:

    This is a valid confirmation of other sources. It can differentiate between the correct and incorrect ancestor with names that are equivalent. Access is splendid as it stands, please no changes. RIM.

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  13. P J Sabados says:

    It amazes me that fraud is the issue that comes up in this. It seems that if the government is worried about tax fraud, then they should be checking the death index themselves. Blocking access to those who have a legitimate research purpose is not going to prevent fraud. I’m also curious if this would then limit access to the same death record information by credit reporting bureaus. In my work as a loan officer, I’ve seen at times a report come up asking to confirm the information because the social security number links to a file for someone that is deceased. I cannot imagine the amount of fraud that would occur if this were to be a result of this proposal.

    • My understanding of the legislation is that it will indeed deny access to credit reporting agencies, but they have simply been less vocal in making their opposition known.

      • Judy G. Russell says:

        That’s true of Rep. Johnson’s bill — which totally throws the baby out with the bathwater — but not of the others. The other bills are still flawed, since forensic genealogists and those who work for the courts and with respect to probates require access as soon as possible and there’s no mechanism for them to get that access, but they’re vastly better than Johnson’s bill.

  14. JC Rahman says:

    CEASE THIS SENSELESS BLACKOUT OF PUBLIC INFORMATION

  15. Judy,

    I am prompted to reply to your posting about your difficulties in accessing Virginia birth and death certificates.

    I do so as I am not just a forensic genealogist as you, but live in Virginia, so am aware that you omitted “someone” from the list of who would be considered “immediate family” for purposes of acquiring a copy of a restricted record–the LEGAL REPRESENTATIVE of an immediate family member.

    I mention this because I personally know of instances where the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics has denied certificates to immediate family members as I was involved both as such a legal representative, and was the agent for a legal representative. In each instance the Bureau of Vital Statistics acknowledged that my client was entitled to the record and I had a legal right to act on behalf of my client, giving the reason for the denial “lack of proof of identity” of my client. What more proof would be needed than original copies of: 1)the decedent’s death certificate; 2)the letters issued to his administrator; & 3)a power of attorney to me on the letterhead of the attorney representing the administrator?

    That was the situation was when I was hired by an attorney in Maryland to acquire the birth certificate of his deceased client because with the man having no will, having never married and having no known children out of wedlock, the certificate was needed to identify who his parents were to distribute the assets of his estate. The problem was his administrator, who had known the decedent from approximately the age of 16, informed us that the woman who had raised him was not his actual birth mother, nor had she adopted him.

    This decedent was born in Prince Edward County, VA, and was black. As Prince Edward was one of the school systems included in Brown vs. Board of Education, there were no school records available because officials closed the schools to avoid integrating them. I was told by members of the “mother’s” family the decedent had a juvenile record in Prince Edward County, being arrested at age 12 for stealing a car, but I was unable to access any reports filed by the social worker assigned to the case because the records fall into a category that Virginia law allows to be destroyed, my recalling the length of time the records must be kept being 50 years.

    I recommended to the attorney/administrator of the decedent born in Prince Edward that they apply for his SS-5 rather than do so myself, as it did not require a skill that only a forensic genealogist such as myself would have, thus I saw the time I would bill for making the application a needless expense to the estate. I presume the SS-5 did not contain any new information, in part because I do enough forensic work on black families to know that the records are OFTEN lacking information one would expect to find for a white, much of that the result of the attitudes toward blacks, i.e., accurate records were required for “second class citizens”. I have even seen multiple instances where not only persons required by law to be named as a party to various legal actions were not mentioned, but in at least one instance, I have reason to believe the omission was intentional and apparently the result of a family feud.

    As I have already noted, the Master Death Index might not have helped in this situation as we knew where the individual was born, thus where to look for a birth certificate or other records that might identify next-of-kin.

    However, the Master Death Index would be invaluable in other situations. For example, the account number would reveal where the decedent resided when issued his Social Security #. Requesting a copy of his SS-5, we would have either a copy of his birth certificate or whatever proof of his age was provided in lieu of a birth certificate, say a midwife’s report, or sworn affidavit of an older family member.

    Thus, closure of the Master Death Index will make much more difficult the work I do, to wit, identification of persons for purposes of facilitating probate of wills, settling intestate estates and clearing of title to land and some other property, all required by local law, though the detail of what is required does vary from state to state. When I am unable to identify an heir in an intestacy, the money is forfeited to the state when the individual died, so there might even be “incentive” for Virginia to refused to provide certificates for those who die in Virginia, but in instances where the money would be forfeited to other states?????

    It will make medical research more difficult as those working with DNA will no longer be able to use the Master Death Index to identify individuals as part of a group having a disease being studied–i.e., it will become more difficult to make presumptions about relationships between individuals based upon surname and where they were issued their respective Social Security numbers. With fewer individuals as member of the studied “class”, identifying common characteristics and singling out the one which causes the disease is more difficult as well.

    It will make more difficult to prove applications for credit of all kinds because, as I noted in response to the comment of P J Sabados, my understanding of the legislation is that banks and credit agencies will no longer have access to the records.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Excellent points all, Michael. I hope you are expressing them to your members of Congress — your representative as well as your two Senators.

      • Judy,

        I posted an article which emphasizes the negative consequences of the legislation at Area-info, which was viewed over 7600 times in the first week (see “On Area-Info.net – A Valentine Tip from Social Security, Area-Info.net Genealogy Newsline Issue #61 at http://www.emailcontact.com/nl/nl-output.php?nl_id=174820&bus_id=7035&plain=0).

        Anyone wishing to read the same can do so with this link: http://www.area-info.net/articles/show.php?cty=Washington&st=District%20Of%20Columbia&article_id=820&t=Legislation_To_Close_Social_Security_Access_-_Need_To_Act

        I have sent the political affairs commentator for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond being not just my home, but the home district of the House Majority Leader, a still more detailed letter particularly where DNA research is concerned, as there will be wider and more serious consequences.

        Medical research is as expensive as it is in large part because any collobaration between companies that could keep down costs is seen as implicit proof of violations of anti-trust laws.

        There is one area where collaboration is legal under current law this legislation will criminalize.

        I speak of individuals and family associations who do research independent of drug companies on the so-called “orphan diseases”, those too rare to justify the cost of formal medical research, to assemble a list of both deceased persons known to have died of the disease and living descendants of those individuals either known to have the disease or being of risk to have it. The information may not have immediate value, but it could induce a drug company to undertake study of an “orphan disease” by eliminating most, if not all, of the time and expense of identifying members of the target group, and even expedite development of a cure, such as when there be reason to believe different mutations of the same genes causes different diseases and a cure is found for one of them. A drug company could conceivably begin immediate clinical trials to determine if the cure works for the other mutation, and should it not, the trials might suggest a “modification” of the drug that would indeed cure the other disease.

        I would be happy to send you a copy of that message to share with your readers if you would like.

  16. Josh Jenkins says:

    This change has broad support, with senators visiting companies and agencies alike to twist arms. It sounds logical on paper to the masses, when not much thought is given to it. This is why it is such a danger to the genealogical community.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Which is precisely why we as a community need to band together, stand together and speak up to explain why the Johnson bill is such a bad thing and how the others can be improved such that we can all live with them.

  17. Judy,

    My apology for not providing you with a copy of my letter to Jeff Shapiro, political commentator for the Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch. I was delayed by an urgent appeal from my friend Peter Broadbent concerning a committee vote in the Virginia House of Delegates scheduled for today on legislation that will not just require vital records be turned over to the state library once they enter the “public realm”, but reduce the years before death certificates become public from 50 to 25!

    There is reason for optimism as the bill has the support of the Governor, a Republican, and the Republicans have a 3 to 1 majority in the house, plus the bill passed unanimously in the evenly divided (20/20) Senate. Still, Peter felt we should not take anything for granted, so asked us to contact the members of the committee as well as our own delegates to urge passage.

    As I previously advised you, my letter to Shapiro repeats, often word for word, my posting on Area-Info, but I also speak to why the closure of the Master Death Index should be specifically of concern to Virginians with emphasis on medical research. Though I do not know what the actual percentage may be, I do know the number of clinical medical trials about what one reads in the press and advertising that are conducted here in Virginia are both substantial and disproportionate to our population, and Richmond is the home of the Virginia Biotechnology Park where much of that research is conducted, and UNOS (United Network for Organ Sharing). Cost for medical care is a concern that cuts as deeply, if not more deeply, than identity theft, and an alliance between the genealogical and medical communities is a natural one given the interest of both in DNA and could prove to be the kind of proverbial 600 pound gorilla which convinces Congress that the legislation Rep. Johnson and Commissioner Astrue want is a BAD IDEA.

    Date: Sat, 11 Feb 2012 21:06:39 -0500
    From: “Michael E. Pollock”
    Subject: For your consideration
    To: jshapiro@timesdispatch.com
    Status:R

    I am writing to you at the recommendation of a friend who is also a colleague of yours, Ellen Pulley, aka Ellen Robertson, regarding a bill before the U.S. House of Representatives, that proposes to bar ALL non-governmental access to the Social Security Master Death Index, and such related information as SS-5 (Social Security) applications, on the grounds the same will prevent, if not end, identity theft, when the reality is that such is merely wishful thinking that will ultimately do more harm to the common good than stop instances of identity theft.

    Proponents claim the legislation is needed strengthen previous steps taken with the same intent, such as closing access to birth and death certificates in those several states where there had been no restriction, for the such purposes of limiting access to “maiden name of mother” used by banks and other institutions as the pass code for access to account information even before the advent of the internet. Those prior steps have failed, as will this latest effort, because they target the consequences, not the cause, of Identity Theft.

    My mother’s maiden name is not only stated on my birth certificate, but in numerous biographies which have been published over the years, including, but not limited to, Who’s Who Among American High School Students (1969), National Student Register (1973), & Outstanding Young Men in America (1977), as well as in articles published in my local newspaper announcing one of my accomplishments while I was in high school or college. By the logic of this proposed legislation, these books and magazines should be censored, if not destroyed, to protect me and others like me, yet I have NEVER been a victim of identity theft! I have, however, twice had checks written to the IRS processed for more than the stipulated amount, the result of the decimal point being moved to the right!

    I do not belittle the harm done to others who have been victimized by identity theft, but feel it would make far more sense to make the information that is stolen LESS USEFUL to an identity thief. For example, why not bar banks and other institutions from continuing to use “mother’s maiden name” as a pass code for access to financial accounts? It would be FAR EASIER TO ENFORCE such a “law” if only because the majority of citizens would become potential informants of any violation, particularly since so many of those convicted under current laws have been government or business clerks who routinely access such information as part of their jobs. True, such a change would still allow such persons to commit identity theft, but it would become riskier by virtue of there being fewer alternative explanations of how the crime was possible.

    “Mother’s maiden name” might seem to be a non sequitor for opposing the closure of the MDI, but it is not. As I indicated earlier, with information included in the MDI for an individual, specifically the account number and date of death, it becomes possible to access that person’s SS-5, which includes “mother’s maiden name”, along with an individual’s death certificate which would also have “mother’s maiden name” as well as the date and place of birth. It also becomes possible to access a state copy of a birth or death certificate.

    Closure of the MDI will NOT stop all false applications for birth certificates for such purposes as getting a fake driver’s license in Virginia. Either stamping a birth certificate “for genealogical purposes only” as is done in Illinois, or requiring the death of an individual first be reported to the jurisdiction where that person was born, then the jurisdiction where the birth occurred amending the birth certificate to note the death might not stop identity theft entirely either, but that would make identity theft a lot more difficult.

    It would also stop denying individuals having a legitimate reason for wanting a copy of a birth or death certificate simply because a government does not recognize the reason as legitimate.

    In Virginia, how a need for a birth or death certificate is defined as “legitimate” is, in my opinion, both arbitrary and outdated because it limits “legitimate” to “immediate family”, and defines immediate family as a “spouse, father, mother, sibling or child”. While it has been often argued that the longer lifespan that is now common is grounds to increase the length of time a birth or death certificate is restricted beyond the present 50 and 100 years, respectively, for the same reasons and because of medical advancements specifically in the area of genetics, I believe “immediate family” should be expanded to include a niece, nephew, uncle, aunt, 1st cousin, and/or grandchild. I will elaborate further on my reasons when I point out the harm that closure of the DMI will do, but I will cite one reason here. While we were both standing in line at the BVS office while it was still in the Madison Building, a colleague of mine told me that she drove from Danville to Richmond for the death certificate because she hope to be able to show the clerk by virtue of her own age, that even though the death was less than 50 years earlier, she was her grandmother’s nearest living relative. The clerk, however, was adamant that no exception could be made.

    Though most Virginians may support the current 50 and 100 year restrictions out of concerns over both “privacy” and “identity theft”, I believe those restrictions were originally and solely intended to prevent widespread public knowledge of the campaign by Dr. Walter Plecker, the man who was primarily responsibility for the establishment of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics and also its first director, to “exterminate” Native Americans in Virginia by not just refusing to recognize them as Indian in any records submitted to his office, but altering any record stating the race as Indian to read black, and he appended many of those altered certificates with lengthy “genealogies” in support of his position.

    A number of different studies &/or news accounts establish that it has yet to be proven that the MDI has ever been used for identity theft other than perhaps to file false tax returns for infants and others whose (lack of taxable) income would qualify them for Earned Income Credit and other “refunds”. Not only is it ironic that such fraud is only possible because a parent is now required to submit an SS-5 for newborns rather than when the child gets a first job that will pay enough for the income to be reported, but the IRS already has the means to stop such fraud–the MDI! Banks and other institutions already use (but under this legislation would no longer be able to use) the MDI to stop fraudulent credit card and loan applications.

    Though it is unclear how many instances of identity theft are potentially discoverable by the general public through the MDI, there is at least one documented case. In 2011, Dick Eastman who has “blogged” on genealogy matters for more than 30 years, first for CompuServe, then Ancestry.com and since 2002 as an “independent”, reported a woman researching the ancestry of her new son-in-law discovered he had assumed the identity of a man who died in 1982! Clearly, at multiple levels, the MDI, which was established for that very purpose, serves as a tool for identifying instances of identity theft. With identity theft becoming a more serious problem on an almost daily basis, rather than eliminate the MDI, does it not make more sense to require government agencies use it more widely while seeking ways to enhance its value to those already using it?.

    If you would be interested in reading more about the fallacies of closing the MDI, I would refer you to articles on the same that have been republished in Mr. Eastman’s blog at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2005/12/the_real_causes.html#more; http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2009/10/identity-theft-is-usually-an-unsophisticated-crime.html; http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2011/09/another-bogus-report-concerning-one-cause-of-identity-theft.html#more; http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2005/01/whos_climbing_y.html#more; http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2011/10/who-commits-identity-theft.html#more; and elsewhere.

    Others have published articles at (http://www.andrewpatrick.ca/security-and-privacy/id-theft-criminals; http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341c767353ef00e5507a28908834; http://www.techworld.com.au/article/403490/111_arrested_massive_id_theft_bust), and elsewhere.

    While I believe, as already stated, this legislation will NOT significantly decrease identity theft while making it more difficult to identify and prosecute those guilty of it, my more immediate concern is first that it makes it more difficult for me and others providing valuable services to the Courts and medical communities to do our jobs, and when, after passage, the legislation fails to achieve its intended purpose, there will be yet more stringent restrictions with more serious consequences, and perhaps extending to yet other professions.

    How could that be?

    For those doing genetic/medical research, the MDI is a means to identify potential relatives of “subject A” who had died of an hereditary disease. With the name of that potential relative along with the date and place of the death from the MDI, it is possible for researchers to access the death certificate to determine 1)if that person was indeed a relative of “subject A” and how related; 2)if the person had died of the same hereditary disease as “subject A”; and 3)when the answer to both questions is “yes”, if the relative had siblings or children who might be carriers, if not a future victim, of the same disease from which “subject A” had died. Such siblings or children might be identified by such means as an obituary, will or intestate succession, and if one of those individuals is found to be possibly listed in the MDI, the process repeats. With each addition to any “pool” of individuals who died of the same hereditary disease, the “pool” of DNA samples grows, along with the prospects of identifying what single and specific abnormal gene may not only be common to all, but even the cause of the disease. Medical researchers can then give any living relative without that gene a “clean bill of health”, while working towards a treatment, if not cure, by medication, organ/tissue transplant &/or gene therapy. Many individuals who either suffer traumatic injury or have environmentally caused cancers & tumors will also be hurt by the closure of the MDI, because most new organ/tissue donors are identified as a result of highly localized appeals. The MDI allows for such searches not only to be conducted nationwide, but also not to be dependent on/driven by the needs of a single recipient.

    Accordingly, though the restrictions are intended to protect the families of a decedent, I believe I have clearly shown it is actually some of those very families who will be harmed by the closure of the MDI, when those of us working with the MDI either to compile family medical histories or as I and others like me, to facilitate probate of a will/settlement of an intestacy, are no longer able to use the MDI to identify or confirm the identity of an individual, or as hereafter stated, (Social Security) “account holder”, as someone who has a shared hereditary illness or is entitled to receive goods &/or money from the estate of another decedent because access will also be denied, if not as a direct result to this proposed legislation, then subsequent legislation, to an SS-5 or other records which would prove the identity.

    There are at least six ironies which such restrictions serve to compound.

    First, while an executor or administrator has, as representative of his/her decedent, a recognized legal right for access sought under the laws of the principal domicile to information of the “account holder”, even if contrary to the laws governing the “account holder’s” domicile, it is not usual for existing or proposed privacy laws to require a closer degree of kinship than actually exists between said decedent and “account holder”. The MDI allows an “account holder” who died in the “wrong” state to be established as a likely heir of a decedent by both the inclusion of the date of birth, and state in which he/she lived, indicated by the first 3 digits of the account #, when issued his/her account! The MDI thus provides what might be classified as “probable cause”, of the same nature of required for a search warrant to be issued to police, for access to a death certificate even when the degree of kinship between the decedent and account holder is more distant than would otherwise be allowable.

    Second, forensic genealogists such as myself, as agent for said executor or administrator, not only have the same right of access as the executor or administrator, but we are also de facto agents of said Court, and thus are obliged to observe the same standards of ethics as any de jure agent of said Court, yet having committed, and not intending to commit, any crime, we are implicitly painted as criminals even without any proof that our “behavior” is indeed “criminal” because we share “characteristics” with other individuals who are convicted criminals. There are parallels here to both “racial profiling” that can presume any black observed by police entering a predominantly white neighborhood could only by “up to mischief” rather than living in the neighborhood, as well as to post-9/11 profiling that singles out as a potential terrorist, deserving of additional screening at airports, anyone who is dark-complected, has an Arabic name, is speaking Arabic, wears a veil or turban, or who is a practicing Moslem. Even while acknowledging some innocents might be “caught in the web” because they match most, but not all, the required criteria, proponents espouse tolerating such abuses for a “greater good”. However, forensic genealogists cannot be readily identified as a member of our “race”, nor our “intent” determined, by our name, our complexion, our style of dress, the language we speak/manner we speak it, or even our place of business, i.e., as a whole we match few, if any, of the profiling criteria. Should closure of the MDI be enacted and a forensic genealogist is charged with attempting to steal another’s identity, presumably we can convince a jury of our peers of our innocence, but Thomas Haynesworth was convicted of rape though innocent.

    Third, while it is often argued that forensic genealogists benefit financially from the present lack of restrictions on access to the MDI and like records, the passage of this legislation will actually “benefit” us as it will still be necessary for us either to prove the identity of a potential heir or that a reasonable, but ultimately unsuccessful, effort was made to do so, for which we will still be paid. However, without the irrefutable evidence access to the MDI provides us, it will take us longer to identify or confirm the identity of the “account holder” as an heir, for we will then be obliged to seek out, and secure, alternate records which by virtue of being less reliable, may compel us to use documents from multiple sources to build a preponderance of evidence case. Accordingly, not only will our fees be higher, but the trials to resolve an intestacy will be longer, further burdening an overloaded judicial system.

    Fourth, if there is truly an “conflict of interest” resulting from how restrictive a privacy law are or are not, it is on the part of the legislators who vote for a restrictive law, any executive who signs it and any individual employed in its enforcement, as the moneys &/or goods that otherwise go to an heir identified by a forensic genealogist are instead forfeited to the government to be appropriated toward payment of the salary of any of those individuals, or whatever other purpose the legislature might see fit (and no one “objects” because no one has been “taxed” other than perhaps a dispossessed heir who likely will always remain unaware of having been so “taxed”).

    Fifth, having noted that the MDI is often used to compile family medical histories, in addition to the consequences genetic/medical research share with forensic genealogists, such as the potential for activities not just currently legal, but also critical to their jobs, to be treated as criminal in a court of law, closure of the MDI further increases, without raising the questions of either the merits or constitutionality of “Obamacare”, the crushing financial burden of medical care in at least 5 ways:
    a)it increases the likelihood that any given individual will not be found to have an hereditary disease until the symptoms begin to manifest themselves, at which point, the chances of a cure will be lower while the expense of treatment will be higher if only because it will have to be done over a longer period of time;
    b)such an individual will not have had a means to determine ahead of any doctor’s diagnosis if a parent who died of a typically hereditary disease had indeed inherited it rather than the causes being environment because access to the records to establish the same that are identified through the MDI is already widely barred, and the closure of the MDI will be used as justification for closing those that are now open or would otherwise become open;
    c)it will limit, if not stop completely, the efforts of individuals to compile a medical history that extends beyond their immediate family. While I have no specific knowledge of the number who may be compiling such histories, I have had 3 clients tell me that they had hired me to assist in compiling such histories and I do not count this as among my areas of specialization;
    d)there are too few researchers and too little funds to tackle every disease needing either an effective treatment or a cure, much less those which are primarily hereditary, so work is concentrated on the most common of all diseases in an invariably expensive competition, not just because first “across the finish line” to a medical patent “takes all”–i.e., has a monopoly on the production and sale of the patented drug for the life of the patent, but also because any collaboration can be seen as implicit proof a violation of anti-trust laws which are punishable by fines and/or jail. The pace of medical research will slow and its cost will rise because of the need to substitute less reliable alternative sources of information if the MDI is closed; and
    e)the one form of collaboration on medical research that does not add to the expense of the research and is not currently considered criminal would implicitly become criminal, to wit, individuals or family associations, at no cost to the medical community, thus none to the greater public in the form of higher drug prices, supplementing the efforts of researchers by identifying through their own research in the MDI and related records, who belongs to a community medical researchers have targeted, thus is a candidate for clinical trials of any treatment that may be developed, or working on diseases that are not common enough to justify medical research at the present time, assemble enough information that it becomes feasible for researchers to begin active study of the disease.

    Sixth, and finally, the Social Security Administration charges a fee to provide access to the SS-5 applications of DECEASED individuals a medical research or forensic genealogist identified through the MDI. For a forensic genealogist or medical researcher, these fees are a part of the cost of doing business, and the cost far less than many alternatives, but for those seeking access to the information for health reasons, the fee can, even in a stronger economy, be yet another hardship that is borne if only because of the hope it gives. The legislation to close MDI records will eliminate that reason to hope. It will also eliminate the income the federal government derives from SS-5 and could reduce income states derive from copies of death certificates when researchers are unable to determine where an individual of interest may have died. True, criminals may also pay the fee for copy of someone’s SS-5, but they are inherently “lazy” so would be unlikely to pay for both the SS-5, then that person’s birth or death certificate!

    While I am unable to say how much income is generated specifically for the federal government, given the many other benefits I have noted the MDI provides, I am nevertheless reminded of what my favorite politician, the late Everett Dirksen (R-Illinois) often said about similar situations—”a million here, a million there, pretty soon, you are talking REAL MONEY!” The financial lesson this illustrates, to wit, that by paying attention to the “small stuff”, one also takes care of the “bigger”, is not just too often lost, but becoming a growing problem as shown in the ungoing inability of Congress to balance the national budget. In the present economy, it seems to me there would be greater benefit to be realized–access to records needed by those who seek it, whether for health reasons or to settle a decedent’s estate, and income for the government from the fees for the information provided without the need to raise taxes–than what this legislation will accomplish, to wit, no fees paid and increased costs in identifying and prosecuting identity thieves.

    Hopefully you have found my arguments, even if lengthy, compelling enough to join in my cause. Since the chairman of the subcommittee of Ways & Means hearing arguments for this bill stipulated on his website that due to overwhelming volume of mail and a need to respond to the business of his district and constituents, he accepts only messages from his constituents, and it was announced ahead of the hearing, held on 2 February, that no additional witnesses or comments would be accepted, this bill will have to be stopped on the floor of the House and by lobbying as many members of the House as possible. Recognizing that the readership of any article you may write in response to this will largely be limited to the constituents of Eric Cantor, in the event any reader is prompted to speak with friends or relatives in other parts of the county, you may want to include the following url in your article as it links to the the physical and mailing address, e-mail addresses, phone numbers and fax members of all members of the House of Representatives–http://www.congressmerge.com/onlinedb/

    Michael E. Pollock

  18. Judy,
    I have sent the other article I promised but it has yet to post. Did I do something wrong or did you decide there was too little difference in the content for my Area-Info posting. Won’t resend until I hear from you.

  19. Judy,
    Have some exciting, “breaking news” to share with you.

    A bill previously passed by an unanimous vote of the Virginia Senate was reported out of a House of Delegates committee, with amendments that will: 1)reduce from 50 to 25 years the number of years access to death certificates are restricted; 2)allow a grandchild or great-grandchild to access a restricted death certificate; and 3)if I am reading the bill correctly, ultimately create an index with name of the person(s–the plural form is to acknowledge that a marriage would have both a bride and groom), date and place for all events registered with the Bureau of Vital Statistics and the index will be available on-line.

    Target date of the information being on-line is 1 July 2015.

    With the substitution of bills, I believe the bill reported out may have to be voted on again by the Senate after passing the House, but the margin by which it was reported virtually guarantees its passage in the House, and as I have already noted, it previously passed the Senate by unanimous vote, not to overlook that the Governor has pledged to sign it!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Glad to hear it. I was one of many many folks with Virginia roots who wrote to the committee members urging them to support the bill. This will require Senate approval with the amendments. The index will be required but is at no cost to the taxpayers. Folks like FamilySearch are standing in line waiting to be able to do this!

      • Judy,

        What I had meant to say about “reading the bill correctly” is that the index would include even CLOSED records.

        As I am certain you appreciate, that makes forensic research much simpler as it will allow determining not just what alternate sources to confirm the identity of an individual may be available, such as a census for a closed birth, or will, administration or obituary, but also where to look, something that has not always been possible with the Social Security Master Death Index.

  20. I am now seeing my earlier attempt to post this. If it is not a bug, simply remove this latest attempt

  21. I am glad I already ordered the SS-5 forms I neeeded for my family. I needed them for the info and to amend death certificates to add parents names and middle names. That is a good reason for there to be access to those forms as well.

  22. Pingback: Your Ancestor’s SS-5: Get It Before It’s Too Late

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