In the Buckeye of the Storm

In the Buckeye of the Storm

Ohio considers recalling vital records from libraries and other public institutions.

A change in Ohio’s vital records fee sparked a feud between genealogists and a local health department — and led the state to consider recalling records collections from other public institutions.

Ohio House Bill 95, passed last June 30, raised the fee for certified copies of birth and death records to $15 (plus local fees), and eliminated the issuance of uncertified copies. The day the bill passed, the Huron County General Health District, saying it was acting on orders from the Ohio Department of Health (ODH), removed microfilmed birth and death records from the Norwalk Public Library. The birth records cover 1908 to 1929, and deaths, 1908 to 1995.

The film was returned to the library on Oct. 31, following a ruling from the Huron County Prosecutor that the records “do not contain other than public information, do not contain confidential medical information, are not protected from disclosure and are on loan to the library by the Genealogical Society.” The health district requested the ruling after a storm of protest from genealogists and the Huron County Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society (OGS) <www.ogs.org>, owner of the film.

The chapter purchased the film in 1999 for $500 from Ohio’s Center for Archival Collections (CAC), says chapter vice president Thomas Neel. The Huron County health district signed contracts and a release authorizing CAC to film and sell the records.

ODH disputed the prosecutor’s ruling in a letter, claiming that it did not authorize the contract and would have objected to it.

Now ODH is looking for records collections similar to the Norwalk library’s. In a Sept. 11 letter, Director of Health J. Nick Baird gave local records registrars until Nov. 15 to submit contact information for organizations that possess records collections. Citing ORC chapter 3705, which requires the director of health to “have charge of the system of vital statistics,” the letter calls those collections a fraud and security risk.

“Such a collection in a public place is, by law, part of the vital statistics system and must be maintained by the Office of Vital Statistics at ODH,” says a statement from ODH public affairs director Jay Carey. “At this point, we are gathering information to assess the scope of the situation and have not determined how to proceed.”

Many genealogists don’t see the harm in printing a 75-year-old birth certificate from a public library’s microfilm. An identity thief would have to purchase a certified birth record to get fraudulent identification, says OGS first vice president Diane Gagel. She calls the seizure of the microfilmed death certificates “really ridiculous.”

But ODH says Ohio’s records are especially vulnerable. Prior to HB 95, “Ohio was only one of 10 states to allow unrestricted access to birth records,” says Carey. “According to the New Orleans Passport Office, Ohio birth certificates are involved in 15 percent of all fraud investigations,” Carey admits that 73 percent of requests for uncertified copies came from 24 individuals.

The state also is concerned about confidentiality because fetal death certificates may contain medical information about the mother. In addition, there’s no practical way to remove a record from public collections after it has been sealed due to court action.

Amid the confusion, county health departments are interpreting HB 95 in ways that Gagel says violate public records laws. OGS reports that Ohio researchers have been told they need an appointment to view records at health departments, that they must pay to view a record and that certified copies are available only to the person named in the record or next of kin.

HB 95 does not interfere with Ohio’s public records laws, says Carey. “Genealogists — and the public at large — are welcome to inspect any vital statistic record and obtain a copy for a fee. If the fee is an issue, members of the public are also welcome to take notes from any record they inspect for free.”

Meanwhile, genealogists hope the health department will focus its security efforts on the 24 people who requested three-quarters of uncertified birth records, rather than the thousands of researchers who look at decades-old records on library microfilm. Having to pay $15 for a birth record won’t stop genealogists, but it likely won’t stop criminals, either — only a clear, logical legislative response will do that.
 
From the February 2004 Family Tree Magazine. 

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