By Barbara Mathews, CG®
BCG’s Representative to the Records Preservation and Access Committee
As BCG’s official representative to the Records Preservation and Access Committee (RPAC), I advocate for the concerns of Board-certified genealogists, and participate in RPAC’s monthly conference call. RPAC is a joint committee organized by the National Genealogical Society, the Federation of Genealogical Societies, and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. Each of these three societies has a vote on the committee. Non-voting representatives are sent by several national groups: American Society of Genealogists, Association of Professional Genealogists, BCG, and ICAPGen. In addition, non-voting representatives attend from two corporations, Ancestry, and ProQuest. Communication is fostered by an email list, monthly telephone conference calls, and the RPAC blog.
Two topics are important this month:
- at the federal level, ensuring that genealogists are involved as stakeholders in the process of writing regulations regarding access to the Social Security Death Index; and
- at the local level, ensuring a rapid response to legislative or administrative activity involving records preservation and access.
Advocating as Stakeholders in Death Master File Regulations
At the federal level, the impact of the recent federal budget compromise bill on records access remains everyone’s top priority. The budget bill embargoes recent deaths from the Social Security Death Index until the end of the third calendar year after the event. It was discussed here in my 2013 year-end report.
On behalf of RPAC, Fred Moss submitted written testimony in relationship to the U.S. Senate Finance Committee’s SSDI closure language. His testimony is linked to the RPAC blog post “Senate Finance Committee — Tax Administration Discussion Drafts,” together with an attachment from Michael Ramage, CGSM, outlining a forensic genealogy definition.[*] The summary at the end of the testimony states:
We offer four main points:
- We are anxious to support the effort to implement the provisions of the Bipartisan Budget Act requiring the Department of Commerce to develop a Certification Program governing access to the Death Master File. Genealogists who fit the (a – f ) categories listed on pages 2-3 should be accommodated for quick certification. The genealogical community is a vitally interested stakeholder in this process.
- As existing policy regarding public access to the Death Master File is reviewed, we urge that input from professional genealogists be sought. The members of the Records Preservation and Access Committee stand ready to assist in arranging for that input to both the Executive and Legislative branches. We can best be reached at email@example.com
- Our strongest message is that steps already taken by the IRS and genealogical entities to protect SSNs listed in the SSDI may have already intercepted this particular form of identity theft without waiting for any additional legislation.
- The SSNs of living people will remain vulnerable as long as the IRS mandate is to rush payments of tax refunds before information returns can be compared with the submitted return to assure its validity.
RPAC will continue its efforts to participate in the regulatory process of the Department of Commerce. The group will advocate for access for professional genealogists and those doing compassionate work for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office and for Unclaimed Persons.
Those Board-certified genealogists who consider access to recent deaths to be important to their work can offer their support to RPAC by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Your stories about how access made a difference in people’s lives will be helpful in articulating this concern to Senators and Representatives.
Monitoring Action at the State Level
We expect the introduction of state legislation based on the unapproved 2011 Model Act and Regulations. State liaisons will play a continuing role in checking for new legislation and in rallying local response. I discussed the history of the Model Acts in my March 2013 report, as follows:
The registration of births, deaths, marriages, and divorces is done on the local level, that is, by 50 states, 5 territories, the City of New York, and Washington, DC. Information contained in those records is shared with U.S. government entities such as the Social Security Administration.
To ensure successful sharing, the U.S. government has made available text that states may elect to use for law as well as for regulations describing how those laws are implemented. States are not required to conform to the Model Act and Regulations. Each state, city, or territory is free to implement laws and regulations for its own needs. Nonetheless, the Model Act can have significant impact. For example, the movement of state vital records offices into state Departments of Public Health was first advised by the 1977 version of the Model Act.
Beginning in 2009, a committee formed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services convened to update the 1992 Model Act. The National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems (NAPHSIS) approved the update by resolution 8 June 2011. NAPHSIS is an association of representatives from the 57 states, cities, and territories. Members of the organization had participated in the drafting of the new Model Act.
Previous iterations of the Model Act have gone through periods of public feedback and revision before approval by the federal agency involved. The 2011 revision has not yet been made available for public review by DHHS (see their note here) and so it is not yet considered final. In the meantime, several state public health departments developed legislation that conformed to the unreviewed version of the Model Act. This past Friday, 1 March 2013, at noon Eastern time, NAPHSIS independently released the 2011 revision of the Model Act on its website. It can be downloaded here.
What does the new version do? It incorporates changes in technology over the twenty years since the 1992 version. It also changes the records closure periods. Please compare these periods to the ones currently in law in the states in which you research. If they differ, it would be wise to work with local genealogy societies to monitor for the introduction of state legislation affecting records closure.
- Birth records closed for 125 years.
- Marriage and divorce records closed for 100 years.
- Death records closed for 75 years.
Because the response to local legislation begins with local efforts, RPAC worked in 2013 to strengthen its state liaison apparatus, defined here as:
In each state there is or will be an individual responsible for maintaining liaison and communication between the FGS Records Access and Preservation Committee and the statewide genealogical/historical community with respect to matters concerning the preservation of and access to national, state and local historical records of genealogical and historical interest.
To locate a state liaison, RPAC must determine if there is an umbrella organization within the state, or an overall genealogical society. The committee then works with the President of that society to find the statewide liaison. This person becomes a contact for anyone in the state having a records access concern. The process means better representation, but it also means that it takes time to fill a slot. (Disclosure: I am the state liaison for Massachusetts.)
In December and January, RPAC hosted conference calls that included representatives from twenty states and RPAC leadership. On January 28th, we heard from Teri E. Flack of Texas and Helen Shaw, CGSM, of Maine. In both states, genealogists testified against records closure legislation. The Texans were successful in stopping closure. The Mainers saw modifications to the bill and are now considered stakeholders in the process of writing regulations. Rob Rafford of Connecticut spoke passionately about being proactive in monitoring legislative activity.
Efforts this year led to three states adding a state liaison, for a total of 33+1 represented states. If you live in one of these states, which are now unrepresented, please consider working with your state’s genealogy society to find a person willing to take on the role. Every state needs a person or a committee or a society checking for new legislation, budget changes, and preservation issues. Without attention, changes can happen that will come as a shock to genealogists.
- New Hampshire
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
North Carolina is moving quickly to identify a state liaison. A matter of unexpected records destruction got everyone’s attention. The 2011 Model Act provisions are also relevant as the UNC School of Government was investigating records closure last year. My written response on behalf of Board-certified genealogists is available here.
To find the state liaison for your geographic area of concern, consult the RPAC roster here.
* The genealogy community has not rallied around an industry-wide definition of the term forensic genealogy. A definition focused on financial or legal work is slowly coming to the fore but there are points to be made for a broader definition that includes work involving living people. For example, Attachment A includes two out of three legs of the adoption triad (child, birth parents, adoptive parents). RPAC testimony adds medical and genetic genealogy.
UPDATED: 2 Feb 2014, to show that Nebraska is already represented by a state liaison.