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And Now, for Your Protection, Sealing Cousin Joe's Birth Certificate

Local Matters


Published December 7, 2005 at 2:04 p.m.

Looking for an interesting Vermont souvenir? It's a little-known fact that you can swing by the Montpelier city clerk's office and see Patrick Leahy's birth certificate, or drop by the town clerk in Barnet to view University of Vermont basketball star Taylor Coppenrath's. For $7, you can even get a certified copy.

But get 'em fast -- Vermont is one of just 14 states that still offers unrestricted access to its vital records. And that's about to change. To help thwart identity theft, the federal government is preparing to tighten rules regarding birth and death certificates. The 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act includes provisions that would restrict access to vital records and mandate strict security guidelines for their storage.

Richard McCoy, of the Vermont Department of Health, has been monitoring the law, which also contains a controversial provision called the Real ID Act, mandating a national standard for driver's licenses. McCoy says there are "a lot of concerns" over the new regs. They'll force the state to create a searchable database listing all 800,000 of its vital records. They'll likely make all pre-1935 birth and death certificates off-limits to researchers such as journalists, historians and genealogists; only immediate family and legal guardians will retain access. They'll likely require background checks for all employees dealing with vital records, and may require that records be stored in buildings that meet stringent security standards. "It's the biggest change in vital records history," McCoy says.

The Department of Health and Human Services had planned to issue draft guidelines at the end of December. Faced with mounting pressure from state governments that will have to pay for the changes -- McCoy estimates it could cost Vermonters $3 million -- the feds have delayed the draft until June, with the final guidelines taking effect in 2007.

McCoy has been briefing town clerks about the expected changes. For the most part, they're not happy, he says. Dianna Baraby of St. Albans is one of the disgruntled clerks. "At this point, from what they're telling us, it's going to create a lot of hardship," she says. "I just don't know how it's going to work."

Baraby says she often gets people asking for copies of their birth certificates in order to replace a lost driver's license. But under the new law, they'll need a driver's license or some kind of official ID to get a copy of their birth certificate. "They're going to be yelling at us," Baraby says.

Baraby isn't concerned about people perpetrating fraud using purloined birth certificates, since most Vermont towns are so small. "You usually know a lot of the people," she says. If she grew suspicious of someone asking for a birth certificate, Baraby could "put a red flag up," she says. "I can call the police department."

The new law will hit Vermont's smallest towns hardest, McCoy notes. Several town clerks still keep vital records in offices in their homes that will now have to meet "excruciatingly detailed" standards. These specify building materials for walls and locks, and the thickness and spacing of the bars on the windows, McCoy notes. Retrofitting a rural municipal office building could cost tens of thousands of dollars. "For Vermont," he says, "that's asking a lot."

The unfunded federal mandate has drawn fire from Governor Jim Douglas, who sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt protesting the cost. And Secretary of State Deb Markowitz criticized the regulations in an interview with The Burlington Free Press. "The requirements are so disproportionate to how we run local government," she says. "We are fixing a problem that in Vermont we just don't have."

McCoy says he doesn't necessarily object to creating a national standard birth certificate. Since 1900, there have been approximately 60,000 versions of birth certificates in this country, he points out, and officials have trouble telling the real ones from the fakes.

Fifteen to 20 Vermont towns don't even use the watermark-laden, Health Department-approved "security paper" to print out birth certificate copies, McCoy adds. The Rutland Town Clerk's office, for example, still prints birth certificates on regular printer paper.

Rutland Town Clerk Rodney Pulsifer argues that the security paper isn't all that secure anyway. "I've seen it," he says. "I don't really see much in regards to security." Birth certificates from Rutland do bear an embossed city seal.

Pulsifer says he's keeping an open mind about the federal crackdown on vital records. "What I would like to see," he says, "is not everybody and their brother be able to come in and get a copy of the birth certificates."

Still, Pulsifer laments the need for greater security. "It's too bad we've gotten to this point," he says.