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02/22/2013

News / CT legislature mulls bill to restrict access to death certificates

The House of Representatives of Connecticut is looking into a bill that would limit public access to the death certificates of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre last December. A Republican legislator introduced the bill after receiving reports that the press was repeatedly asking for the death certificate copies of the 20 children and six adults killed in the shooting.

State Representative Mitch Bolinsky’s sentiments were shared by Newtown Town Clerk Debbie A. Aurelia, as well as Dan Carter, another State Representative who introduced a similar measure. The three proponents of restricting access to death certificates appeared before the House public health committee Wednesday.

“I was shocked, dismayed and deeply disturbed when, on Dec. 17, I got a call from the town clerk about the prospect of having a reporter standing beside her during one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the United States in Newtown looking for death certificates of children,” Bolinsky noted, as quoted by local newspaper The Hartford Courant.

Bolinsky also called the reporters flocking to the town clerk’s office “jackals” and said legislators had to do something about it. Bolinsky’s one-paragraph bill states that access to public records could be restricted “when the disclosure of the death certificate is likely to cause undue hardship for the family of the child.”

Dan Carter’s proposed piece of legislation would restrict access to death certificates of minors for ten years following their death, after which they would become public. However, Carter also said that the media’s excessive attention to the death certificates of any children was somewhat justified since it is very unlikely that a minor dies because of natural causes. He proposed a compromise solution – allowing public access to an abridged version of the death certificate with fewer personal details.

Newtown Town Clerk Debbie A. Aurelia noted that the media repeatedly contacted her office requesting the massacre victims’ death certificate copies, and said she would like access to the certificates limited to the immediate family, as well as authorized persons and agencies such as doctors, attorneys and funeral homes.

All three also expressed concern that the information in the death certificates, particularly the maiden name of the mother, could be used by identity thieves.

But many Connecticut activists and residents say they do not support the measure, and argue that public records must remain accessible to everybody.

“There isn't anything in a death certificate that is going to hurt the deceased,” noted Jim Smith, a veteran journalist and president of the Connecticut Council on the Freedom of Information. “It's not like an autopsy report. It's been public for centuries. It's not going to invade anyone's privacy.”

Smith said he understood the sentiments of Newtown residents, but underscored the importance of keeping information public in a democracy.

Dr. David Gregaro, director of University of Chicago’s graduate program in public health, said it was important to leave death certificates available to the public for research purposes.

“Death certificates are one of the fundamental records we have to monitor the health of the population,” Gregario noted. He also said that he used death certificates from Connecticut municipalities in a research study of alcohol-related injuries, which was done in collaboration with Hartford Hospital.

Nora Galvin, a professional genealogist in Bridgeport, said sifting through death certificates was part of her weekly routine. Death certificates are often the only record that can be used to trace someone’s ancestors and restricting access to them could be detrimental to the thousands of amateur genealogist in Connecticut, she noted.

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