May 21st, 2012

What to Do When There is No Public Access to Records

You’re hot on the trail of an ancestor, you find the records you need and excitedly contact the repository. Your excitement grows as you wait for the phone to be answered or response to your letter or email. Finally you get the dreaded answer – sorry there is no public access to those records. Many researchers have become discouraged and given up their search at this point, but there is really no need to.

Yes, some records are not available for the public to access, or access is limited, especially since September 2001. Many government agencies around the world have enforced legislation to prevent access to types of records that may be used to falsify an identity or be used in other illegal activities. Because of this some documents that were previously available to researchers are now not, or you may need to verify your own identity before you are allowed access. This especially includes civil records such as birth certificates, as they can be used to obtain identity cards, passports, driver’s licences and other official documentation.

Some documents have been officially sealed, and may never be available to researchers, regardless of the circumstances. Adoption records fall into this category, and it is even difficult for the adoptee or the adoptive parents to receive them. Other types of records that may not be available are certain types of court records, coroner’s reports, inquests, civil lawsuit settlements, and divorce records. Religious institutions may also choose to maintain the privacy of their members, as will some businesses.

These situations are definitely genealogical obstacles that can be difficult to overcome, but there are certain methods you can employ to maximize your chance of moving beyond them. Following are methods that myself and others have used to gain access to restricted records.

Provide Proof of Your Relationship

Whenever you are seeking to access someone else’s records you will inevitably be asked why you want the information, even though the person may be long deceased. The best response is to be honest; stating that you are a genealogist researching their family history, and that you have proof of your relationship. You will also have to provide personal identification, but when the surname is different from your own usually additional proof is required. If you have already done a good bit of work on your family history, take a copy of your pedigree chart with you along with the copies of birth, death and marriage certificates you will need to present. The fact that you are willing to prove your relationship is enough to break down barriers, and repository staff are genuinely happy to help genealogists.

Offer to Pay for Expenses

Show that you are serious about your request by offering to pay all expenses involved such as; copying of records, postage, and administrative costs. Making this clear from the beginning removes the burden of expense from the organization producing the records, and consequently they are more eager to do it. If it is a religious or charitable organization to which you’re making the request, offer to make a donation.

Present Proof or Letters of Authorization

You will often be looking to access the records of distant or collateral relatives, and in such cases may need permission from the family of that person. Because you are not a direct relative, access to the records may be blocked, but this can be overcome by a letter from the family authorising or giving you permission to access them. Make sure that the letter is notarized by a registered notary public or equivalent. Keep your proof of relationship with you at all times however, as it goes along way to backing up the letter to sceptics.

Use the Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires the United States Government to release records to anyone who applies for them in writing. There are some restrictions that involve National Security, and certain privacy laws may apply to particular individuals. It is important to understand the Act however, as you can invoke it in some circumstances to overcome invalid refusals. You can review the FOIA online at the Department of State’s Electronic Reading Room, and make FOIA requests there as well.

Obtain a Court Order

As a last resort for documents that are closed or restricted to the public, it might help to apply for a court order to grant access. You must provide a convincing argument as to your reasons for wanting access, and prove your relationship as well. One of the most effective arguments is the need for medical information. The needs to identify blood type, genetic predisposition to specific diseases or other similar reasons have been successful arguments for obtaining court orders. You may require the assistance of a legal representative in presenting your case to the court, but the cost may be justified if it’s your last resort.

Unfortunately genealogy isn’t always fun and games, but running into a roadblock such as closed records doesn’t have to end your search. A little hard work may be involved, but if you’re dedicated, prepared, and passionate, the above suggestions might help you to access those records that will help you to close another chapter of your family history.