On Wednesday, February 20, Newtown’s delegation of legislators Representatives Mitch Bolinsky, DebraLee Hovey, and Dan Carter joined members of the local town clerk’s staff supporting a bill to better protect the privacy of Sandy Hook families and others following the death of a child.
A release regarding the local delegation’s support was issued after several hours of testimony before the legislature’s Public Health Committee
The proposal before the committee, HB 5733, would allow officials to restrict access to the death certificates of children when it is likely to cause undue hardship for the family of the child. Current law allows any adult the ability to purchase a copy of the death certificate of any resident from their municipality’s town clerk.
The bill was prompted after Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia was inundated with media inquiries following the shootings at Sandy Hook, jeopardizing families’ privacy and capitalizing on their grief.
“In limiting access to ‘long form’ death certificates, we can help shield families and victims from exploitation in cases such as the Sandy Hook massacre where children died under uniquely tragic circumstances,” Rep Bolinsky said. “In addition to respectful privacy protection, this bill would act as an effective deterrent for identity theft, while still allowing for appropriate public disclosure, and I urge my colleagues in the Public Health Committee to pass it.”
“This legislation will both respect and protect the privacy of families who have suffered the unimaginable loss of a child,” Rep Hovey said in her testimony. “During tragic circumstances it is imperative we have laws that show empathy for those affected while at the same time preventing unscrupulous individuals from exploiting, or profiting from, their grief. It’s the right thing to do.”
“We must protect the privacy of Sandy Hook victims whose death certificates contain information that will only fuel the painful media circus in Newtown,” Rep Carter said. “Not only would this proposal prevent journalists from abusing the information on death certificates, such as the location of gravesites, but would reduce the threat of identity theft.”
Local lawmakers joined Ms Aurelia, and Assistant Town Clerks Aileen Nosal and Renee Weimann testifying regarding the legislation.
Identity Theft And Harassment
“Since the tragic Sandy Hook shooting, I have witnessed an extreme invasion of privacy of victims’ families at the most inappropriate times,” Ms Aurelia testified. “I support the introduction of this bill, and I continue to advocate for even tighter restrictions on all public death records, which I believe empower identity thieves and disclose too much detail when offered freely.”
Ms Weimann told the committee members that since 12/14, she has been adamant about keeping the death records for those 26 victims, more specifically the children, unavailable to the public, especially the press.
“It is my strong belief and fear that the disclosure of certain information would lead to identity theft and harassment of family members, not to mention the inevitable constant visitation of strangers to the gravesites, regardless of reason,” Ms Weimann said in testimony, which was provided to The Bee. “The burial location is a place for friends and family to visit their loved one. It is a time of solace and reflection, especially for the families of those lost on December 14.”
Ms Weimann, who is Newtown’s administrator of vital statistics, described herself as unwavering when it comes to protecting the privacy of the 12/14 victims and the immeasurable grief and heartbreak of their families.
“The funerals were held privately for a reason, and the release of these death certificates to anyone but family members would surely negate those wishes of privacy by their families,” she continued. “We must adapt to our ever-changing world. We must not only protect the innocent at all times, but in these incomprehensible circumstances, also those they leave behind. It is our duty and our responsibility.”
While the proposed bill seeks to exempt the records for a period of ten years, Ms Weimann said that she would prefer to see the records subject to the same statutory access guidelines as birth and fetal death records, and to some extent, adoption records.
“In order to protect the sensitive information such as where the deceased is buried, the cause of death, birth dates, their parents’ names, mother’s maiden name, and addresses, to name a few, I am strongly urging you to take it further,” she said. “I feel it is our responsibility to these children; yes they were all someone’s child, and their families, to change the current statute, so that death records are not open to public inspection and only to immediate family members, permanently.”
Ms Weimann previously said she does not know if all the victims’ families are even aware of the level of access the press and others can have under the current law.
Ms Aurelia noted that since she has been in the town clerk’s office the only people requesting death and marriage certificates were family related, or those performing genealogical reporting; if adopted as proposed, the legislation will not further restrict their access.
Following the public hearing the Public Health Committee will decide whether or not to advance the proposal through the legislative process. On February 22, members of the town clerk’s staff will return to Hartford to testify on the issue before the Government, Administrations and Elections (GAE) Committee.