29 November 2009

Privacy laws? Even for 100+ year old burials

Sometimes privacy laws make absolutely no sense. An article was posted on the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal's website today that tells the story.

Two researchers have undertaken the task of identifying the graves of men who fought in the Civil War. One in particular happens to have died at the Milwaukee Hospital for the Insane and therein lies the stumbling block. As Tom Ludka says "the last known burial was in 1914 -- 95 years ago." He is the veterans' service director for Waukesha County. His cohort is Margaret Berres a middle school teacher and curator of the Oak Creek Historical Society.

The story is fascinating (click here to read it) and involves a family connection to what became the Pabst Brewing Company.

As the researchers tried to document the burial of the one soldier they were told they couldn't check the hospital's old records because of "federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act privacy rules." The burials at the hospital's cemetery occurred between 1880 and 1914 and likely include other Civil War vets in unmarked graves. Even though the particular soldier died over 100 years ago, they can't check to verify this. They were also told that it was state law that prohibited them from viewing the records and that someone checked the records and all that was found was a directive to send the soldier's body to another cemetery. Ludka and Berres believe this was not accomplished.

Different states have varied laws about such access but 100 year after a death just doesn't strike me as a privacy issue. If this man's information remains hidden, his burial will remain unmarked and not honored. A sad life, sad ending and continuing sadness surrounding Albert Melms who served his country, if only for a short time as a musician.

In my opinion, the records of such institutions help people understand family issues, possible mental health considerations in current family members, are an important part of social and community history, and often the people involved have not been remembered. Albert and others like him deserve to be remembered, their graves marked, and stories told.

1 comment:

mhollick said...

Been there done that. My great-great-grandfather, also a Civil War veteran, died in a state run asylum in 1888. I wanted his records, but was told that only the next of kin could get them. When I pointed out that his wife was dead, as were all his children, and only a handful of his grandchildren were alive, I was told I needed permission of those living grandchildren, one of which was my own grandfather. I had to collect six signatures.

However, I eventually got copies of the records. Yes, it is silly, but the laws are written to protect living people and never considered historical research. Of course, in state run facilities if the records after say 75 years were shipped off to the state archives, the problem would solve itself. Probably no one has the budget for that.