Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Theater of the Absurd Thrives in New York State Government

We all know what a cluster governmental bureaucracy can be, and we are living that nightmare as I type.

You see, we are now searching for the date of death for my mother in law's (henceforth, Roz) mother.  If you will recall from the other day, we did find her birth parents names, but were quickly cast aside by the surviving member of her elder birth sister's family.

Now, as if this entire thing could get more tedious, we are dealing with the Byzantine world of New York State Government.  More specifically, its state run mental hospitals.  Apparently, Birth Mother, Bella Strouse was institutionalized for a mental illness, most likely postpartum depression, and most likely misdiagnosed as something far worse.  In 1925 many lower income women who could not function following the birth of a babe were shipped off to state run hospitals where they were soothed with salts of thorazine.  Most lived out their lives abandoned by their families by what what we now call, affectionately, "baby blues".

We know she was there in 1925.  And we know she was at Utica State Hospital in 1930 because it shows on the U.S. Census.  And we know that she was Marcy State Hospital because that shows on the 1940 census.  (Utica State was the state hospital in New York for the *insane* for decades.  Marcy, just down the road from Utica was built later.  Both hospitals have been replaced with the Mohawk Valley facility.)

So it is most likely that Bella died in a state run hospital.  They should know.  But they do not.  In fact:

  • The State of New York Department of Health does not know.
  • The State of New York Department of Mental Health does not know.
  • The State of New York Office of Mental Hygiene does not know.  In fact, the State employee I spoke with had never heard of Utica State Hospital, or Marcy State Hospital.  Interesting.
  • The Onieda County Health Department does not keep death certificates for the county, for that you have to go to the town clerk.  
  • The town clerk over here is charging us $82 to look in a 30 year window.
  • The town clerk in another municipality bent over backwards to help us over the phone.  I owe her a metaphoric gift basket. 
  • The Governor's office wants everything in writing before it will figure this mess out, but an employee said have you looked at this woman named Bella in a Kings County cemetery?  "Oh, you are right, this Bella was Jewish and you said your family member was Catholic."
THEN there was my discussion with state archives, and this where Charles Ludlam would have scripted the conversation which went like this:

Me: We are trying to determine if there is anyway for to access Bella's records to see when she was discharged or died.

Them: I'm sorry, but I can't discuss anyone in a state run institution because their rights are protected by HIPPA.

Me: Actually, HIPPA protects the privacy of living people, and this woman is dead.

Them: Where did they die?

Me: That is why I am calling you.  I understand that I need to submit a letter, but before I do that, do you have the records and can you access them?

Them: I'm sorry, but I can't discuss confidential patient information without her written consent.

Me: If she were alive she would be 131 years old, and that is unlikely, or we have a real Christmas miracle on our hands.  And if she is dead, then she can't complete the forms.

Them: Let me send you the paperwork for the patient to fill out.  And you can't fill it for them.  They must fill it out themselves...

Me: Aardvark 

Them: Come again?

Me: Nevermind {click}

I have long been suspect that New York is simply too large a state to function on its own.  

After today, I know that for fact.


  1. "The town clerk in another municipality bent over backwards to help us over the phone. I owe her a gift basket."

    It's been my experience that it's best to check with the office's gift-giving policy first. I was told you can only give gifts to the entire staff of certain organizations, not singling out one member of the staff in case it looks like bribery.

    Ridiculous, but true.

    1. In government, the rule is frequently that when it's something like a gift basket, the individual can accept it, but it must be shared with the office. We're careful when providing holiday gifts to make sure it's something shareable (a hamper, rather than one good bottle of wine, for example). but what might really make the clerk's day is a letter of thanks and praise aimed at his/her supervisor - these days, that kind of thing can make or break an annual evaluation. Unless he or she actually went beyond the regs, in which case, alas, it's better to say nothing.

      And I'm sure you've thought of it, but it is possible that any local historical society might help?

    2. Of course, I was speaking metaphorically. But yes, you must be careful these days. Oh, for the days when we used bottles of wine and booze.

  2. Don't send a gift basket. It could cause jealousy in another Health Dept. employee, setting off a San Bernadino chain of events. Joking! Too soon? Now that you have a name, would there be anything on that could help?

  3. You are Champ of Champs for pursuing this on behalf of Roz, and your other half knows this, I am sure. Hang in there. (And rather than a gift basket for the individual who helped out, make a nice donation to charity in her name, and be sure her work address is included for notification - no material goods, but a warm gesture of appreciation).

  4. I completely agree. Roz is very lucky to have you!

    1. Thank you dear. But I am luckier to have her. Because I am married to her wonderful son!

  5. have you considered a Ouija board? It might be more helpful and less expensive.

    1. I would. But the last one we had in the house caused all sorts of havoc.

  6. New York's medical confidentiality rules are much stricter than the HIPAA regulations. Death Certificates are specifically exempted from freedom of information laws, except in certain instances defined by law. One of the exemptions is a request by an immediate family member. See 10 NYCRR, 35.4(b)(2).

    If I have read the story correctly, Roz is the daughter of the deceased and therefore has a statutory right to a certified copy of the death certificate. She should contact the New York authorities personally. If she fills out the request and pays the money, she should get her copy of the death certificate, if one exists. If she doesn't get it, she has the grounds for an admittedly pain-in-the-ass petition to the county court.

    Good luck.

    1. Thank you for this. It makes sense, insofar as it is information. I received an absurdly rude letter from a state employee essentially telling that us that my mother had surrendered her right to her birth family because she was adopted. I responded that she didn't surrender anything because she was TWO years old. No two year old is responsible or reasonable enough to understand the concept of surrendering their banky let alone their legal ties to the their birth parents. And this is where the officials running New York fail living adoptees while protecting the dead.

      Anyhow, I have joined two organizations pushing to get these laws and mindsets changed. And one of them is suing New York for failing to keep pace with making public records available online.

      I hope good things come your way, as you seem bery aware at how stupid these laws and procedures are.