BY JIM JONES, DHHS OFFICE OF COMMUNICATIONS
Vital Records, the agency that collects records that track the joys and sorrows of millions of North Carolina’s residents – past and present – celebrates 100 years of service this month. The state vital records law was enacted in 1913, recording its first official birth certificate for a baby girl born in Alamance County.
The agency, part of the State Center for Health Statistics in the Division of Public Health, operates from the Cooper Building, at the intersection of North McDowell and West Lane streets in downtown Raleigh.
Customer service is the focus of the operations carried out every work day in the building that was erected in the mid ‘50s and named for Dr. George M. Cooper, a pioneer in laying the groundwork for public health in North Carolina.
Each workday, employees stationed in this concrete and brick building process hundreds of incoming documents – birth, death, marriage, divorce and adoption records (under seal). Millions of vital records from 1914 forward are stored in the Cooper Building in fire proof vaults that keep them secure. Vital records staff process thousands of customer requests for certified copies of these records every year.
Requests for records are rooted in diverse needs such as kindergarten enrollment, a driver’s license, a passport, wedding license, insurance claim, or even to register a child for Little League baseball.
The records accumulated by the staff at Vital Records form the foundation of health statistics in North Carolina. Vital Records information is analyzed and disseminated by the Vital Statistics group in the State Center for Health Statistics to measure the overall health status of our state.
The analysis of vital statistics data helps North Carolina public health professionals identify areas with poor health outcomes in order to tailor public health interventions to the areas of greatest need. As a result of public health efforts, North Carolina has experienced significant reductions in infant and maternal death rates, as well as deaths related to some infections and chronic diseases since the state’s vital registration law went into effect in 1914.
Karen Knight (above), director of the State Center for Health Statistics, speaks of the value of good record keeping and its application for keeping North Carolina healthy. “Who uses vital statistics most? Public Health,” she says. “That’s why the law was created, to understand what people were dying from – infant mortality trends, other deaths – we can tell a lot about the public’s health,” she said. “Women’s and Children’s Health uses that data the most. We wouldn’t have a birth defects registry without it. We wouldn’t know the changes that are occurring in cancer and heart disease in our state.”
Listening to Knight describe the value of the statistics, her interest in the discipline shines through. “That’s where all the passion comes from,” she said. Back in the days before data were captured and recorded, “people were dying in counties and they didn’t know why. They didn’t know how to allocate resources. They didn’t’ have details on where to put the few doctors they had to treat infectious diseases.”
And there is the true value of health statistics: an awareness of a problem through monitoring, and the knowledge of where to focuses resources to resolve it. Communicable diseases were the primary problems back then,” she said. “The leading causes of death are different now than they used to be. We don’t have TB like they had back then, and you can see all this in the statistics. These data continue to be critical for understanding our population’s health. Everybody uses them: demographers, the public, researchers.”
She summed up the purpose of Vital Records and Vital Statistics: “Our primary purpose is to help those developing and evaluating public health programs.”
Acting State Registrar Vickie Pearce (above) has worked 35 years with Vital Records. She and Technology Support Analyst Rick Tucker (below) agree that the records are the backbone of the operation. If there were no records, there could be no statistics.
Spend a little time with them and the two provide a glimpse into the significance of all the record keeping accomplished by their agency and the importance of customer service in their work.
Pearce has many stories of the people who have visited the Cooper Building looking for help; and Tucker holds to a strong historical perspective of the agency and its storied leaders.
“We had a family come in one day and you could tell they were upset,” said Pearce. “The mother was fussing at her husband saying she thought he’d ‘taken care of it.’” The husband had not ‘take care of it’ and now the mother’s 16-year-old daughter needed a copy of her birth certificate in order to get a driver’s license. What’s the problem? Well the daughter might learn that the man she grew up believing was her father was not listed on her birth certificate. “I told her parents, “We can fix that with an amendment,” Pearce said. “It really does make you feel good with a family like that comes in all upset and leaves with a smile.”
Tucker cites another example: “it was an icy winter day and Vickie and I were the only ones who made it into work that day. We were surprised when a 93-year-old lady showed up at our door with her adult children. She needed a copy of her birth certificate. Her children were taking her abroad for her birthday and she needed the birth certificate to get a passport. We were able to help her on the spot, and they left happy.”
“One of the things about vital records, they cover all of the life events,” Tucker said. “They’re living documents. As our citizens’ lives change and evolve, those documents, too, evolve and change, through the amendment process. We provide these documents for our citizens as needed. Many people refer to them as the bookkeepers of humanity.”