Dorothy Battle was delivered by a midwife in a house in rural South Carolina 62 years ago.
“That was it,” she said. Her birth was never recorded, and for most of her life it hadn’t mattered.
She moved to Florida at age 6, and then to Washington D.C. at 13 and back again a year later. She moved to Connecticut, got married, moved to Michigan, got divorced and moved back to Florida, where she’s lived for the last 34 years.
After 9/11, she thought about requesting a birth certificate as she feared not being able to prove who she was, but every time she tried, the paperwork came back saying nothing could be found on her. Her brother, who was in a similar situation, hired a lawyer to obtain his birth certificate, but Battle didn’t have the financial means to do so.
After the Real ID and Gold Star legislation, federal laws to make state-issued IDs more secure,went into effect, she was unable to renew her driver’s license. A few years ago, she was unable to attend a family reunion cruise because she couldn't obtain a passport.
One day, when she was at the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, she saw a sign on the wall: Gulfcoast Legal Services, a legal aid service, ran a birth certificate clinic.
The program helped 184 people obtain their birth certificates last year, and the number continues to increase.
On recent Tuesday mornings, attorney Kathryn Hynes has had her schedule filled, taking in clients back-to-back.
The clinic started when the late Pam Wiener Dubrule, a lawyer who worked primarily with homeless people, noticed many of her clients lacked documentation for identification.
“A lot of times you’re homeless because you don’t have any identification and you can’t get your benefits and you can’t get housing and you can’t get transportation,” said Gulfcoast Legal Services executive director Tammy Greer. “You can’t get anything without your ID, and you can’t get your ID without a birth certificate and you can’t get your birth certificate without an ID. So you’re kind of stuck. Pam figured out as an attorney she was a conduit to getting that birth certificate.”
When Dubrule died last year following a battle with cancer, Hynes took over the program.
The clients’ circumstances vary: Some lost their identification. Some were born outside of hospitals and never had their births recorded. Some were victims of domestic violence who had their documents destroyed as a means of control. Some were released prisoners looking to restart their lives. Some came as asylum seekers, bringing nothing with them from their home countries.
Most of them, Hynes said, are low income and can’t afford to pay for the documents, so the program requires a referral through a partner program, such as DayStar or the Free Clinic, that covers it.
Hynes then begins the battle to prove they are who they say they are: establishing the dates of birth of their parents, children, innoculations, school records, interviews with relatives. If there are “no clouds,” Hynes said the process can be as quick as four to five weeks.
“I couldn’t obtain it on my own,” Battle said. “For somebody like me, they are a godsend. I wouldn’t be able to prove who I am... . Times have changed. You really need to have that birth certificate.”
Recently, Hynes said she got a call from a man wanting a birth certificate for his child.
“I said, ‘Well what is your child’s age?’,” she said. “He said, well, ‘The oldest one is 18, and then the next one is 17, and then the next one is 13, and then the next one is 11 and then the baby is 9. And I asked, ‘Well where were they born? And he said, ‘Well the first four were born in Congo and the last one was born in Uganda after we had to flee Congo.’”
The family had come to the U.S. through a refugee program but did not have their birth certificates with them. She told him to make sure he could furnish the documents that proved he was living here legally, and in the meantime, she would research how to ask for documents in Congo and Uganda.
The birth certificate program is for those who already have established legal residency, however those who don’t have documentation to establish their legal residency can be referred to the organization’s other services.
“A lot of times people have a lot of things going on in their lives and they know that there’s a problem, but they don’t often realize there’s a legal remedy an attorney could help them with,” Greer said. “People don’t often think of attorneys as social workers, but I promise you, our attorneys are more like social workers.”
Robert Fry, 78, was born in Indiana without a birth certificate and was staying at a motel in St. Petersburg when he was hospitalized. When he got out of the hospital, his room had been robbed, he said. His bus pass, his Walmart credit card and his ID had been stolen. To replace it, he needed a birth certificate.
Fry said in addition to providing the documents, the organization provided him with support.
“They provided assurance during a very trying time,” he said.
Battle said that support made all the difference.
“They never make you feel like you’re less than them,” she said. “Sometimes you go into an office and they make you feel so little you don’t want their help. I never heard a rude word out of their mouth.”
The arrival of her birth certificate though was the biggest relief.
“Even being born in the United States, there may come a time where you have to prove, I mean really prove, who you are,” she said. “I thought I was never going to get it. I’m no longer from out of space.”
Contact Divya Kumar at email@example.com. Follow @divyadivyadivya.