A search for her own birth

Jeanette Runnels looked over a photocopied list. Her finger stopped at a circled name written in slanted longhand on the tattered page.

"There I am," she said.

Blocky letters announce the document’s purpose: "Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930, Department of Commerce."

Runnels, 78, sat at home in Everett on Friday, her table a sea of paperwork.

"I actually remember that day," she said. "I remember the census lady came. She said something like, ‘Oh my gosh, all these children.’ My father had us all lined up."

That must have been some line. Runnels, born Jeanette Jenkins, was 13th in a family of 16 children. She was born Sept. 29, 1925, at home in North Dakota, near the Minnesota border. No doctor was there.

Runnels had called me to share a problem she said "a lot of older people might have." She can’t find her birth certificate. She isn’t certain she ever had one.

In a time when the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection say that to get into this country people need a valid U.S. passport or certified copy of a birth certificate or baptismal record, plus current photo ID, not having proper proof you were born is a problem indeed.

Runnels didn’t call for help.

She’s spent the past year doing her own sleuthing. Her dogged paper chase has resulted in a fix, albeit temporary.

She called to urge anyone missing a birth certificate to at least start hunting. Coming up with documents can take months, or more.

"Years ago, I started but couldn’t find anything. So I let it go," said Runnels, who renewed her efforts last year when she wanted to go to Canada.

Her temporary fix is a passport, obtained through the U.S. Postal Service in Everett, that’s good for only a year. Runnels obtained it with Social Security records, a copy of her 1925 baptismal certificate from a church in Oslo, Minn., and notarized letters from two sisters saying they were present at her birth.

"There’s always a way. A lot of people were born at home and there’s no record," said Katherine Soriano, a clerk at the Everett post office who helps with passports. "One time we had relatives fly in to be present when an application was filled out."

Although Runnels has an ordinary looking passport, for which she paid the standard rate of $85 and $60 more for quicker service, it expires in a year, not a decade.

In January, the U.S. State Department sent Runnels a letter: "Your passport has been limited in validity because the evidence submitted with your application is not sufficient to establish your United States citizenship/nationality."

Her hunt for a birth certificate has hit a dead end. In April, the North Dakota Department of Health sent her a "no record on file" statement.

"We see a lot of people born in the early years on farms looking for birth certificates," said Jill Nordland, of the North Dakota Division of Vital Records. "It would have been up to parents to file it, and many never did."

At the Snohomish Health District, Judy Hutchins said Washington law didn’t require that births or deaths be recorded until 1907.

Those born anywhere in the state after 1937 can get copies of birth certificates — $17 each — at the health district in Everett, said Hutchins, chief deputy registrar in vital statistics. For records before 1937, contact the county of birth or death.

If there’s no birth certificate by the time a child is 4, three documents are needed to get one. Records of baptism, schools or marriage are acceptable, Hutchins said.

When she was 4, Runnels’ family moved to northwest Minnesota. She has an eighth-grade graduation certificate from the Oslo Public School.

Some time ago, she sent other school records, Social Security papers and her sisters’ letters to Minnesota in hopes her birth certificate was somehow filed there.

No luck. A woman at the Minnesota Office of Health Statistics on Friday found no record of Jeanette Jenkins. And Runnels never received her records back from Minnesota.

Still, she wants a real passport. She’s begun yet another paper chase.

"To get my passport extended, I need new letters from my sisters," she said. According to the State Department, she also needs a letter from Minnesota stating there’s no record of her birth, and an original baptismal certificate, not a copy. She also has Minnesota relatives trying to replace her lost school records.

I suppose it’s a comfort that the government is so vigilant. But to meet this lovely woman, who was shocking grain on her folks’ Minnesota farm at age 9, some of it seems a little silly.

"I know I exist," she said. "I’ve got the census. I was alive when I was 4."

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlsteinjulie@heraldnet.com.

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