Ruth Frank of Bethesda, while planning to travel to Israel within two weeks, rushed into the District of Columbia vital records office one day expecting to emerge a few minutes later with a copy of her 6-year-old son Steven's birth certificate which she needed to obtain his passport.
Instead, Frank found herself wandering through the long, dingy corridors of the D.C. Municipal Building with a dozen other applicants, banging on locked doors and standing in lines. In the end she had to admit she had been stymied by a system she said was hopelessly clogged with red tape.
"Just how long will it take before I get a copy of the birth certificate?" Frank asked Alma Givens, a supervisor from the vital records office who was fielding questions from several disgruntled and anxious applicants.
"We do not give time estimates," said Givens. "All that we can promise is that your application will be processed as soon as possible."
"I can't believe this," Frank said later. "Such a simple process can't take that long. There must be a better way."
"People rush in here at the last minute to get birth certificates for their kids to start to school or to apply for a passport," said Givens later. "Everybody wants their certificates the same day. And we're not set up for that kind of service."
Until about six months ago, a person applying for birth or death certificates would come to the Municipal Building at 300 Indiana Ave. NW and simply stand in line until his or her turn came to pay a fee over the counter. In return, the individual would receive a copy of the desired document.
Under that system, lines were often long and waiting time could run up to four or five hours. But the birth or death certificate would usually be issued the same day of the request.
The system instituted in October was designed to do away with the long lines and the attendant lengthy waiting time. Under that new procedure, applicants fill out a short form and submit it to a member of the staff with the $1 fee. The copies document is then mailed to the applicant.
According to Givens, requests for birth and death certificates come in the mail at the rate of about 200 to 300 a day. She said an additional 200 to 300 persons show up in person to request documents.
"We only have six people here to fill all of those requests," Givens said. "We try to get all of the applications processed in from 7 to 10 days after we receive them. But sometimes it takes a little longer."
In the state of Maryland, a birth or death certificate can be obtained through the mail from the state's vital statistics office in Baltimore in about two weeks. A person applying for the documents in person at the Baltimore office can usually obtain them in 30 minutes or less, according to an official.
Virginia death and birth certificates can be obtained in about seven days if requested by mail from the Virginia health records office in Richmond A "walk-in" applicant there can obtain the desired documents in about 20 minutes, according to a Virginia health records official.
Martha Sweetney sat in one of a dozen chairs in the corridor outside the D.C. vital records office waiting to talk with a clerk inside.
"I filled out an application to get six copies of my husband's death certificate last December," said Sweetney. "I gave them the $6, but I still haven't received anything."
Sweetney, who lives on 7th Street NW, said she had made four trips to the vital records office in an effort to learn whether she will ever receive the death certificate copies or, in their place, a $6 refund.
"Every time I come down, they tell me 'It's in the mail. It's in the mail,' but I haven't seen anything in the mail," Sweetney said.
After her complaint Sweetney again was told that her certificates had been mailed, but apparently were lost before she received them. Staff members immediately pulled the death certificate from their files and made new copies which she took with her.
Larry Ojo, an employe of the Nigerian Embassy, arrived at the vital records office shortly after 1 p.m. Behind the locked doors he could hear the faint clicking of typewriters. Tacked to the door outside was a sign: "Public Hours, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m."
"I took time off from work to come and get a birth certificate for my son to apply for a passport," said Ojo. "I don't understand that they are closed. All of the other offices in the building are open."
Ojo was among numerous citizens who arrived at the office in the early afternoon and expressed disappointment or anger when they learned the office was closed.
"I walked all the way here from work during my lunch hour," said Doris Edwards, who said she needed her birth certificate to obtain a driver's permit. "I can't believe they're closed so early."
Givens said the early closing hours are necessary to give the staff more time to process applications and mail birth and death certificates without interruptions.
William W. Chalmers III, a funeral director, said he processes between 12 and 14 death certificates and burial permits a day for Chambers Funeral Home. But Chambers said the vital records office has made special arrangements for funeral directors so that they can obtain the documents they need in from 30 to 45 minutes.
"I've seen a lot of problems here since they changed to the new system," Chambers said. "For one thing there are no signs to tell people exactly what to do. People have to wander around the halls and knock on doors to get information.
"Some families who want to get a death certificate in one day come to us. We charge them a $2 service fee to pick up their death certificate on our next trip down here for the funeral home," Chambers said.
By September, Givens said the city's birth and death records will be computerized. But even with the planned automation, she said the city cannot guarantee that service will be significantly improved - at least for several months.
Before the current system went into operation, vital records was a walk-in office with a counter. Now the secretaries, clerks and supervisors who run the office work behind locked doors marked: "Entrance to Authorized Personnel Only."
"We've found that people tend to become quite violent when they cannot get what they want right away," said Givens. She said that verbal abuse from disgruntled applicants is frequent and that there have been occasional incidents of physical violence.
"We have found it necessary to lock the doors so that we will have some kind of security," she said.