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Finding relatives in Potter's Field

February 4, 2009 6:13:52 PM PST
The Eyewitness News Investigators have an update on New York's Potter's Field.It is the largest taxpayer-funded cemetery in the world, yet public access is severely restricted. And those trying to identify whether a missing loved one is buried there still face a bureaucratic maze.

Jim Hoffer has more.

Nearly eight years ago, our investigation showed how families struggled to determine whether a missing child or parent was buried in Potter's Field.

Promises were made back then to ease the search, but a recent check revealed that it remains a confusing and painful process.

In a 2001 Eyewitness News Investigation, we went undercover with a mother as she tried to navigate the city bureaucracy to determine whether her missing teenage daughter had been buried on Hart Island, New York's Potter's Field.

In response to our investigation, then Mayor Rudy Giuliani called for better public access to city burial records.

"They should have access to the records," Giuliani said then.

Flash ahead nearly eight years and listen to Sheridan's struggle to find where his father was buried.

"I'm an adoptee," he said. "I spent 20 years looking for my father and, ultimately, it's taken me here."

To Potter's Field, where an estimated 800,000 poor or unidentified people have been buried. Among them, Sheriden's father.

Recently, Shawn and his brother, with help from the Department of Correction, which operates the city cemetery, got limited access to the usually closed island.

"It's as close as I can get to paying my respects," Sheridan said.

It was the end of a bureaucratic struggle that still leaves many unanswered questions.

"I had several conversations with the ME's office and vital statistics and the burial desk and municipal archives," he said. "And even to this day, in this case, there is no burial record of my father."

Every week, filmmaker Melinda Hunt gets several E-mails from someone seeking help in finding whether a loved one is buried on Hart Island.

In the process of making a documentary about Hart's Island, Hunt has become an expert in unraveling the red tape of the city burial records. She says not much has changed since our investigation nearly eight years ago.

"The public has a right to know where somebody is after they're dead," Hunt said. "Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to have obituaries in the newspapers and things like that. It's not confidential information where someone is buried."

She has filed a freedom of information request for all the burial records since 1985, nearly 50,000 names that she wants to make public through her Hart Island Web site. She's still waiting for the documents, but the Department of Correction hints that it might finally be ready to make its burial records more accessible.

"The department maintains records for burials on Hart Island for perhaps the last 30 years," corrections commissioner Steve Morello said. "And those are the records that we think we can make more accessible to the public, so that they can at least look for individuals that they're interested in."

It hasn't happened yet. And while it's too late for Shawn Sheridan, making the burial records more open could help many others still looking for their loved ones.

"This process should be a lot easier," Sheridan said.

"It's very powerful to find your relative's name on a list of burials," Hunt said. "It confirms for you where that person is."

As one family we spoke to put it, "This is the city's cemetery, we should be able to know who is there."

Now, if you have something you need investigated, please give our tip line a call at 877-TIP-NEWS or email us at The.Investigators@abc.com


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