County leaves grieving Presidio families in limbo in death certificate delay

PRESIDIO COUNTY – Elmer Valentín Castro Baeza, a schoolteacher, grandfather, and Presidio resident, passed away on January 30, 2019 in Presidio. Castro’s family hoped to bury him in Ojinaga, Mexico, but for the next 16 days, Castro’s remains waited at the Alpine Memorial Funeral Home, held up by a Presidio County decision not to embrace an online method of securing a death certificate.

The Mexican Consulate requires a certified death certificate in order to cross a body to Mexico for burial, so families begin by seeking this certificate. In Presidio County, no one was able to produce a certified death certificate for Castro, leaving the family to wait 16 days in hopes that the overloaded state system would process the record.

According to Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) Press Officer Lara Anton, the electronic method, through the Texas Electronic Vital Events Registrar (TxEVER) system, “is usually the faster way to get a death certificate because it eliminates DSHS’s 15 business day processing time.” In Presidio County, families are forced to wait for the state to process the death, and deliver the certificate by mail, simply because county officials aren’t utilizing the online system. A one- to two-day process turns into 15 days of agonizing wait for grieving families. Along with the grief that comes with a death, families in Presidio County are being forced to delay funeral services, and incur unnecessary financial burdens. To keep a body while waiting for the certified death certificate to arrive, one area funeral home charges $100 a day, which they said is an average price for that type of service.

At 15 days, that can incur a cost of roughly $1,500 for a family, without factoring in the other costs associated with funerals, and embalming, which the Mexican government requires before a body can be brought into Mexico. Elmer Castro’s family waited 16 days, and still hadn’t received the death certificate.

Frustrated by Presidio County and state officials, the Mexican Consulate petitioned the Mexican government on the family’s behalf to make a special exception. The consulate in Presidio created their own death certificate, with the help of Presidio County’s Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace Juanita Bishop, in lieu of a Texas certificate, so that Castro’s body could be crossed to Mexico and finally laid to rest. The family of Elmer Castro is not alone in having to fight to transport a family member to their final resting place. The same week Castro died, Pedro Almance passed away in Presidio. His family also waited more than two weeks to hold their loved one’s Ojinaga funeral, only getting reprieve when the Mexican consulate issued another exceptional Mexican death certificate at the same time as Castro’s.

But, asked if the consulate was willing to continue making those exceptions, they refused, saying, “No, we should not be doing that.” Francisco Jacobi, a consular official in Presidio said that in the future, “We need to get, in this case, a Texas death certificate, and just certify that one. That should suffice to meet the requirement. They were taking too long and the family was very upset. They were livid with us. We just need to get those three documents required so we can issue the visa for the remains.”

The Presidio consulate covers 14 Texas counties, the Consul said, but “This is the first time this issue has happened. We are working quite often with funeral homes in Midland/Odessa and other areas that have no problem obtaining a death certificate, so the problem was the county.”

When someone passes away in Texas, the process begins with a funeral director completing the death record online through the TxEVER system. Then the DSHS in Austin electronically registers the death. Finally, the death record is sent to the county’s “local registrar,” who accepts the document online in TxEVER, and prints the certified death certificate needed to transport the remains abroad. The online process can take one to two days. However, in Presidio County, that process breaks down in the third and final step.

According to a DSHS official, across Texas, county clerks typically act as the local registrar who confirms the certificate online, and prints it in their office. But DSHS official Anton said, “The Presidio County clerk is not on the list of local registrars in Presidio County.” Said Presidio County/District Clerk Virginia Pallarez, “I still haven’t decided whether I want to be a local registrar.” Legally, she’s not required to be.

When asked about Castro and Almance’s deaths, Pallarez said she believes the death certificate delays for Castro and Almance were caused by Texas’ recent January 1 transition from an older online system, Texas Electronic Registrar (TER), to the new TxEVER. The system has seen bugs and delays as counties have switched over to the new system this year, but the county has not properly used TxEVER, instead relying on the state’s paper alternative.

The new system requires that all parties involved be on the online system—the medical examiner, county officials, the funeral director, and anyone who deals with death certificates. Some involved in the process said that had the county clerk been in the online system, death certificates could have been produced for Castro and Almance.

Pallarez referred all further questions to Justice of the Peace David Beebe.

Beebe, along with JP Bishop, has had to register to process certificates for county residents, and the Marfa City Secretary is registered to process deaths that occur in Marfa city limits. But ultimately, no certificates were available to the Almance and Castro families because the online system wasn’t fully utilized by Presidio County. Beebe serves as the medical coroner in Presidio County, and is also the registrar, because, he says, Pallarez refuses to do it. He explained that because he only does five or six death certificates per year, he doesn’t have the means to invest in the special ink and printer required to generate a physical, certified death certificate.

Though Beebe suggested that the county had been “cut off” from receiving the proper paper to print certificates on because of their failure to be online, Chris Van Deusen of DSHS clarified, “There is special security paper that’s needed to issue certified copies of birth and death certificates. As local registrars, the JPs can order that paper directly from the vendor, Banknote Corporation of America, so that they can print records. We haven’t taken any action to restrict their access to it.”

In the meantime, families in Presidio County who wish to bury someone outside of the United States have to bear the financial burdens and endure the long waits.

Presidio Mayor John Ferguson was in contact with these families as they struggled through the process, and said, “It’s sad that anyone would be required to wait this long to bury a loved one, especially if the process could be sped up using available technology.”

Anton of the DSHS says that Texas’ state registrar has contacted all of the local registrars in Presidio County and “is in the preliminary stages of an investigation into vital events records issuance by these local registrars.”

Perhaps a remedy will be found to alleviate some of the stress faced by already grieving families.