Mother struggles to get death certificates for stillborns
by Celia Shortt
Stefanie Kennedy and her husband, John, experienced a parent’s worst fear when their twin daughters were born stillborn. Despite the grief they are experiencing, the couple hopes to keep their daughters’ legacy alive, using the experience to help and inform other parents.
In January, Stefanie was five months pregnant with twins. The two growing babies were estimated to arrive in May. Stefanie, John, their then 18-month-old daughter, Bristol, and extended family were eagerly anticipating the May arrival. Several accompanied Stefanie to a doctor’s appointment in early January, to hear the heartbeats. None of them expected what happened next.
“I went to my regular specialist appointment only to have me, my husband, my twin sister and my daughter be in the room while they sat there and looked at me and told me that my daughters no longer had a heartbeat,” she said.
The family was devastated. She and John went to the hospital the following day, where the doctor induced labor. Stefanie delivered her stillborn twin girls, Braelyn Cole and Brooklyn Lee, at 4:30 a.m. and 4:38 a.m.
They were just 22 weeks and 4 days along.
After delivery, she and John were able to hold them for about six hours before their bodies were taken to the funeral home.
“During my whole pregnancy, I never imagined anything happening to my daughters — never,” she said. “I worried about the stuff that I did not need to be worried about. I worried about getting big enough, I worried about not wanting a C-section, not wanting them in the NICU. I never worried about burying my girls.”
During the birthing process, Stefanie asked about death certificates. Stefanie wondered if she would receive them for her once thriving, now deceased, daughters.
She was told no.
She later asked her doctor, when visiting his office. Stefanie continued asking the hospital and various staff, but the answer was always the same — no.
“I kept getting told you do not get them,” she said. “And I was told you do not get a birth certificate for them.”
When May 10 came around, the original due date of her daughters, she started getting angry about not being able to get the documents.
“Why do I have a headstone to look at, but can’t get a birth certificate or a death certificate for my girls?” she often asked.
In the state of Georgia, for any pregnancy ending over 20 weeks, the parents are responsible for taking care of the body, either through cremation or burial.
Finally, Stefanie spoke with a woman working with the hospital who told her she, in fact, could get the death certificates. In May, Stefanie filled out the appropriate paperwork and sent it away, hoping to receive the certificates.
“It was on me [to fill it out],” she said. “I kept looking at the paperwork and couldn’t fill the paperwork out. So, it took awhile.”
Later, a concerned friend told Stefanie she shouldn’t have had to work so hard to get the certificates. According to her friend, the hospital was supposed to not only supply them after delivery, but it should have filled out all the necessary paperwork on Stefanie’s behalf.
Stefanie completed the paperwork on her own, though, and mailed them in September.
Instead of getting the certificates, she received another “no” from the state, as her daughters’ information had not been entered into the Georgia computer filing system.
Sometime during this process, Stefanie’s twin sister found out about the No Heartbeat Act. The act was signed into law in 2008 by then governor Sonny Purdue.
This law allows parents to receive a Certificate of Birth Resulting in Stillborn (CBRS). Its purpose is to give parents who have “endured stillbirth the recognition they want from their baby’s birth, apart from their death.”
A CBRS is not a legal document, but rather a gesture of closure for grieving families.
After Stefanie’s sister informed her of the No Heartbeat Act, Stefanie started calling state and local offices, continuing to be told no even with regard to a CBRS. She eventually called the governor’s office and a state senator’s office. The senator’s office contacted her and put her in touch with Kimberly Stringer at the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Stringer finally gave her a different answer — yes. Stefanie was entitled to a CBRS for her daughters Braelyn and Brooklyn.
“A lot of people just see it (birth certificate) as a piece of paper,” she said. “But as parents — to me, my husband, my daughter and my family — it’s a document showing my girls existed. We only have pictures. We have the memories of holding them in that room. I have a blanket that I sleep with that the girls laid on while in that room, and I have a headstone to visit.”
“That’s why it’s so important,” she added.
Stefanie has received a CBRS for both of the twins, and just last week, received their death certificates as well.
“It’s been quite a headache, and I do not want another parent that has gone through what I’ve gone through to sit there and take no for an answer when it’s actually a yes,” she said. “I just want to help as many other people as I can with it and know that they don’t have to take no for an answer on a death certificate or a birth certificate because you actually are entitled to those.”
One way she plans on helping other parents and families is through Rachel’s Gift. Stefanie learned of this non-profit organization while she was in the hospital. The foundation partners with local hospitals to help through the initial phase of infant loss. Rachel’s Gift provides keepsakes for parents in memory or their child(ren) along with assisting with arrangements and other support needed.
For Stefanie and John, Rachel’s Gift gave them the priceless tangible items they so craved, such as their daughters’ fingerprints, footprints and the blankets they laid on.
On the one-year anniversary of her daughters’ due date Stefanie is hoping to hold a 5k run in Newnan with proceeds going to Rachel’s Gift. She hopes the organization will be able to provide more boxes at more hospitals throughout Georgia. Stefanie also wants to have a scholarship to offer a high school student intending to study in the medical field.
“I hope that it is something that goes on for a while that is in memory of my girls and all the other babies that were born angels,” she said.
Stefanie wants to spare other parents the struggle she experienced while attempting to obtain the CBRS and death certificates.
“I plan on trying to contact one of our state representatives to try to make this mandatory that everything has to be filled out at the hospital,” she said.
Throughout this event, Stefanie says she remained strong through her faith in God and the love and support of her family and friends, and she intends to encourage those families who are going through an experience like hers.