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Woman receives birth certificate after 70 years

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, GA. -- When Betty Kelsey retired from RCA in Chicago, she fully expected to return to her native Georgia and enjoy the fruits of her labor in relative peace and comfort doing the retiree thing -- looking after her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and putting all the tedious things in her life aside.

But when she moved back, she hit a snag trying to do even the most remedial of modern-day tasks.

Opening a bank account was a no-go. Getting a driver's license was out of the question. Even accessing the benefits she had worked so long and so hard for was hitting roadblocks that she hadn't expected.

And all for one reason: She didn't have a Georgia birth certificate.

In 1939, Kelsey was a budding teenager living in Southwest Georgia. Born in Albany, she was, in many ways, the typical teenage girl.

But one day while her friends were busy being kids, Kelsey was sexually assaulted. Her innocence was stripped, the only remnants a tattered self-image, an unplanned pregnancy and a stigma of being a teenage mother.

"I didn't know what I was going to do," she said. "There I was; so young, and he wasn't even charged or anything. Back then, there was a real problem ... stigma for girls who were pregnant, and I just did what I had to do."

Rather than be forced to live in the same community with the man who attacked her, Kelsey did the only thing she could think to do.

She left.

She left her home, her friends, most of her family and headed as far north as she could go.

"I don't really know why I went to Chicago," she said. "I just knew it was a big city and that I could probably find work there."

She even chose to leave her very identity behind. For the next 70 years, Betty Kelsey would be nothing more than a name uttered by a handful of family and friends.

Kelsey assumed the identity of Rebecca Thrower and went to work at RCA-Victor. Back then, she says, the labor laws were much different than they are now and so was the level of difficulty in getting a Social Security card.

Ironically, it was nothing for the newly named Thrower to get a Social Security card and, according to Kelsey, that was really all it took to get a job back in those days.

"My boss at RCA hired me with just that Social Security card," she said. "That really was about it."

For the next six decades, Thrower worked and did everything a normal person with a normal homelife did. She raised her children and lived her life.

When she retired, she decided to move back to Georgia and spend her remaining years among the pines she had left so many years before.

But as the security concerns around the world became more tense, and policies and rules changed here at home, Rebecca Thrower found herself unable to get even the most basic of services, like a bank account, without a drivers' license.

"I used to get by by showing my senior ID or my Social Security card, but things are changing so fast that one day they asked for my Georgia driver's license ... and I didn't have one," Kelsey said.

And when she went to get her license, Georgia Department of Drivers' Services officials wanted many various forms of identification, including a valid birth certificate, which was something neither Rebecca Thrower, the fictitious former Illinois resident, nor Betty Kelsey, the Albany native born in rural Georgia when birth records often were kept only in family Bibles, had.

"I just didn't know what to do. To get one ID I had to have another, and I just didn't have anything," Kelsey said. "I was lost."

Enter Muarlean Edwards and Sue Pearson.

Edwards, a former social worker and current Dougherty County commissioner who works with seniors like Kelsey to make sure they can navigate the legal system to get the papers they need, and Pearson, a worker in the Dougherty County Probate Court who assists those seeking vital records, took up Kelsey's cause.

"It's a pretty hopeless feeling when you get like that," Edwards said. "And trying to get through the court system and deal with the state ... it just ain't easy if you don't know what you're doing."

Together, the two worked to try and track down anything that would help make a better case to the state as to why Betty Kelsey deserved a birth certificate.

"We looked at everything. We talked to her and tried to find medical records from when she was a child. We tried to find anything we could with her original name on it, and it just wasn't there," Pearson said.

For two years the pair worked with state and county officials at offices around Georgia, trying to find some kind of supporting documentation so that Kelsey could reclaim her identity.

Finally, after Pearson said just about every stone had been turned, Probate Court officials decided that there just wasn't anything that could be found to bolster Kelsey's case.

"It's tough. When you're dealing with records from 60, 70, and 80 years ago ... records get lost, they get damaged. Some were never really even kept, so it's frustrating for us and for them," Pearson said.

When nothing could be found, Edwards and Kelsey petitioned Dougherty County Superior Court to look at Kelsey's situation and intervene on her behalf with the state so that she could get a birth certificate.

"It's a hard call to make because I, as a judge, have to weigh a lot of different variables," Superior Court Judge Denise Marshall said. "Is this person legitimately seeking something that they are, in fact, entitled to, or are they trying to do something more nefarious like perpetrate some kind of fraud? Those are considerations I have to make."

In looking at Kelsey's case, Marshall made the determination that there was a strong likelihood that this 83-year-old great-grandmother was indeed trying to reclaim her valid identity, and signed off on her petition so that the state could consider granting her a birth certificate.

While the order may be signed by a judge, the state still has the final say-so when considering a request such as Kelsey's, Pearson said.

"There are no guarantees that they'll approve it," she said.

More than 60 agonizing days later, Betty Kelsey received her birth certificate. A few days later, a shiny-new Georgia driver's license came in the mail to an eager Kelsey.

"It was like a miracle. To have it, after all this time, I just feel like a normal person after all this time," Kelsey said."

It's something most people will never have to experience, Marshall said, but for those who do, it's a scary, daunting process.

"It's something most of us just take for granted," the judge said. "But one document, one little piece of paper, can have a huge impact on someone's life."

A relieved Kelsey said this week she was thankful to Edwards and those in the court system for taking the time to work with her to get her situation straightened out.

"They really didn't have to do this for me. They're just miracle workers," she said.