What is a REAL ID?
Gerald Farrow Clinkscales never thought getting his new driver’s license would be stressful.
But then he started the process of getting a new REAL ID. He gathered up all the documents the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles said he needed, which included his birth certificate, and headed to his Greenwood County DMV office to stand in line for the few minutes the state agency boasts it should take to pick up the new identification card.
Clinkscales, who turns 66 in November, had no idea he was about to embark on a months-long process to get his ID, which would lead to him hiring an attorney and waiting for a judge.
That process — nearly a year in the making — started when the DMV employee told Clinkscales, “I can’t take this birth certificate because your name isn’t on it,” and handed him back his slightly worn, wallet-sized birth certificate that shows his birth number, the county registrar’s name, his parents’ names and the one printed as his own: “Unnamed Clinkscales.”
Clinkscales’ case is far from unusual in South Carolina, particularly for minorities and low-income South Carolinians, legal professionals familiar with these cases say.
It’s hard to nail down just how many people are struggling to get their name changed on their birth certificate and running into Clinkscales’ same predicament, but attorneys who work on these type of cases say they are frequent, as did one office for a Family Court judge The State reached out to.
Part of the problem is transparency, attorneys say. Some have no idea how to go about changing their birth certificate. Some get frustrated by the lengthy process, and because of that frustration, decide to keep their birth certificate as is.
Others find themselves without transportation to get help or don’t have means to cover costs and fees associated with the change.
For Clinkscales, his journey to a REAL ID has been frustrating, but, he said, he’s tried to keep a sense of humor.
“Right now, (it’s like) I’m not a real person,” Clinkscales told The State.
Facing a judge, despite not facing any criminal charges, he said, “makes you feel a little bit like a criminal, like you did this to yourself.”
‘Unnamed’ not a problem, until now
Clinkscales, whose due date hovered around Christmas, was born prematurely in Greenville County on Nov. 18, 1953, leaving his mother, Loreda, and his father, Louie, unsure of whether he would survive, he said.
“So, they just put ‘Unnamed’ on the birth certificate,” said Clinkscales, the middle of six children and the only one with this dilemma.
Still, absent a legally documented first name, Clinkscales didn’t struggle to get Social Security card, or a job or a driver’s license, and he went to college. He ran into one snag years later, when he was briefly delayed after he applied to become a Methodist minister, but eventually was approved.
His ultimate obstacle occurred last summer, when, after his driver’s license expired, he attempted to get a REAL ID, a new federally mandated form of state identification that South Carolinians will need to board a domestic flight, enter a military base or a federal building by October 2020.
A standard trip to the state’s health department didn’t quickly fix his problem either.
That’s because under S.C. law, after one year from live birth, parents must go before a judge to amend or add a first or middle name.
Clinkscales says he’s not a wealthy man and is unable to hire a private attorney who may charge a pricey retainer. He also has never represented himself in court. He’s retired, lives off Social Security, and ministers at a small Saluda church.
But last September, he did find help through S.C. Legal Services, a nonprofit that represents low-income clients who are facing civil matters. These type of court proceedings are straight forward and rarely contentious, said Clinkscales’ attorney, Lanier Sims.
But, “it’s a lot of hoops to jump through,” especially for clients who are poor and lack transportation,” said Leslie Fisk, managing attorney for Legal Services’ Greenwood County office. “The typical demographic is someone who is a minority and who is a senior.”
‘People are being punished’
The process of changing a birth certificate can be time-consuming, complicated and can be costly.
For starters, Fisk said clients must get their fingerprints made and pay for background, child custody and neglect and alimony checks, some of which can be waived through Legal Services and other nonprofits.
Other fees are charged, too, including a $150 court filing fee, unless a client can show they are unable to pay the charge.
“It’s also hard for people with low income to get rides and transportation and to have someone watch their kids,” said Fisk, who added it also can be traumatic for older adults to get their fingerprints taken.
Meanwhile, heavy caseloads for attorneys and Family Court that may meet once a month, particularly in the state’s more rural counties, can mean months of waiting. And, through the years, Fisk said, the state’s regulations on name changes have gotten tighter.
The law regarding name changes has been amended at least six times since 1978.
Without specifically addressing changes DHEC could make to improve a client’s experience changing records, a spokesman said the agency is always looking for ways to improve services and will continue to work with clients to provide as much assistance as possible.
The process becomes overwhelming for people and “leads to people just giving up through frustration,” Fisk said.
“There needs to be some sort of recognition that it’s not somebody’s fault that they may have inconsistent records from 50 years ago, when it wasn’t a problem. ... It’s like people are being punished for that, or for a midwife that didn’t know how to spell their name.”
‘Unique to all 50 states’
S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles’ chief Kevin Shwedo said his agency is working aggressively to help South Carolinians who can’t get their REAL ID.
Aside from personally attempting to connect people with resources to get one, Shwedo said Motor Vehicles also has taken part in phone banking with at least one television news station and plans to do the same with others across the state very soon.
Shwedo says the issue of an outdated birth certificate isn’t unique to South Carolina.
“Every state is dealing with the exact same issues,” Shwedo told The State Tuesday. “It’s unique to all 50 states.”
The state’s new driver’s license ID card puts South Carolina in line with the 2005 REAL ID Act, sold as a way to help prevent another Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. The cards are identifiable by a gold star on the right-hand corner and valid for no more than eight years.
They can be obtained at a DMV office or online at scdmvonline.com for $25.
As of Aug. 6, the state had issued nearly 875,000 REAL ID cards, averaging about 55,000 cards monthly, since the state rolled out the new REAL ID cards in February 2018, Shwedo said. In that same period, DMV has issued nearly 580,000 state-only identification cards.
However, Shwedo added, there are more than 3 million older cards remaining in the state.
“We have never not been able to get a person their card if they did the things we asked them,” Shwedo said. “Unfortunately, some of them require a court order.”
In Clinkscales’ case, attorney Sims said they’re hopeful they’ll get a hearing by the fall.
Frustrated by the time lapse, Clinkscales said he’s considered simply changing his name to “Unnamed.”
But, he acknowledged, “I would have to change my Social Security card, my bank records. It would make it even more complicated.”