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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Garrett’s Passport

On July 6th, sometime after one o’clock in the afternoon, a plane left JFK Airport bound for Germany.  A young man of sixteen years, named Garrett, was not on-board,  although he was supposed to be.  His classmates were on a journey that would last about a month, going to Germany on an established exchange program, each of them assigned to stay with a well-chosen German family and to absorb all the culture and sights they could.  No one could possibly know the effects of such a trip on young minds and hearts.  But for Garrett, it was something for which he had prepared, and the effects might well have been life-altering or at least life-enhancing, for him. 
His mother, Betsy, tells us a bit about Garrett’s background and some decisions she and her husband made as parents.  You need to hear what she has to say:
“Throughout the past 16 years, I have had to make hard, uncertain decisions that ultimately ended up being steps into my son’s future.  One of the most important decisions that Garrett’s father and I ever made was that one of us would always be home with him; that he would not be raised in day care, but rather by us, with our values and our sense of humanity.  That decision was not only the easiest but also the hardest one I have ever had to make.  I knew it would not be easy with both of us being ‘blue collar’ but vowed to make it work the best we could.  When Garrett’s father suddenly passed away in 2006, I had to revisit that decision.  Many thoughts raced through my head, including how I would pay the bills, buy his clothes for school, do any special events and even how to buy Christmas presents. 
The answer came when I looked at my son.  At 7 years-old, he was the most loving, compassionate, honest, well-natured and forgiving person I knew.  He was smart, curious, passionate about learning in school and in life, and in his short life had taught me more about being human than any other force ever has.  I suddenly realized that I had a hand in that!  I made the choices that brought him here, to be this person, to be made up of who I wish to be.  So, I continued to stay home with him, giving up many things along the way, including many of the things others consider ‘staples’ in the life of parenthood.
Believe me when I say, it hasn’t been easy.  On an average monthly budget of $550, I have never been able to own my home, have a closet full of clothes, pay all my bills every month without help from outside sources, own a cell phone, have cable or be able to afford a vehicle.  So obviously I never found it necessary to spend the money on a driver’s license when it was much needed elsewhere.  A couple of years ago, when my sister was diagnosed with MS, I decided to spend the money for a driver’s permit so I could help her when needed.  (How could she know that driver’s permit would be a source of difficulty when it came time to obtain a passport for Garrett’s trip to Germany?).
This trip to Germany had been on Garrett’s radar for over a year.  He and his mother had begun thinking about it in April of 2014. They knew that one of the prerequisites for going was being a host family themselves when it came time for the German students to come to the United States as part of this exchange program.  The Program itself has been in existence for 30 years, and was funded by the German government in order to build relationships between U.S. and German students and families.  However, Betsy knew that her circumstances – poor, no vehicle for travel, living in a small town with one convenience store and no other teens in the area -- were not conducive for offering the best sort of experience to a German exchange student.  She explained her misgivings about being a sponsoring family to two of his teachers, and got the following response:
“In my opinion, Garrett is on top of the ’to go’ list.  He is exactly the type of student I want to take and who would benefit the most.  I will absolutely try my best to take Garrett.  He is one of the nicest and most dedicated students I have had this year.  This would be such a great opportunity for him.  Mrs. Smith (his other teacher) and I agree on this.”
Those same two German language teachers helped Garrett enroll in the German American Partnership Program (GAAP).  But there was still a major obstacle to be overcome.  For the past year, Betsy and her mother had been saving what they could and even collecting cans and bottles in an attempt to raise a goodly portion of what was needed to fund the trip.  The cost would amount to over $3,000, and with just a few months time in which to raise that kind of money. Betsy realized she just could not do it.  Again she wrote to his teachers, and again got an unexpected, but much appreciated response:
“I hope that Garrett has told you by now that he has the option to go to Germany on the exchange trip this summer.  I’m very excited that I have enough funds to provide Garrett with a full scholarship.”
Incredibly excited and proud, Betsy and Garrett went to the Tompkins County Courthouse in Ithaca, NY and applied for his passport, because as a minor, a parent had to be the applicant on his behalf.  The clerk they encountered was helpful in working with them to prepare the necessary documents and forms.  Feeling everything was in order, the clerk suggested that Betsy pay an extra fee of $60 to have the passport “expedited” which would supposedly put it on a fast track and at the end of the process would include overnight delivery to their home.  The clerk also suggested that they should indicate a date of July 1st for delivery since any later would run into the July 4th holiday.  And so, thinking everything that was necessary had been done and submitted as required, Betsy and Garrett spent the next week and more talking and planning, looking forward to the incredible life-changing experience that would shortly come his way.  Or, so they thought.

One day shy of three weeks later, an email arrived from the National Passport Center in Sterling Virginia indicating that the only form of official photo identification Betsy had – that driver learner’s permit from the State of New York-- was deemed “insufficient for passport purposes.”  She would have to submit another form of ID from a list of options given her in that email.  Only one of the options was viable:  a non-driver’s ID from NY State, but, as she soon learned, she would have to give up her learner’s permit in order to obtain it.  Betsy did not hesitate, she went to the DMV with Garrett’s Big Brother Bob and they turned in the learner’s permit and applied for the non-driver’s ID with photo.
To tell the rest of the story, we need to switch to a timeline that traces the next 18 days that were filled with false information, confusion, frustration and a web of words, rules and government red tape that left this family feeling cold, angry, lost and hopeless.  They were at the mercy of a bureaucracy that gave them the impression they were unworthy, insignificant and basically unheard and unimportant.   We go back to May 27th and proceed from there:

MAY 27 2015         Betsy received e-mail from German teacher stating that Garrett was given a full scholarship to enable him to join his sophomore class on a trip to Germany

MAY 29 2015
    Garrett and his mother went to the Tompkins County courthouse to apply for his passport. His application was looked over by the clerk, documents were taken and copied and they were told with it being expedited it would arrive in 3 weeks.
    Two checks were written. One for $140, which included an expediting fee of $60. The other for $33 to the county clerk’s office.

JUNE 18 2015
    Betsy received an e-mail from National Passport Center in Sterling VA stating, “The learner’s permit of the consenting parent is not sufficient identification for passport purposes.” Garrett’s mother called the number listed (1-877 number) in the e-mail and spoke with ‘Rich’ (whereabouts unknown). Explained that other than her learner’s permit the only other forms of identification she owned were her birth certificate, social security card and NYS benefit card (which included her photo). Rich responded that he would have to send an e-mail to a supervisor (location unknown) stating the issue and informing that person of the other forms of I.D. that could be submitted. Betsy was told that she would receive an e-mail or phone call from someone either Monday or Tuesday if anything further would be required and that if she did not hear from anyone by Tuesday to feel free to call back.

June 22 2015
    Betsy called back to see if there was any update on Garrett’s passport. Spoke with “Virginia” (location unknown) who told her to “sit back and wait for a call.” When asked if she could tell which supervisor would be handling the email that Rich had sent on the 18th she replied:, “there are so many supervisors” and “there is no way to tell which supervisor would be handling it” and “anyway there is no contact information for the supervisors.” Betsy then asked if she could be transferred to someone who might know who received the email as she was desperate to get the situation resolved. ‘Virginia’ said she would transfer her call to “a supervisor.” After a long wait, from 10:48 a.m. to 11:45 a.m., the transfer call was finally answered…by another customer service representative. A woman named Robyn informed Betsy that she could “see that Richard had put in an urgent request to call” back.  Unfortunately, Robyn said there was no way for the mother to call the passport center in New Hampshire herself; that the people in New Hampshire would have to call her.

JUNE 22 2015
    After realizing that there was just one alternative left which was to apply for a Non-Driver’s Permit with photo, Betsy called the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles office asking  how long it would take a state Non-Driver ID card to be received, and was told 3 weeks. When Betsy explained why it was needed much faster, she was again told 3 weeks. Feeling she had no other choice on that matter, she thanked the clerk and hung up.

JUNE 24 2015
    Garrett’s Big Brother for the last 9 years (from the Big Brother-Big Sister program) who does much business with the DMV, found out that Betsy could apply and have expedited a state NDID card with the consequence of having to cancel her learner’s  permit.  She and Big Brother went  immediately to the local DMV office, cancelled the learner’s permit, applied for the NDID and paid another fee of $10.  They were given a 1-800 number to call to have it expedited and called minutes after leaving the DMV after paying the estimated $20 fee for that. When she returned home, Betsy called the National Passport Center (location unknown) informing them that she had applied for a state-issued NDID.  She was told when it came through to fax it to:
FAX #     (603) 422 0009 (area code indicates this was a number in New Hampshire)
ATTN: E F  DESK
REF #   268788414        

JUNE 26 2015
  Betsy’s new NDID card arrived by UPS. Having been  told there were no email addresses for the National Passport Center, she immediately scanned the front and back of the new I.D. card, and emailed it to Big Brother Bob who wasted no time in faxing  the copies and a cover letter to the National Passport Center. Just a little over an hour later, Betsy called the passport center again and was informed that the fax had been received and was being processed. If anything more was needed they would call her.

JULY 3 2015
    Betsy received a phone call from “Georgiana” at the National Passport Center (unknown location). Georgiana had called to ask if Betsy still planned to send in a copy of her NDID, so that Garrett’s passport could be processed. Betsy’s heart sank and she started to cry, then asked: “what do you mean? I was told last Friday that my I.D. had been received and was being processed.”  Betsy then explained that she had called the 1-800 number and was told that unless she heard from them, the application would be processed and Garrett’s passport would be sent out in time for him to make his trip. The mother was even told that when someone pays to have their passport expedited, the passport center does their best to get it to them in time.
Georgiana explained that the mother “was outright lied to.”  In fact when she called that 1-800 number, the clerks there only receive calls and have no access to any faxes or paperwork. Further, that call center “would have no way of knowing” if any information was ever received. Georgiana also made sure to tell Betsy several times that normally she would not have even received a follow-up call because the passport center was actually closed that day but that she herself and a few others had offered to come in only to return phone calls. She then asked if Betsy would like to speak to a supervisor regarding Garrett’s application. Although they both knew it would not help him to get his passport in time for his trip, Betsy agreed to have someone call her back.

JULY 3 2015
    Received a call from “Kristin,” a supervisor at the National Passport Center (location unknown, presumably Portsmouth NH).   She stated the same things that Georgiana had indicated: that Garrett would not be able to receive his passport in time for his flight on July 6th. That they did not receive any fax of a Non-driver ID. That the call center she had been calling was in Michigan where they had no way of knowing if a fax had even come in because such  information goes to New Hampshire. Betsy was also informed that the address in Virginia is only a mail hub.
When Betsy asked why the NYS Driver’s Learner Permit was not sufficient proof of identification, Kristin kept repeating, “Because we don’t accept it.” That was the only answer she would give, none as to WHY it was not acceptable. As to WHY no one could have called Betsy before the last day to receive mail, she again gave the same answer Georgiana had given:  that usually no one is even there today; they were just making a courtesy call and even though it was too late for Garrett to go on his trip “might as well go ahead and send in the copy of the non-driver I.D.”  After all “you did pay for his passport you might as well have it,” which made it seem like some sort of consolation prize.
She then gave out a direct number for the supervisors’ office (again a New Hampshire area code) in case Betsy had any further questions (603) 422-0304 and an email address (NPCEF@state.gov) so the NDID copy could be sent directly to them for processing on Monday July 6th when the office (New Hampshire presumably) would reopen.
Keep in mind that all the time previously, the mother had continuously been told that there was NO direct way to contact the supervisors. That the only way to get in touch with them was to call the call center and have one of the agents email them and then wait for them to either call her back or email her.

July 7 2015
    Garrett received his passport this morning.  But it was too late.  The plane for Germany left the day before!
It took 5 everyday people, two staff in Senator Gillibrand’s office, one fax, numerous phone calls and emails, $203, 5 weeks and 4 days for Garrett to receive his “expedited” passport.

It is perhaps fair to say that this is not a tragedy of major proportions.  Perhaps Garrett will get another chance at a trip to Germany.  And, after all, the State Department does indicate that it might take 5-6 weeks from application to actual receipt of a passport.  And, maybe, if more pressure had been applied at the right moments and on the right people, the passport might have been delivered on-time.  All well and good for you to say.   I cannot let it go as easily because my own brother is Garrett’s Big Brother, and I know the investment it takes to raise or to mentor a child to be all that he or she can be; to walk in the right paths and ultimately contribute something meaningful to life and to humanity.  That is difficult enough with the teamwork of two parents; it is at least doubled in difficulty when a single Mom has to do so on her own with some use of outside resources.

But maybe -- just maybe-- there are some important points worthy of further consideration.   It is my contention that we should not easily dismiss this case because we cannot know what might have been produced by this one experience.  We cannot know what might have been contributed to others because of the vision opened by this trip.  We cannot know what potential may have been thwarted by not expediting this passport on time.  So, please: read the rest of the story!

Garett's Passport, Part 2

Garrett’s mother, Betsy, raises some interesting issues of disadvantage, potential and good faith in her telling of this story.  Listen to her words once again:
“Government and its agencies can change lives, protect, guide and create opportunities that otherwise could not be possible.  Government can be a place of wonder, achievement, strength and unity.”
“The thing is that maybe most do not realize that those of us in my position do not have much time to care about government because generally most of us are in a place economically or socially where political affairs or the affairs of government agencies do not take much precedence in our lives.  Straight out: we’re poor; our voices are not heard and our lives are just not important enough because we do not hold the money, status or clout to really make a difference.”
“When situations like this happen, we are helpless for lack of knowing the ‘right people,’ hiring a lawyer, or being able to raise monies needed to make things happen as swiftly as we need them to.  Instead, we are left to rely on good faith, on people doing their jobs and on basic human decency.  All of which usually fail for us.  When it comes to asking for help from places like the National Passport Center, our lives are just not important.”
Perhaps some very poignant words in a letter from Garrett's German teacher are also worth careful consideration at this point, especially by those willing to easily dismiss this incident.
“I am Garrett’s German teacher and one of the two teachers who helped Garrett enroll in the German American Partnership Program (GAAP) exchange program. 
When my German teacher colleague talked about a candidate who might earn a scholarship to go on the almost 4 week trip Garrett’s name was the first and only student discussed.  He is a stellar example of a student who deserves this award. You will never find a more likeable, kind, considerate, polite, helpful student. 
Garrett stands out!  He does not complain or blame others.  He accepts responsibility and does so with a thankful demeanor.  So, if you put his success in German together with a personality that is so rare these day, he should have been on the trip to Germany which is now in its second week.
I have known Garrett for 4 years and have taught him German for 3 of the four years.  He had his doubts about German when I had him in 7th and 8th grade.   There were times when I had to nudge him a bit to study and come in for extra help.  He succeeded and passed the 8th grade proficiency exam.   
I now have Garrett in my honors Level 3 German class.  Let me repeat:  HONORS LEVEL 3!   This is a huge leap!  The honors level students go on to AP German and earn college credit.  Garrett was a wonderful student and as committed to success as they come. He is a serious student and an ambassador for our country (emphasis is mine). 
To hear the news that his expedited passport was somehow mishandled was an outrage to me.  How could this happen?  Everything had been done right at our end here.  There should be no excuse!  For liability reasons, Garrett could not fly on a later flight.   
I hope you can do some good in making sure that those in the passport office realize that they are dealing with young folks too.  Their hopes and dreams are dependent on all doing an excellent job.  Mistakes cause incredible disappointment, not only for the student but for all who care as well.   
Since my usual inclination is to leave my readers with some suggestions for possible actions or some thoughts for solutions to problems, here are a few such considerations that grow out of this incident  (all of which were sent in a letter to the White House which issued an inadequate perfunctory reply).
  • Investigate National Passport Center offices involved to determine what they did in this case, and whether they have failed to issue other passports as a result of neglect or of policies that put certain groups at a disadvantage. We also need to know why they hid the identities of supervisors; particularly if they were told to do so. 
  • Order all departmental and unit supervisors to stop hiding from the public.  Make their contact information public. 
  • Every office within government that serves the public directly should have a person who acts as a Citizen Advocate or Ombudsman whose contact information is always available and who should not be hired by, or beholden to, the office or department in which they serve, and should not be Public Relations officers whose main duties seem to be to protect their agencies.  Perhaps the Inspector General’s Office should be renamed to reflect a more dynamic mission on behalf of the People, such as Office of Citizen Advocate. 
  • Information given out to consumers must be accurate and effective.  Wrong phone numbers, inadequate information and lack of information are inexcusable.  Moreover, the sending of faxes to another office in another state other than where the application is being processed is the epitome of  inefficiency.  We have too many mailing centers, fax centers, and phone hubs that are disconnected from main offices - this extends across the bureaucracy.
  • Communication and instructional training must begin at the local level where the passport application process is begun.  The local county Court worker who worked on the application in this particular case did not have the necessary information to know that the mother's NYS Learner's Driving permit was not acceptable as proof of identity.  Electronic communication within government across departments and jurisdictions must be brought up to a standard that will eliminate this lack of knowledge.
  • Internal evaluations must be organized to maximize Mission fulfillment and public service.  Every department and unit should have to annually assess its internal operations against published Mission and Purpose statements.  It should be required that such evaluations involve complaints from the public and past complainants should be invited to attend such evaluations to air complaints thoroughly.
  • Regulations regarding passport application requirements need a thorough review.
(1) Is it the purpose of the State Department to facilitate the granting of passports, or is it their purpose to restrict the application process so that it is difficult for certain "undesirables" to obtain passports?  My response is that ID requirements for a passport are too restrictive, and may be the result of a “law and order” mentality attempting to prevent a minuscule number of  people from leaving this country for illegitimate (perhaps illegal) reasons.  It is not the business of government agencies charged with serving the public welfare to act as policemen, nor to restrict or disadvantage the majority of people in an attempt to restrain a small cadre of miscreants.  
(2) In this particular case, it may come down to a simple change in rules:  allow a picture ID from more sources to be sufficient for passport application.  In particular: a driver learner's permit with photo from a state government agency should never have been deemed "insufficient for passport purposes."  Perhaps an Executive Order could quickly change that Rule.
(3) Moreover, it should be the job of a government agency that serves our citizens to facilitate each client's need, circumstances, request or complaint in the most expeditious manner, unless doing so would constitute a clear and present danger to the United States.  It should be the clearly defined function of policies and rules to facilitate and accommodate instead of to restrict and disadvantage the requests of ordinary law-abiding citizens.  The pertinent question here is whether there are cohorts of citizens who are being put at a distinct disadvantage in obtaining a passport or other governmental services?
I cannot help but think that each of us, and all of us together, have lost something valuable because of this one incident (and every time government fails to measure up to its potential).  Let me be quite clear:  governmental or private  investment in one child’s potential is worth the trouble of acting beyond one’s normal routine!  All it would have taken is for one government worker to have pin-pointed this application and invested some extra time to see it through so that a young ambassador named Garrett could have been on that plane to Germany that left JFK sometime after 1:00 p.m. on July 6, 2015!