Madeline-Michelle Carthen had been eagerly anticipating participating in Webster University’s international intern exchange program in the summer of 2007.
The Black woman’s ordeal began in November 2006, but it wasn’t until four months later that she was informed of this grave mistake by the university. This unforeseen mishap has had a lasting impact on her life.
In 2007, CNN took an interest in her story, and with their assistance, she discovered that her records were locked away in a “deceased warehouse” at the Social Security Administration in Washington, D.C.
Her name had been erroneously added to the Death Master File, an internal database that collects records of deceased individuals with Social Security numbers. Once someone’s name is on this list, government agencies and financial institutions, including the IRS, banks, and Medicare, consider them nonexistent.
While the Social Security Administration couldn’t discuss individual cases due to privacy laws, they reached out to assist Carthen with her situation. The spokesperson highlighted that they receive almost 3 million death reports each year, and their records are highly accurate.
They noted that out of the millions of death reports they receive annually, less than one-third of 1 percent are subsequently corrected.
Carthen’s relentless fight to prove her existence has been plagued by setbacks. She received six erroneous death letters in 16 years and reached out to four U.S. presidents and other government officials.
In 2019, she filed a lawsuit, but it was dismissed on the grounds of sovereign immunity.
However, challenges persist, with her new name being misspelled in some government databases and her wrong Social Security number listed on her E-Verify, a tool used by employers to confirm employees’ eligibility to work.
Carthen continues to fight for her existence and the right to live a normal life. Although she faces medical issues, one silver lining is her ability to receive disability benefits.
Despite everything she’s endured, she remains resilient, hopeful that her case will eventually be resolved, allowing her to secure adequate employment and regain the life she’s been denied for nearly two decades.