The MuckRock 50 States of FOIA Project aims to shed light on what it’s like to work with public records around the U.S., through the voices of requesters state by state. This time, we focus on the state of Missouri. MuckRock spoke with Judy Thomas of the Kansas City Star.
Describe what you do.
I’m a projects reporter at the Kansas City Star, I’ve been here for about 20 years. We’ve had a lot of layoffs as every paper has, so I do a little bit of everything. Some of the main issues I cover now are priest sex abuse cases. A bishop here was recently convicted of failure to report abuse, making him the first in the country to be convicted of that officially. We’ve had quite a few stories off of that.
How much do you file FOIA requests?
Last year a colleague, Laura Bauer, and I spent almost the entire year working on child welfare stories. That included tons of Missouri Sunshine Law requests that attempted to get records of child abuse cases. That’s pretty standard for us, though. We file a lot.
Is the state of Missouri easy to work with when it comes to public records?
The case with social services was a real struggle. When you’re working with the state of Missouri your success depends on the agency. A lot of them are very responsive, and others it’s a battle. We found that out with the department of social services.
In 2000, the legislature passed a law that was supposed to make records on child tragedies more open. So whenever there was a fatality or a near fatality they were supposed to release records, but it was at the discretion of the head of the agency. For a while they were really good about releasing records but a couple of years ago that all changed. One of the arguments was that it was an “ongoing investigation.” There’s really no consistency to whether they release the information you want either - sometimes the person in charge will give it to you, and sometimes they won’t.
First they said they couldn’t release anything. Then we went back and looked at all the freedom of information requests and how they had responded to those, and we proved that there had been a shift in policy, and that in the first few years they had openly given out the information. Our story talked about how they had been pretty open up until the case of this little girl in Kansas City who had been locked in a closet by her mother for five years. When that all came out people were just outraged. We tried to get her documents because she’d been through the Social Services system, and they wouldn’t give them to us. It took almost a year to get those records. So when we did that story proving that they had in the past given out records in cases like that, some of the legislators got upset and the Speaker of the House actually called on them to release the records. Sometimes that legislative pressure can really help get results.
At the same time as this was all happening, a four year old boy died in a county near here and he had been beaten to death. They initially wouldn’t give us those records either, but after we started to do these stories they gave us everything. We found out what had really happened, and of course it was pretty shocking. This boy had actually been through the system as well, they’d failed him and two people had actually been fired over it. When you finally do get the records and see things like that it shows you how important it is to have open records.
What are some FOIA successes you’ve had?
In other cases agencies have been really responsive. We did a story several years ago on the Missouri Department of Transportation, and they released most everything that we asked for. Though they did originally try to charge us several thousand dollars for the copies, we argued on that point and eventually didn’t pay much, if anything.
One time we also worked with the state public school retirement system. We got boxes of information on their executive staff and some of their expenditures. We did a whole project on them. They sent us credit card receipts for all their staff members for several years, annual reports, things like that. That agency was pretty forthcoming and didn’t charge us anything. Like I said it’s pretty inconsistent, it really depends on which agency and who you’re dealing with.
Can you tell us any FOIA horror stories?
Though this isn’t specifically MO related, I’m working on getting military records on someone, and in the past we’ve filed requests and usually don’t have any trouble getting those. The National Personnel Records Center is in St. Louis. But on a recent case I did a request like we do fairly routinely, and I got a letter back saying I couldn’t have the records unless I got written permission from the person whose file it was. Well he’s in jail right now for killing people. So I called them back and said, well this isn’t right because we get these records all the time. Then they had me fill out a form so I filled out the form. I just got a letter this week which is a little strange. It said “Thank you for contacting the personnel records center. We have been unable to locate the record needed to meet your request. It was removed from the file in order to respond to a prior inquiry. Although we have conducted an extensive search we have been unable to locate the record.”
They lost it! That’s a first. They said when they locate it they will notify me - I’m not holding my breath on that one. I actually found another source who’s sending me the record.
Have you worked on the events in Ferguson at all? What’s your take on the public records angle there?
Right now, several of us are dealing with the Missouri Highway Patrol on getting records, and depending on what the story is, they’ve been easier to get for some of us than others. It really depends on the story.
In terms of the work people are doing with the police in Ferguson, I haven’t been involved in the reporting the KC Star is doing. Our department hasn’t filed any official requests, and I haven’t heard from the reporters that are working on it anything about how it’s going. It seems like now that the state is involved that transparency has been a word thrown out there a lot, but I don’t know how our reporters are doing with any specific official requests.
What’s the appeals process like in Missouri?
I’ve never really appealed anything. The case last year was maybe the first time they denied us for a while and then turned it over. I usually eventually get something, but it’s not always everything you want. One thing we have done is gone to the Missouri Press Association. Usually they have people on staff that can help work things out as well. But of course we also just use other ways of getting leverage, as was with the Social Services case.
Even though it’s a roll of the dice to see which agencies and who will give you what records, it’s always really helpful no matter what you get because it could end up setting precedence for other requests. A few years ago we had a couple that was going through a divorce, and the father had his six and seven year old son and daughter on a weekend visitation and never brought them back. They were missing for three years, and it turned out that he had killed them. When he was in jail awaiting trial I did a sunshine request on the jailhouse phone call tapes. We had never gotten any of those here before but I was really surprised when they gave them to us, especially only a few weeks before his trial was to start. When we made that request last year on the woman who had kept her daughter in the closet, we were then able to get those phone call records because of the precedent that the other case set.
Do you have any advice for first time filers?
You definitely have to be persistent, and sometimes really patient too. Another good tip is that sometimes you’ll get a denial where all you need to do is narrow your focus. Just call the agency back and say hey I’d like to narrow my search to three years instead of five, sometimes that really helps. You also want to be as specific as possible. If you can call the records person before you make the request and narrow it down as much as you can with their help sometimes that makes a big difference.
Image via Wikimedia Commons