Ten months ago, three teenaged boys who had escaped from a group home in Brooklyn were arrested for the violent assault and rape of a woman in Manhattan. The boys had been placed in the home as part of a program run by New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, which had been seeking alternatives to formal detention facilities for troubled youngsters caught up in the juvenile justice system.
The home in Brooklyn, one of several dozen overseen by ACS, had been placed on “heightened monitoring status” because of earlier concerns about the home’s ability to keep the youngsters secure and the public safe.
ProPublica soon filed a formal Freedom of Information request to ACS, seeking, among other things, records of any other homes on “heightened monitoring status,” as well as the agency’s database chronicling any arrests or escapes of youngsters and any assaults or injuries suffered by staff or residents at the homes. The aim was straightforward: The records could be critical to gauging the success and public safety impact of the program, known as “Close to Home.”
Officials with ACS acknowledged the public was entitled to the two sets of records ProPublica asked for. And yet, going on a year later, the agency has yet to turn over a single document. ProPublica occasionally highlights the exasperating performance of government agencies in releasing public information in a timely fashion. In that spirit, ProPublica offers a flavor of our extensive back and forth with ACS and its freedom of information law officer, Janet Stateman. The email thread on the issue is now 16 pages long.
Our effort to get the database of incidents began on June 16, 2015, about two weeks after the three boys fled a group home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and raped and robbed a 33-year-old woman in Chinatown. (The boys pleaded guilty to a variety of charges earlier this year.)
As the law requires, Stateman responded in seven days. Right away she said she’d need an extension and told us we could expect a response on or about July 16, 2015.
But on July 27, 10 days after she said she’d deliver the responsive records, we ran into our first delay. Stateman said the records would be delivered August 28, 2015.
Then on August 28, she wrote again, saying she’d need another 6 weeks. The records would now be delivered October 14.
I wrote back September 17, asking for an update, and Stateman responded October 9, saying she hoped to be on target:
But by October 14, I still had no records. I wrote back. Stateman said, once again, that she would need more time. On October 26, she said she hoped to have the heightened monitoring status documents redacted and ready to ship by the end of the week, and the database on November 6.
Then that date came and went. On December 17, I still had nothing and Stateman told me they should be ready after the Jan. 1, 2016.
At this point, I was getting a little frustrated. I let her know:
She responded by saying she was the only person working on such requests for the entire agency. Then January 8 came and went. I wrote back on January 25 and pointed out the delays:
The next day Stateman said the records would be available February 12— the fifth proposed delivery date.
I wrote back the day before to check in.
Still nothing. The next day, Stateman said she needed another extension because she was bogged down by other requests:
She didn’t meet that deadline either. I wrote back to her March 3:
She wrote back the next day and said she was almost done with the monitoring documents. She only had to do redactions on records tied to one more facility. They should be done March 22, she said.
So, on Monday, March 7, I offered to come to her office and pick up whatever records were ready and get the rest when she was done with the redactions.
She said she couldn’t do that. But she’d aim to have the records ready March 22. When that day arrived, Stateman said at least one of my requests would now be ready March 29. So I wrote that day and again offered to come to her office and pick them up:
She wrote back and said she’d collected some 200 documents, but still hadn’t finished the redactions. She said she would send me another proposed date for when she could deliver the records later that day.On April 8 — after several more emails— she said she’d need another week. At this point, I was baffled. After all, it seemed now that she’d had at least some of these records for months and I’d asked that she provide them on a rolling basis.
Stateman didn’t respond. I wrote again three days ago on Monday, April 18.
She responded that day, and, for the ninth time, told me she’d need more time.
On Tuesday I told her I intended to write an article about the delays. I asked ACS spokeswoman Carol Caceras for comment, drawing extensively from the email thread.
Caceras responded to my request for comment Wednesday. She said Stateman is indeed the only person working full-time on FOIL requests in the entire agency. And she has a case load of some 29 requests. Then Caceras told me I’d get some of the records tomorrow, Friday, April 22— proposed delivery date number 10. We shared the exchange with Robert Freeman, the executive director of the New York Committee on Open Government, a division of the New York Department of State that helps the public and reporters with such requests. Blunt, critical and strategic, Freeman has become something of a cult hero among reporters and people who want access to government records to which they are entitled.
He summed up the response from ACS:
“It’s absurd,” he said. “The real issue is the possibility of embarrassment. Embarrassment or the fear of embarrassment is a huge impediment to disclosure.”
Indeed, just last week, the New York Department of Investigation released a damning 24-page report criticizing ACS’s failure to ensure safety and security of group homes for troubled youth throughout the city. The investigation agency had begun its probe after the arrest of the boys. The agency appeared to have better success accessing ACS’s records than ProPublica did. Caceras said that was in part because DOI was authorized by law to see the records.
As to our request under the law, Caceras said that whatever documents the agency delivers Friday, ProPublica would not be receiving all it had asked for 10 months ago. The agency, she said, was still reviewing what it could release.
Freeman suggested that ProPublica consider the request formally denied and that we appeal.
“Access delayed is access denied,” he said. “That’s the simple reality of it.”
He pointed to a New York statute that says as much and provided an advisory opinion that he said we could use as an addendum to our appeal. He said it’s worked for other reporters. If that fails, he said, “sue the hell out of them.”
ProPublica will report tomorrow on whether the agency made good on its latest promise.
Update, April 22, 2016: On Friday morning, ProPublica received a package of documents from New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services. The documents had first been requested on July 13, 2015. The documents relate to Close to Home facilities that had been under “heightened monitoring status.” Records pertaining to the Brooklyn home from which three boys had escaped last spring were not included in the package. ACS FOIL Officer Janet Stateman said the agency, 10 months after the boys fled the home and raped a woman in Manhattan, has not yet determined “what documents are disclosable.” She set yet one more new date — April 29 — on which the agency would produce any of those documents.