Journalists play a crucial role in holding governments accountable, transparent and uncorrupted. Watchdog reporting exposes conflicts of interest for public officials, ensures fiscal responsibility, creates safer communities to live in and more. Access to public records is a fundamental part of this type of reporting.
Since 2005, journalists, publishers, journalism educators and others have used Sunshine Week to celebrate the importance of open governments and the freedom of information. Open record laws, like the Freedom of Information Act, require the federal government to fully or partially disclose information upon request. State governments have their own freedom of information laws for state agencies.
These laws ultimately benefit our communities and democracy. In honor of Sunshine Week (March 13-19) and Freedom of Information Day, March 16, here is a list of stories from current Report for America corps members that were made possible by open government and access to information.
West Virginia kids in foster care
Children in West Virginia placed into foster care were sent to out-of-state facilities, with some landing in group homes with unsafe conditions. The state doesn’t have enough social workers to check in on kids in group homes, nor does it have the foster families needed to keep kids in-state. And programs that have been proven to keep kids out of foster care don’t have the funding necessary to keep them running.
Report for America corps member Amelia Ferrell Knisely and GroundTruth fellow Molly Born reported on the issues within West Virginia’s foster care system for a collaborative series between Mountain State Spotlight and The GroundTruth Project. Since the fall of 2020, Knisely and Born had been filing Freedom of Information requests with West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources to access records for investigations of out-of-state group homes; the provided reports showed that, out of 32 facilities, 24 were flagged for restraint issues.
Because of the investigation done by Knisely and Born, West Virginia lawmakers have promised to investigate the abuses alleged in their reporting. Read the full story here.
Eavesdropping in Maine jails
Attorney-client privilege is supposed to be a guaranteed right for those accused of a crime in the United States. But Samantha Hogan at The Maine Monitor found that county jails throughout the state were eavesdropping on calls between attorneys and their clients awaiting trial. Some of these recorded calls were even listened to by law enforcement officers who were actively investigating the case.
Hogan filed public record requests to gain access to records of these calls. Four counties provided records after requests; others, like York County, denied The Maine Monitor’s record requests despite a number of inquiries about the data. Hogan and The Maine Monitor found that, from June 2019 to May 2020, county jails recorded nearly 1,000 phone calls between defendants and their attorneys.
The Maine Monitor is now suing York County to access records of recorded phone calls. In light of Hogan’s reporting, a man who was awaiting trial in a county jail in 2014 is now fighting to undo his plea deal and have his case reviewed.
Read the full investigation here.
Heat stroke in Texas
Since 2010, 53 workers in Texas have died from heat-related illnesses. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration had tried in the past to penalize companies that didn’t provide adequate resources and breaks for workers so they could avoid illness or injury, but there was no legal precedent to make penalties actually stick.
Corps member Sara Ernst spent months digging through public records and court depositions to learn more about these deaths. One company, Hellas, was a repeat offender. After one worker died from heat stroke in July 2018, documents showed that OSHA explained the dangers of extreme heat to Hellas executives. In the three months that followed, 11 workers were diagnosed with heat-related illnesses that required medical attention. Another worker for Hellas died within a year.
Since Ernst’s report for Houston Public Media was published with the Columbia Journalism Investigations and NPR, the Biden administration announced it was enacting new federal safety standards for workers who are exposed to heat.
Read the full story here.