Some genealogy groups and historical societies have genteel monthly meetings, where their members discuss how to best research one’s great-aunt, or a lecturer comes in to tut-tut sadly over the fate of the 1890 Federal Census. Sure, a member might complain a bit about how hard it is to get copies of this or that certificate. Someone else might grumble about an index being unavailable for look-ups, or a crucial book being withheld by a librarian. But then the meeting wraps up and everyone has some coffee cake and goes home.
Reclaim The Records is a bit different. We’re tired of begging archivists, librarians, city clerks, and state Departments of Health for access to our own records, paid for with our taxes. Those days are done. We pick our targets, carefully study the vital records laws and the state Sunshine Laws, craft our records requests, and if we don’t get an appropriate answer, we sue. And then we ask for attorneys fees, and even fines, if possible.
The laws are on our side, and we’re not afraid to use them.
As of November 2018, our organization has so far launched eight separate Freedom of Information lawsuits, both state and federal. Three of these have been successfully settled, with the release of millions of records to the public, and two of those also awarded us our attorneys fees. Five of our lawsuits are still in progress. And we’re about to launch many more cases, against all kinds of government agencies: from municipal archives, to city and county clerks’ offices, to city and state departments of health, and all the way up to major federal agencies. Anyone who wrongfully withholds archival material is fair game.
You might think that a bunch of genealogists and historians teaming up to fight for copies of old records would be a pretty niche use case for Freedom of Information laws. But since becoming a 501(c)3 non-profit organization in February 2017, Reclaim The Records has already grown into one of the largest open records advocacy and activist groups in the United States, with more than 5,700 newsletter subscribers, and thousands more following us on social media.
We want our records back. And we get them!
Fighting Against Government Backroom Dealing and Preferential Treatment
In the summer of 2018, Reclaim The Records launched a Freedom of Information lawsuit against the New York State Department of Health to find out why they treated our Freedom of Information request for the New York state death index so differently from how they treated the verbatim request from Ancestry.com, a large for-profit genealogy company.
We discovered that Ancestry had filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request for the identical records more than a year after our own request — but received their copies of the records first. Furthermore, Ancestry did not appear to have been constrained by any of the same requirements the NYS DOH had given, in writing, to our request. These requirements included: the cost of digitization; a requirement for a 50% downpayment; the deadline when the downpayment and/or final payments would be required; the physical access to the original microfiche sheets; the inspection and sign-off of a state-hired archivist attesting to the adequate condition of the microfiche sheets; the sign-off of the state on the exact model of the microfiche scanner, its operational mode, and the hours and location where it could be used; and more.
To add insult to injury, Ancestry apparently gained access to these public records using the exact words of Reclaim The Records’ 2016 FOIL request, cut-and-pasted into their FOIL request over a year later. And again, Ancestry still received access to the records first.
Under the New York State FOIL, we requested copies of all e-mails between NYS DOH employees and Ancestry to explain this apparent discrepancy in treatment. We’re also looking into whether or not the state violated their own laws about vendors and bidding. If Ancestry acted as a de-facto vendor for the digitization of these government files, the state (by their own admission in e-mails to Reclaim The Records) should have gone through a competitive bidding process.
The DOH refused to provide the vast majority of the requested documents. Then they refused to reply to our legal FOIL Appeal at all, although they were legally required to do so.
So, we sued the NYS DOH. The case is currently pending in the Supreme Court of New York, Albany county.
Fighting For Adoptees’ Rights to their Original Birth Certificates
Reclaim The Records is a founding member and Strategic Partner of the New York Adoptee Rights Coalition (NYARC). We support a “clean bill” for New York that would allow all adult adoptees and their descendants full and open access to their own Original Birth Certificates (OBC’s), without any restrictions.
Reclaim The Records is currently the only genealogy-related organization listed as a Strategic Partner within the coalition.
In the spring of 2018, NYARC spearheaded and supported the bill A9959B, which attracted a record number of co-sponsors and was overwhelmingly recommended passage by the Assembly Health Committee. The bill eventually made it all the way to the codes committee, before time ran out and the legislative session adjourned for the summer. The push for this adoptee rights bill will resume with the new session in the fall of 2018.
For the latest updates on the push for this bill, please check the latest news from the New York Adoptee Rights Coalition.
Fighting Against New Restrictions on Public Access to Vital Records
October 24, 2017 – We just got back from giving public comments to the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in Long Island City, about their terrible, no-good, very bad proposed rules change to severely limit New York City vital records access. And it was ???.
At least SIXTY-TWO genealogists and open records supporters showed up at their office, most of whom then spoke for five minutes each against the proposed rule changes. Not a single person spoke in favor of the government’s proposal. Zip, zero.
Several board members of Reclaim The Records submitted individual statements against the proposed rules, and we’ll be posting all of their letters on our website for you to read. But here’s the statement written by our president and founder, Brooke Schreier Ganz, and delivered right to the DOH in person this morning…