This week, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Tampa Bay Times unveiled a joint investigation into the troubling state of mental health facilities in Florida. The three-part series reveals not only a disturbing rise in violent assaults and deaths at state-funded mental hospitals but also the efforts to keep such incidents a secret. In all, the project took over a year of work, a team of journalists and data specialists, and countless FOIA requests.

Reporter Michael Braga of The Sarasota Herald-Tribune was one of three journalists sifting through thousands of pages of data and whether you’re thinking of taking on a project of similar weight or just starting out with a modest investigation, here’s his advice for navigating FOIA requests:

Be thorough

Times:Herald-TribuneDon’t rely on one source for the information you need. Having multiple sources to turn to can lead to a break in your investigation. For instance, Braga said one agency in question reported only half of the violent incidents that occurred in state-funded mental hospitals for years. Once the paper’s staff began digging into multiple reports from state agencies and police departments, however, they found a much higher number of cases. Don’t be timid when it comes to making FOIA requests. Be thorough.

Here’s a small sample of the FOIA requests Braga recalls:

  • Critical incident reports from police agencies in cities with state-funded mental hospitals
  • Videos from inside the hospitals attained using open record requests from the Attorney General’s office
  • Public request records for emergency treatment orders (cases that require the hospital to ask for the right to drug someone against their own will)
  • Information from the Department of Children and Families including emails, personnel records, and disciplinary records
  • Phone calls made to 911 from the mental hospitals

All that effort paid off, though. Using the collected records, the reporters and a team of data specialists developed the first comprehensive database of injuries and violent episodes at Florida’s mental hospitals.

It helped produce the insightful series, offering the basis for this compelling lede:

FLORIDA’S STATE-FUNDED MENTAL HOSPITALS are supposed to be safe places to house and treat people who are a danger to themselves or others.
But years of neglect and $100 million in budget cuts have turned them into treacherous warehouses where violence is out of control and patients can’t get the care they need.
Since 2009, violent attacks at the state’s six largest hospitals have doubled.
Nearly 1,000 patients ordered to the hospitals for close supervision managed to injure themselves or someone else.

Be persistent

Whenever you’re bringing an ugly fact to light, it’s likely you’ll face a bit of resistance as Braga did. After all, asking agencies for information that highlights their faults “is like asking for the rope to hang them with,” Braga said.

He recalls one agency that raised the charge for the request after realizing what the reporters planned to do with the information. In another case, the reporters had to seek legal counsel in order to get an agency to cooperate with the investigation.

These obstacles brought up a question FOIA seekers often encounter: At what point is the expense too much to bear? Consider what’s at stake, Braga explains. The information the investigation brought to surface was too important.

“It’s the principle of it,” he said.

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