Justice Blogs

Friday, October 17, 2014

Last week, the White House Open Government Team and OIP co-hosted a proactive disclosure workshop, bringing together a diverse set of government personnel to brainstorm how agencies can improve their processes for proactively providing information to the public.

Attendees at OIP's Proactive Disclosure Event

As a part of his FOIA Memorandum, the President directed agencies to “take affirmative steps to make information public.” Additionally, Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines stressed that “agencies should readily and systematically post information online in advance of any public request” and that “effective FOIA administration belongs to all of us.”

Since the issuance of these memoranda, agencies have engaged in a range of initiatives to improve proactive disclosures. Building off these efforts, and in response to the President’s and Attorney General’s directives, last week’s event brought together various personnel from agency FOIA, open data, and communications offices to discuss their roles in their agency’s proactive disclosure process and how through collaboration they can further improve such processes.

A collaborative agency approach to proactive disclosures was highlighted as a best practice at OIP’s July workshop on this same topic, and encouraging this type of dialogue was the basis for last week’s event. Over the course of the event, participants noted that just their preparation for the workshop provided immediate benefits as even their initial cross-agency collaboration generated new ideas on how to identify and make proactive disclosures.

Attendees at OIP's Proactive Disclosure Event

In the first breakout session of the event, the participants were grouped according to their specialty, with all the FOIA professionals forming one group, the data experts forming another group, and the public relations specialists forming the third group.  Participants discussed best practices they had identified at their agencies as well as common challenges they face with regard to proactive disclosures. When discussing obstacles, participants also brainstormed ideas for overcoming such challenges. During the second breakout session, the participants got back together with their colleagues from their own agencies to discuss what they had learned in the first session and how they could apply those lessons to their own proactive disclosure processes. The participants were all energized about the possibilities that their cross-agency collaboration could achieve.

This event is just one step in our efforts to assist agencies in improving their proactive disclosure process. OIP and the White House Open Government Team will continue to work with the agencies that participated in the event as they apply the information learned and put it into practice. In the future, we will plan to hold additional events on this topic for other interested agencies. We look forward to seeing how the collaboration between and across agency offices can help improve proactive disclosures and access to information.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post, Open Government
Tuesday, October 14, 2014

As part of OIP's responsibility to encourage agency compliance with the FOIA, each year we offer a number of regularly scheduled training opportunities designed to educate agency personnel on how to implement the various provisions of the statute. For Fiscal Year 2015, the dates and topics for some of our scheduled training sessions are:

The FOIA for Attorneys and Access Professionals
December 2-3, 2014 
February 24-25, 2015

May 12-13, 2015
July 14-15, 2015

Advanced FOIA Seminar
April 15, 2015

Introduction to the FOIA
March 25, 2015

FOIA Litigation Seminar
October 22, 2014

Each of these seminars will be held in Washington, DC, and are open to all federal government employees. Descriptions of these seminars and training materials are available on the Training page of OIP’s website.

OIP also offers various other training opportunities and workshops throughout the year, such as our Best Practices Workshop series and refresher training on agency Annual FOIA Report and Chief FOIA Officer Report requirements. Details on these and all training opportunities offered by OIP will continue to be announced here on FOIA Post and through OIP’s Twitter account, @FOIAPost.

To register for any of the above training seminars, please e-mail your name to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov. In the subject line of your e-mail, please specify the name and date of the course that you are seeking to attend.  Any questions regarding these training opportunities may also be directed to OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Friday, October 10, 2014

Sellers of Eagle, Hawk, and Anhinga Feathers Sentenced For Violations of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Lacey Act

photo of eagle

This week in Phoenix, Arizona, Leo Begay, a tribal member of the Navajo Nation from Tuba City, Arizona, became the last defendant to be sentenced following a nationwide investigation – Operation Silent Wilderness – by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife into the illegal killing and commercialization of protected eagles and other migratory birds.

Begay was sentenced to four months in prison to be followed by two years of supervised release and a fine of $1,000, having earlier pleaded guilty to charges that he sold six feather fans comprised of bald and golden eagles, and federally-protected hawks.  

The investigation was initiated after the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife received a complaint concerning a Navajo tribal member in Arizona who was selling eagle and other migratory bird feathers.  Seven residential search warrants and multiple interviews related to the investigation were conducted, uncovering an illicit trade in migratory bird feathers via the Internet using online services such as MySpace and Yahoo! Mail.

Federal and Tribal law enforcement leaders commented on the operation. 

Sam Hirsch, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division commented:

The Department of Justice is committed to enforcing wildlife laws that forbid the commercialization and exploitation for profit of eagle feathers and other bird parts, which are sacred to the cultural and religious practices of some federally recognized Indian tribes. The Department of Justice is committed to enforcing our nation’s wildlife laws that protect these species for future generations to enjoy, and we are committed to honoring the traditions and cultures of American Indian tribes with whom we share a government-to-government relationship.

Ed Grace, Deputy Assistant Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement, stated:

Operation Silent Wilderness has been a model of cooperation between the Service and the Navajo Nation’s Department of Fish and Wildlife.  The results send a strong message to all Americans that we will pursue traders in illegal wildlife products with the full force of the law.  Social networking sites are no safe haven for wildlife traffickers to conduct illegal business.

Gloria M. Tom, Director of the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife commented:

The Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife entered into a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to address illegal trafficking of eagle feathers and other bird parts on the Navajo Nation because this activity is impacting the long term viability and sustainability of the golden eagle and other migratory bird populations on our reservation.  The Department’s overall mission is to conserve and protect our wildlife now and in the future and we take this mission very seriously.  We are obligated to protect these sacred birds for our people who use eagles and other migratory birds and their parts legally for religious and ceremonial purposes.  The individuals who are participating in this illegal activity are not concerned with protecting Native American religious rights; they are only concerned with the personal financial benefit they receive from the illegal activity.  Our partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to deter wildlife crimes on the Navajo Nation has been very beneficial to the Navajo Nation with cases like these being successfully prosecuted.  We look forward to this continuing partnership because there is a tremendous amount of illegal activity continuing to occur and the partnership needs to include more efforts to catch the individuals who are killing the birds and making their parts available on the black market.

John Leonardo, U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona stated: 

The preservation of protected bird species is of significant importance to all Arizonans and all Americans, and this nationwide collaborative investigation demonstrates our shared commitment to this preservation goal as well as to the protection of American Indian cultural practices.

In 2012, the Department of Justice announced a policy addressing the ability of members of federally-recognized Indian tribes to possess or use eagle feathers, an issue of great cultural significance to many tribes and their members. Attorney General Eric Holder signed the new policy after extensive department consultation with tribal leaders and tribal groups. The policy covers all federally-protected birds, bird feathers and bird parts.  Under the policy, enrolled members of federally recognized American Indian tribes may possess eagle and other migratory bird feathers and parts for religious and ceremonial purposes. 

Federal law otherwise prohibits the possession of eagles and migratory birds, and strictly prohibits the sale of bald and golden eagles, their feathers, or their parts by any person.   The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA) prohibits the taking, possession, sale, barter, purchase and transport of bald and golden eagles.  The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) implements Conventions between the United States and four countries (Canada, Mexico, Japan and Russia) for the protection of more than 1,000 migratory bird species.  One such bird, the anhinga, is found in the Florida Everglades as well as in southern swamps and shallow waters.  The MBTA makes it unlawful to, among other things, pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to barter, barter, offer to purchase, purchase, export, import, or transport migratory birds.  The Lacey Act prohibits, among other things, the sale of wildlife knowing that the wildlife was taken or possessed in violation of any  wildlife-related regulation or law.  

These important laws are enforced by the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior and help ensure that eagle and other bird populations remain healthy and sustainable.

Previous prosecutions resulting from Operation Silent Wilderness:

On Aug. 14, 2014, Charley Allen, a Goshute tribal member of Grantsville, Utah was sentenced to 12 months  in prison to be followed by one year of supervised release for selling and offering to sell migratory bird parts including anhinga and hawk feathers in violation of the MBTA.  Allen admitted by his plea on Mar. 20, 2014 in federal court in Salt Lake City, Utah, that he sold four sets of twelve anhinga feathers for $400 per set to two people in Arizona, one of whom was an undercover officer.  Allen also admitted that he offered to sell seven sets of red-tailed, red-shouldered and ferruginous hawk feathers.  Allen communicated via MySpace with an individual in Florida who supplied Allen on multiple occasions with 44 sets of anhinga tail feathers.  

Steven Patrick Garcia, Jr. of San Jose, Calif., similarly communicated with an individual in California via MySpace and sold the individual twelve hawk feathers for $200.  Garcia was sentenced on June 6, 2013 in federal court in Billings, Mont., to 24 months in prison to be followed by one year of supervised release for selling and offering to sell migratory bird parts in violation of the MBTA and the Lacey Act.

Alexander Robert Somers, a Yakama tribal member of White Swan, Wash., was sentenced on Aug. 26, 2013 in federal court in Phoenix, Ariz., to three months in prison, one year supervised release with a condition of three months home confinement, and $10,000 restitution for selling golden eagle parts in violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.  $5,000 of the restitution is to be paid to the Yakama Nation’s Wildlife, Range & Vegetation Resources Management Program.  The remaining $5,000 is to be paid to the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife’s “Operation Game Thief” a program which awards cash rewards to people who provide information which leads to the arrest or citation of any person who unlawfully poaches wildlife on the Navajo Nation. 

The golden eagle feathers sold by Somers were purchased by Darwin James of Kayenta, Ariz. who subsequently sold the feathers to an undercover law enforcement officer.  James was sentenced on Oct. 21, 2013 in federal court in Phoenix to five years of probation and $6,750 restitution for selling migratory bird parts in violation of the MBTA.  James pleaded guilty to the charge on May 6, 2013.  James admitted by his plea that on Feb. 15, 2009, he sold 12 golden eagle tail feathers and twelve red-tailed hawk tail feathers for a total of $650 after exchanging e-mails with a covert law enforcement officer.  According to court documents, James is a Native American residing on the Navajo Nation reservation.    

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, performed more than eight thousand forensic identifications during the course of this investigation and subsequent prosecution of the cases and concluded that a minimum number of nearly 600 individual birds were involved.  The Forensics Laboratory is the only full service crime lab in the world dedicated to crimes against wildlife.  Scientists at the lab identify the species of pieces, parts or products of an animal or bird seized as evidence, determine the cause-of-death, and provide expert testimony in court.  

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates the National Eagle Repository, which collects eagles that die naturally, by accident or other means, to supply enrolled members of federally recognized American Indian tribes with eagle parts for religious use. 

The cases which resulted from this nationwide investigation were prosecuted by the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, Environmental Crimes Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Southern District of Alabama, District of Alaska, District of Arizona, Southern District of Florida, Eastern and Western Districts of Louisiana, District of Montana, District of New Mexico, and the District of Utah.   

Learn more about:

The Department of Justice Eagle Feathers Policy: www.justice.gov/usao/briefing_room/ic/eaglefeathers_factsheet.pdf

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Southwest Region

Working With Tribes

www.fws.gov/southwest/NAL/

Tribal Eagle Aviaries 

www.fws.gov/southwest/NAL/aviaries.html

Non-Eagle Feather Repositories

www.fws.gov/southwest/NAL/feathers.html

National Eagle Repository

www.fws.gov/eaglerepository/index.php

Topic(s):
Tribal Justice
Tuesday, October 7, 2014

October 1st marked the beginning of Fiscal Year 2015, and with the start of the new fiscal year, agencies will begin working on preparing three important reports. The three FOIA reports – the Annual FOIA Report, the Quarterly FOIA Reports, and the Chief FOIA Officer Report – illustrate all the hard work of agencies' FOIA offices over this past year as well as the great work that will be done in the upcoming year.  In order to satisfy their reporting obligations this year, agencies should mark the following deadlines in their calendars:

Fiscal Year 2014 Annual FOIA Report
December 5, 2014 – Agencies are required to submit their Fiscal Year 2014 Annual FOIA Reports to OIP for review

For guidance on the requirements for completing the Annual FOIA Report, please see the Department’s Annual FOIA Report Handbook.

Fiscal Year 2015 Quarterly FOIA Reports
January 30, 2015 – Quarter 1 data is required to be posted in accordance with OIP's Guidance
April 24, 2015 – Quarter 2 data is required to be posted in accordance with OIP's Guidance
July 31, 2015 – Quarter 3 data is required to be posted in accordance with OIP's Guidance
October 30, 2015 – Quarter 4 data is required to be posted in accordance with OIP's Guidance

2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports
January 16, 2015 – The twenty-nine high volume agencies noted in the 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Report Guidelines are required to submit their 2015 Reports to OIP for review

February 6, 2015 – All other agencies are required to submit their 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports to OIP for review

March 16, 2015 – Agencies are required to post their 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports online

For guidance on the requirements for completing the 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Report, please see OIP's 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Report Guidelines.

As noted previously on FOIA Post, today OIP held a refresher training for agency personnel on the preparation of both the Fiscal Year 2014 Annual FOIA Report and the 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Report.

If you have any questions regarding any of the deadlines noted above, or the requirements for completing any of the reports, please contact OIP’s FOIA Compliance Team at (202) 514-3642.

You can see all of these reporting deadlines, as well as training and event dates, on the Key Dates page of OIP’s website.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The next workshop in OIP’s Best Practices Workshop series is focused on the topic of best practices in FOIA administration from the requester’s perspective. Originally scheduled for Wednesday, October 15th, this event has been moved to Tuesday, October 28th. The updated details for this event are:

FOIA Best Practices Workshop
Best Practices from the Requester's Perspective
Department of Justice, Robert F. Kennedy Building
10th and Constitution, Ave. NW – Great Hall
October 28, 2014, 10:00am – noon

You will need a picture ID to enter the building for this event.

As with the July event, this workshop is open to interested members of the public as well as all agency personnel. If you had previously registered for this event, you will continue to be registered for the new date and OIP’s Training Officer will contact you to confirm your registration.

If you have not yet registered and are interested in attending this event, you can register by e-mailing your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “October 28th Best Practices Workshop.”  As space for this meeting is limited, registration is required to attend.  If you have any questions regarding this event or the Best Practices series, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

As this series continues, we hope that FOIA professionals continue to learn from one another and the public in order to leverage the successes of others in their own organizations for the overall benefit of FOIA administration across the government. 

Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for all news about this and future events in the Best Practices series.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post, Open Government
Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines direct agency Chief FOIA Officers to “review all aspects of their agencies’ FOIA administration” and to report each year to the Department of Justice on the steps taken “to improve FOIA operations and facilitate information disclosure at their agencies.”  Pursuant to the Attorney General's Guidelines, each year OIP provides specific guidance on the content and timing of these reports.  Today, we are issuing the guidelines for agencies' 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports.

Over the last five years, OIP’s guidelines for agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports have required agencies to examine five key areas addressed in the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines. These five key areas of FOIA administration include:

  1. Applying the Presumption of Openness,
  2. Ensuring that there are Effective Systems for Responding to Requests,
  3. Increasing Proactive Disclosures,
  4. Increasing the Utilization of Technology, and
  5. Improving Timeliness and Reducing Backlogs.

This year’s Chief FOIA Officer Report guidelines continue to build off of the efforts and initiatives reported in previous years and are designed to capture the more advanced steps taken by agencies in their administration of the FOIA.  The Guidelines also continue to focus on certain key areas where further improvements can be made.

For 2015, OIP is making a significant change from prior years' Chief FOIA Officer Reports by creating streamlined reporting requirements for agencies that receive a lower volume of requests, i.e., less than 1,000 incoming requests.  By providing these lower-volume agencies with separate reporting requirements, we can more easily address the realities and needs of agencies with smaller FOIA administrations.  For those agencies with more than 1,000 requests a year, the guidelines continue to be quite comprehensive.  Other new topics in the guidelines include:

  • Agency FOIA Fee Communications,
  • Systems for Proactive Disclosures and Identifying Frequently Requested Records, and
  • Processes for Routing Misdirected Requests at Decentralized Agencies.

OIP has identified twenty-nine agencies that received over 1,000 requests during the most recent year of available data and has listed them in the Guidelines as the “high-volume” agencies.  Those agencies must submit their draft 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports to OIP for review by no later than January 16, 2015.  The remaining agencies, all of which received less than 1,000 requests during the most recent year of available data (and not listed specifically in the Guidelines) must submit their draft reports for review by no later than February 6, 2015.  Additional details on the review and submission process are available in the Guidelines.

OIP will once again host a refresher training seminar on October 7, 2014, covering agency preparation of both the 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports and the Fiscal Year 2014 Annual FOIA Reports.  The details for that training are:

Refresher Training for FY 2014 Annual FOIA Reports and 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports
Department of Justice, Robert F. Kennedy Building
10th and Constitution Ave., NW – Great Hall
October 7, 2014, 10:00am – 12:30pm

Training is open to agency Chief FOIA Officers, Principal FOIA Contacts, and any other agency personnel who prepare Annual FOIA Reports and/or Chief FOIA Officer Reports (including appropriate IT staff)

If you are interested in attending this refresher training seminar, please e-mail your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “Annual Report and Chief FOIA Officer Report Refresher Training.”  Please note that registration is required to attend and that you will need a picture ID to enter the building.  If you have any questions regarding this event, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Monday, September 8, 2014

As part of the Second Open Government National Action Plan's commitment to modernizing FOIA, we have been working on a number of initiatives this summer that will further improve the overall administration of the FOIA for both agencies and requesters. One of these initiatives is the development of a consolidated FOIA service for making requests. 

Currently one hundred agencies are subject to the FOIA, and requesters must submit their FOIA requests directly to each agency. Through the National Action Plan, the Administration has committed to launching a consolidated request portal that will allow the public to submit a request to any federal agency from a single website and that includes additional tools to improve the customer experience. 

The Department of Justice and a number of other agencies have been working closely on this project with a dedicated team from the General Services Administration’s 18F group, which help “agencies deliver on their mission through the development of digital and web services.” The team has been exploring building tools that improve the FOIA request submission experience, that create scalable infrastructure for making requests to agencies, and that make it easier for requesters to find records and other information that have already been made available online. 

The team from 18F has posted a blog post about the great work they have been doing on 18F's website. Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for updates on this and other FOIA initiatives from the Second Open Government National Action Plan.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Monday, September 8, 2014

This post appears courtesy of Robert L. Listenbee, Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs.

On September 7, 1974, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was signed into law. This landmark legislation established the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and forever changed the way states and communities deal with at-risk youth and those who are involved in the juvenile justice system.

Thanks to the hard work and enlightened vision of our Office’s many partners in the juvenile justice field, I am happy to report that our nation has made significant strides in ensuring justice and safety for youth, families, and communities.

Today, violent crime arrest rates for youth are at their lowest point since at least 1980. Between 1997 and 2011, the population of youth in residential placement declined by 42 percent, and the number of youth in residential placement for committing status offenses like violating curfew, running away from home, and underage drinking has decreased by 64 percent.

States are enacting policies and strategies to promote alternatives to incarceration, divert youth from detention and secure state-run facilities, and reinvest in community-based services because research has shown that youth who have committed nonviolent offenses are better served—and public safety is more effectively promoted—through community-based services rather than detention and incarceration.

While this progress is certainly cause for celebration, we must continue to vigilantly address the challenges ahead and seize the opportunities before us to improve outcomes for youth while maintaining public safety

One major challenge we continue to face is that two out of every three youth in the United States who are currently in custody are there for nonviolent offenses. Another challenge to be addressed is the rate of confinement for minority youth. Nationwide, the residential placement rate for black youth in 2011 was nearly five times the rate for white youth. The rate for American Indian/Alaska Native youth was more than three times and the rate for Hispanic youth was nearly twice that for white youth.

At the same time, recent advances in scientific and evidence-based practices have given us a clear roadmap for reform. Research has shown that most youth grow out of risk-taking behavior as they mature. Because their brains are still developing, young people are more capable of rehabilitation than adults. We have also realized that many youth who come into contact with our juvenile justice system have long histories of exposure to violence, crime, and abuse. We understand far more now than we did even five years ago about the effects of trauma on the developing brain and how best to intervene in a child’s life before permanent damage can be done.

We are very optimistic about what lies ahead. We embrace the rising tide of system reform and transformation we are seeing in states across our nation. Our Office is working vigorously with all of our partners in the field to more fully incorporate the science of adolescent development and trauma into juvenile justice reform.

Let us continue to build on this momentum.

Working together, we will forge a future in which justice and safety are a fact of life for all our nation’s children.

For additional 40th anniversary resources from OJJDP, visit www.ojjdp.gov/JJDPAis40.html

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the issuance of Attorney General Holder's FOIA Guidelines, and the fifth year that agencies have published their Chief FOIA Officer Reports. Since 2010, agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports have served as a valuable resource for agencies to detail their efforts in improving their FOIA administration and implementing the President's and Attorney General's FOIA Memoranda.The information reported annually in these reports describing the steps agencies have taken “to improve FOIA operations and facilitate information disclosure” continues to demonstrate how agencies are answering the Attorney General’s call to be “fully accountable for [their] administration of the FOIA.” With the issuance of agencies' 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports during this past Sunshine Week, OIP has once again prepared a summary and assessment of the progress made in implementing the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines.

In an effort to provide a timely overview of the information provided in agencies' 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, this year for the first time OIP provided its summary of the Chief FOIA Officer Reports in a five-part series on FOIA Post that began during Sunshine Week 2014. Agencies and the public are encouraged to review this series and the individual 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports issued by agencies to learn more about all of the efforts made this past year to improve FOIA administration.   

Complementing this five-part series, OIP’s 2014 Assessment provides a visual snapshot of several key areas of FOIA administration. For 2014, OIP has expanded the assessment in several ways to provide greater detail as to the levels of success achieved by agencies during the reporting period. In addition to adding several new milestones, the 2014 Assessment now includes:

  • An expanded five-step scoring system – In an effort to add greater gradation that more accurately illustrates the levels of success achieved by agencies, OIP uses an expanded five step scoring system for certain milestones in the 2014 Assessment.

  • Overall scores for each assessed section – An overall agency score is also provided for each of the assessed sections.   

  • Additional narrative information from agency reports – Agencies provide a wealth of information as a part of their Chief FOIA Officer Reports that do not lend themselves to scoring, but are still very informative as to their efforts to improve their FOIA administration.  The 2014 Assessment includes a range of narrative information that provides greater context to the milestones that are scored. 

  • Detailed Methodology – In an effort to provide greater clarity as to how OIP scored agencies in this year’s assessment, for the first time OIP is providing a detailed methodology of how each question was scored.  

The full assessment will once again also be provided in an open, machine readable (CSV) format.  As part of the assessment, OIP has also included guidance based on our review to assist agencies in making further improvements in the years ahead.

Finally, as in past years, OIP has also compiled a collection of success stories in FOIA administration from key agencies. This collection, and those from previous years, can be viewed on the Reports page of OIP’s website.

As demonstrated by the Summary, Assessment, and Success Stories from agencies' 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, agencies continue to apply the presumption of openness, employ innovative and creative solutions in order to find efficiencies, increase proactive disclosures, and improve their administration of the FOIA. At the same time, the level of success achieved by agencies in these efforts varies and there is still work to be done. OIP’s yearly assessment is intended to serve as a vehicle for both agencies and the public to recognize and celebrate agency successes and also to identify areas where further improvements can be made.    

You may view OIP’s 2014 Summary and Assessment, along with summaries and assessments from previous years, and the agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports themselves, on our Reports page.

You may also read each of the posts summarizing the 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports on FOIA Post (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V).

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Friday, August 22, 2014

This post appears courtesy of Attorney General Eric Holder

To see a photo gallery of Attorney General Holder’s trip to Ferguson, click here.

Attorney General Eric Holder receives a briefing on the ongoing investigation into the death of Michael Brown

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks with community members at Drake’s Place restaurant.

On Wednesday, I visited Ferguson, Missouri, to be briefed on the ongoing federal civil rights investigation into the August 9 shooting death of Michael Brown – an investigation I launched more than a week ago. During the course of my visit, I met with law enforcement and community leaders, and had a series of constructive discussions about the importance of maintaining peace, averting future acts of violence and vandalism, and ensuring public safety—as well as the need for outreach and engagement to rebuild a fractured trust between law enforcement and the community it serves.

I will continue to get regular updates and to closely monitor the situation as it unfolds. And although our investigation will take time, the people of Ferguson can have confidence in the federal investigators and prosecutors who are leading this process. Our investigation will be fair, it will be thorough, and it will be independent.

My visit to Ferguson affected me greatly. I had the chance to meet with the family of Michael Brown. I spoke to them not just as Attorney General, but as a father with a teenage son myself. They, like so many in Ferguson, want answers.

As the brother of a retired police officer, I know firsthand that our men and women in uniform perform their duties in the face of tremendous threats and significant personal risk. They put their lives on the line every day, and they often have to make split-second decisions.

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks with community members at Drake’s Place restaurant

Attorney General Eric Holder receives a briefing on the ongoing investigation into the death of Michael Brown.

But in my conversations with dozens of people in Ferguson, it was clear that this shooting incident has brought to the surface underlying tensions that have existed for some time; tensions with a history that still simmers in communities across the country. The national outcry we’ve seen speaks to the sense of mistrust and mutual suspicion that can sometimes take hold in the relationship between law enforcement officers and their constituents.

In traveling to Ferguson, I wanted the residents of the town to know that the Justice Department is firmly dedicated to seeing that justice is served, and to assisting the community as it works to rebuild trust and forge strong relationships with law enforcement. Above all, I wanted to make clear that, while so much else may be uncertain, this Attorney General and this Department of Justice stand by their side.

I hope the relative calm that we witnessed last night can be enduring. To a person, the people I met in Ferguson take great pride in their town. They want a resolution. And despite the mistrust that exists, they reject the violence we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks. In that sense, while I went to Ferguson to provide reassurance, in fact, they gave me hope.

My commitment to them is that, long after this tragic story recedes from headlines, the Justice Department will continue to stand with Ferguson. We will continue to investigate this shooting, and to help the community work toward healing. And we will continue the conversation this incident has sparked about the need to build trust between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve; to use force appropriately; and to ensure fair and equal treatment for everyone who comes into contact with the police.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

As all agencies know, reducing backlogs of pending requests and improving timeliness is a key aspect of FOIA administration. 

Given its importance OIP selected this topic to be the focus of the first Best Practices Workshops convened by OIP to fulfill one of the Administration's five FOIA modernization commitments outlined in the second National Action Plan.

At this workshop, speakers from five different agencies shared with other FOIA professionals their successes in reducing backlogs and improving timeliness.  While each faced different challenges, the methods employed by the five agencies featured some common themes. 

The speakers addressed the importance of: 

  • Obtaining leadership supportto obtain personnel and resources, to get buy-in from program offices, to increase awareness, to spread responsibility and ensure greater accountability
     
  • Routinely reviewing processing metrics to ensure oldest cases are handled each year, to make changes as needed during the course of the year, to identify common requests and trends as part of “Intelligent Case Management,” to troubleshoot
     
  • Ensuring accountability to motivate and reward personnel, to engage all members of the agency with a role in the process
     
  • Engaging with FOIA staff – to train and encourage, to answer questions, to simplify processes and improve quality as well as quantity  

In these times of lean resources and competing priorities, the challenges in this area can be many.  As the discussion illustrated, however,   many agencies have found success by first carefully studying their processing systems and policies and then implementing targeted solutions to gain efficiencies.  Today, OIP is issuing guidance for all agencies based on the discussion at the workshop.  Reducing backlogs and improving timeliness requires an active, aggressive, and multi-pronged approach.  Employing these methods can help all agencies realize improvements in this area.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Friday, August 1, 2014

This post appears courtesy of Greg Friel, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights

The Department of Justice has worked vigorously and effectively to protect American consumers, ensure fair treatment for struggling borrowers, and seek justice for victims of discriminatory lending practices.  The Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section and its Fair Lending Unit enforce the federal fair lending laws, including the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), Fair Housing Act (FHA), and Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA).  This week, we submitted our annual report to Congress on our activities to enforce these laws and protect borrowers from any credit discrimination in any form. In the four years since the Fair Lending Unit was established, the division has filed or resolved 34 lending matters under ECOA, FHA, and SCRA.  This year’s enforcement actions bring the total amount for the settlements in these matters to over $1 billion in monetary relief for impacted communities and individual borrowers.  These cases include the record $335 million settlement of a 2011 lawsuit against Bank of America for the activities of Countrywide Financial and the $234 million settlement of a 2012 lawsuit against Wells Fargo Bank.  At the core of the Countrywide and Wells Fargo complaints was a simple story:  if you were an African-American or a Hispanic borrower, you were more likely to be placed in a high-cost subprime loan or pay more for your mortgage loan than a similarly-qualified white borrower.  After these and other settlements were entered, the division worked aggressively to locate victims of the alleged discrimination and ensure they were compensated in a timely manner. The division’s fair lending enforcement efforts expand beyond mortgage lending to protecting borrowers from any form of credit discrimination.  In December 2013, the division reached its largest ever auto lending settlement when Ally Bank and Financial Inc. agreed to pay $98 million for pricing discrimination in its automobile lending practices.  The settlement provided $80 million in direct relief to African-American, Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander borrowers who were charged higher interest rate markups on auto loans than white borrowers with similar creditworthiness.  The division continues to investigate potential discrimination based on race, national origin and gender in the setting of discretionary pricing in indirect automobile and motorcycle lending.  Collaboration, cooperation and partnership are critical to all we have accomplished.  Much of our fair lending enforcement is done in conjunction with the banking regulatory agencies, including several joint enforcement actions with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  From 2009 to 2014, the bank regulatory agencies, the FTC and HUD referred a total of 147 matters involving a potential pattern or practice of lending discrimination to the Justice Department.  Seventy-three of the 147 matters involved race or national origin discrimination, a combined total that is far higher than the 30 race and national origin discrimination referrals the division received from 2001 to 2008.  We have also had great success in partnering with state attorneys general.  In January 2014, we partnered with the North Carolina Attorney General’s office to investigate and eventually bring the division’s first case alleging reverse redlining in auto lending.  The division’s efforts over the past four years have made clear that the Justice Department will hold financial institutions, regardless of size and market share, accountable for lending discrimination in any form.  While many lenders are making every effort to develop sound policies and eliminate or reduce the discretion that led to many of the abuses of the past, others are exploring new ways to exploit the most vulnerable and underserved in our communities.  In the coming year, we will continue to enhance and refine the collaboration established over the last several years with our governmental partners and will continue to root out any new insidious methods that may perpetuate segregation or restrict access to fair and equal credit.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

If you are reading this, the chances are great that you know from personal experience – as a survivor, as someone who works day in and day out with survivors, as someone who witnessed abuse -   that sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking are deeply traumatic crimes that can cause severe damage to survivors’ emotional, spiritual, and psychological well-being. You probably also know that far too many survivors are harmed or retraumatized by insensitive, uninformed, or inadequate community and criminal justice system responses. And, far too often, first responders, including rape crisis counselors, domestic violence advocates, and police officers, are unaware of the impact trauma can have on their own lives. 

At OVW, we know the critical importance of service providers who are trained to recognize and understand the impact of trauma on survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking, what is referred to as trauma-informed care. Trauma-informed care emphasizes creating services and programs that are sensitive and directly responsive to the trauma that many survivors experience after a violent crime. Trauma-informed care programs identify and limit potential triggers to reduce their retraumatization and protect their mental and emotional health. OVW has a long history supporting a number of trauma-informed care programs that provide culturally and linguistically competent services and a space for healing based on empowerment and hope.

Understanding trauma can be complicated.  For victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking, trauma can stem from an isolated incident, from repeated incidents over a lifetime, or from a pattern of ongoing violence.  And, this violence and trauma can be compounded by multi-generational and/or historical trauma. Exposure to “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experiences” such as colonization, war, or genocide, can magnify an already devastating crime. It is important for services providers to remember that because of historical trauma, many survivors of violent crime, such as those from African American, immigrant and American Indian/Alaska Native communities, are forced to confront multiple layers of traumatic experiences as they recover and heal.

OVW grantees and technical assistance providers are increasing the availability of safe and destigmatizing community and law enforcement programs that are sensitive to trauma. One grantee, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), is using OVW funding to develop and promote a new and innovative course for service providers, “The Brain, Body, and Trauma.” This online course covers the psychological and neurobiological impacts of sexual violence related trauma and gives victim service providers the skills necessary to offer trauma-informed services. OVW also supports trainings and information on supporting survivors recovering from historical trauma. For example, in 2012 OVW’s Tribal Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalitions Grant Program funded 13 trainings for professionals to improve their ability to address historical trauma experienced by American Indian and Alaska Native survivors.

We have also learned that law enforcement is most effective in combating violence against women when officers and staff have been trained to recognize and address the truly devastating mental and emotional trauma that many survivors experience in the aftermath of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking. That’s why OVW is proud to support the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) to provide law enforcement agencies with on-site Trauma Informed Sexual Assault Investigation trainings. These trainings provide a comprehensive look at how law enforcement agencies can be sensitive to survivors’ needs and avoid retraumatization while employing the most effective methods to investigate crimes. Too often, a lack of understanding about how victims of violence react to trauma leads police officers to wrongly dismiss the accounts of survivors, which is why IACP’s trainings also include detailed lessons on how trauma can negatively impact survivors’ memory, reactions, and demeanor when recounting how they were abused or attacked.

Providing trauma-informed services for survivors highlights the closely related issue of vicarious trauma experienced by many service providers, law enforcement personnel, and others who work with victims and survivors of violence. Vicarious trauma, sometimes called ‘provider fatigue,’ ‘compassion fatigue,’ or ‘secondary trauma,’ has been described as the “experience of having exhausted hearts, minds, bodies, and souls from helping survivors through their painful experiences.” Over the course of months or years the effects of vicarious trauma can accumulate, and, if left unaddressed, can do serious damage to the mental and emotional wellbeing of providers and other who work to support survivors.

As we approach the middle of summer, it is important for all of us who work to support survivors to remember to take time to rest and care for ourselves. Simple and effective self-care strategies are available to address the negative effects of vicarious trauma. These strategies can include steps as simple as setting aside time to read, take a walk, or practice mindful meditation. It is important to remember that taking care of ourselves is not a selfish act; in fact, effectively managing stress can make each of us a more effective caregiver and service provider. If left unaddressed, vicarious trauma can cause severe stress, anxiety, anger, and insomnia, all of which can limit our effectiveness and ability to do our jobs well.   Many people who work on violence against women issues will eventually ‘burn out’ because of poorly managed stress and fatigue, often leaving this line of work, creating critical resource and knowledge gaps in our field. Managing stress and taking care of mental and emotional health is an important investment in our ability to continue to do this vital work over the long-term.

OVW recognizes the importance of self-care for all those who work with survivors, which is why OVW supported the development of information and trainings by technical assistance providers on how service providers can take care of themselves, along with the people they serve. These OVW funded trainings and publications center around simple and effective tools and best practices that both professionals and volunteers can use to manage stress and stay healthy. One OVW grantee, the National Center on Domestic Violence Trauma and Mental Health, will be offering a free webinar on “Caring for Others While Caring for Ourselveson July 30 from 2:00 – 3:30pm (CDT). This webinar will offer strategies for dealing with stress on the job, increasing awareness of the issue of vicarious trauma, and developing organizational support to help sustain and support service providers and caregivers. OVW also supported the development of an online guide on “Self-Care and Trauma Work” by NSVRC. This guide includes the common signs of vicarious trauma and information on how to build workplace cultures that can combat stress.

While we are continually increasing awareness of the traumatic effects of violence on survivors and service providers and the importance of trauma informed care, it is vital to recognize the effect that direct and vicarious trauma can have on all those affected by violent crime. All of us at OVW remain committed to ensuring that support is available for both the survivors of these crimes and the incredible service providers, law enforcement officials, judges, prosecutors, and other professionals and volunteers who work to help survivors heal.        

Thursday, July 24, 2014

This post appears courtesy of Eve Hill, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights

Victor Hugo wrote, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”  The Civil Rights Division enforces federal civil rights laws to keep school doors open to all students and prevent discrimination on the basis of disability.  The Civil Rights Division enforces Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to require schools, as well as localities and state agencies that provide educational services, to guarantee an equal opportunity for students with disabilities.  This guarantee is essential for these students to take advantage of the educational programs, services and activities that provide life-long benefits.  On the 24th Anniversary of the ADA, we celebrate the countless ways in which that landmark legislation has improved the lives of students with disabilities. 

The division has a multi-faceted enforcement strategy to help assure an equal opportunity for students with disabilities at school.  Through briefs and statements of interest filed in federal courts across the country, we have sought to ensure that schools and colleges meet their obligations and address discrimination faced by students with disabilities – from the failure to provide services to which students with disabilities are entitled to protecting students with disabilities from bullying.          

The division strives to end policies that discriminate against children based upon myths, fears and stereotypes about what children with disabilities can do.  These myths and stereotypes sometimes lead schools to reject students with disabilities, to assume they should be placed in special schools or classes or to deny them accommodations.  We work to ensure schools and others involved in education live up to their obligations to include and accommodate students with disabilities.  This includes providing accommodations on higher education entrance examinations and ensuring college instructional materials are accessible.

We are working to support students with disabilities who find themselves forced out of school doors as a result of inappropriate discipline, over-use of suspension and expulsion and “zero tolerance” for behavior infractions.  For some students, forcing them out the school door means literally moving them into a jail cell.  These students must have the opportunity to gain the knowledge and life skills they need to grow and thrive as independent adults.  In an effort to eliminate this “school to prison pipeline” for students with disabilities, we engage and negotiate with school districts to change discipline policies that discriminate on the basis of disability.  And even when students with disabilities are incarcerated, we work to ensure that they receive educational services so they can return to their communities better prepared to participate and contribute.

When students with disabilities face harassment or bullying on the basis of their disability, they are often unable to learn because they feel anxious, threatened or in danger.  Such harassment often causes irreparable damage to a student’s self-esteem and the stigma from disability-based harassment may last a lifetime.  The division is investigating complaints, negotiating comprehensive agreements with schools to address harassment and working with federal, state and local partners to develop policies to help end harassment. 

The ADA has opened many doors for many people over the past 24 years, and the division recognizes, as Albert Einstein noted, “that knowledge of what is does not open doors directly to what should be.”  We are fighting each and every day to push open doors on the path to “what should be” for all students with disabilities across the country.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

“The Department of Justice is working towards a future in which all the doors are open - to equality of opportunity, to independent living, to integration and to economic self-sufficiency - for everyone, including people with disabilities.”  Eric Holder, Attorney General 

People with disabilities have long faced barriers to full participation in society.  For the past 24 years, the Civil Rights Division has made protecting the rights of people with disabilities a top priority by enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in more than seven million places of public accommodation nationwide, and all operations of more than 90,000 units of state and local governments.  Our aggressive enforcement of the ADA touches the lives of people with disabilities and their families in many ways. 

Today, in honor of the 24th anniversary of the ADA, we highlight some of the ways the division is ensuring that technology improves access instead of creating new barriers for individuals living with disabilities.  

The explosion of new technology has dramatically changed the way America communicates, learns and does business.  For many people with disabilities, however, the benefits of this technology revolution remain beyond their reach.  Websites for many businesses and government entities remain inaccessible to people with vision or hearing disabilities.  Fortunately, websites and digital technologies can be made accessible, much like adding ramps to building entrances.  Electronic documents, websites, and other electronic information can be accessible to blind people and other people with disabilities through common computer technology.  Examples include “screen reader” programs which read electronic documents aloud, refreshable Braille displays, and keyboard navigation and captioning.  The Civil Rights Division is working to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind as new technology continues to emerge. 

Last week, the Justice Department announced that it reached a settlement with the Orange County Clerk of Courts in Florida to remedy violations of the ADA involving accessible technology.  The settlement resolves allegations that the Clerk of Courts failed to provide an attorney who is blind with electronic court documents in an accessible format readable by his screen reader technology.  

Under the ADA, state and local courts must make their programs, services, and activities accessible to qualified individuals with disabilities.  The official court record is a program, service, and activity of the court and, therefore, needs to be made accessible.     

Under the settlement agreement, the Clerk of Courts will provide individuals with disabilities with any document in the official court record in an accessible format upon request.   The settlement agreement also ensures that the Clerk of Courts’ website is accessible in accordance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA (http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20/).  Further, the Clerk of Courts will pay $10,000 in damages and receive training on the ADA and WCAG 2.0 AA requirements. 

Another recent consent decree resolving allegations by the Department of Justice relating to accessible technology involves H&R Block’s website and mobile applications.   

As one of the largest tax return preparers in the country, H&R Block offers many services through its website (www.hrblock.com) and its mobile apps, including tax preparation, instructional videos, office location information, live video conference/chat with tax professionals, online and in-store services and electronic tax-return filing. 

Last December, the Justice Department intervened in the lawsuit National Federal of the Blind et al. v. HRB Digital LLC et al. to enforce Title III of the ADA.  The department’s complaint alleged that H&R Block failed to make its website accessible to individuals who have vision, hearing and other disabilities.  

Under the terms of the five-year consent decree negotiated by the parties, H&R Block’s website, tax filing utility and mobile apps will conform to WCAG 2.0 Level AA and the website will be accessible for the next tax filing season on Jan. 1, 2015.  And in addition to paying $45,000 to the two individual plaintiffs and a $55,000 civil penalty, H&R Block will: appoint a skilled web accessibility coordinator; initiate training on accessible design for its web content personnel; evaluate employee and contractor performance based on successful web access; and hire an outside consultant to prepare annual independent evaluations of H&R Block’s online accessibility. 

As Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts and a partner on this consent decree, explained, “For those with disabilities, an inaccessible website puts them at a great disadvantage and further perpetuates a feeling of dependence and reliance on others.  With thoughtful and proper web design, businesses and organizations can have a great impact on the daily lives of people with disabilities who, like everyone else, seek to enjoy the benefits of technology.”

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

This post appears courtesy of Eve Hill, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights

TUESDAY:  Gateway to the Community

This week, in honor of the 24th anniversary of the ADA, we recognize and celebrate the different doorways that the ADA is opening up to people with disabilities.  Today, we highlight the ADA as a doorway to the community.

With the enactment of the ADA, Congress provided a clear and comprehensive national mandate to eliminate discrimination against individuals with disabilities.  Consistent with this, the Civil Rights Division works to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for people with all types of disabilities.  In short, we work to provide people with disabilities with meaningful opportunities to live life to their fullest potential.

Over the past year, we have continued our aggressive efforts to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C., which recognized that the civil rights of people with disabilities are violated under the ADA when they are unnecessarily segregated from the rest of society.  Under the ADA, states are required to avoid unnecessarily placing persons with disabilities in institutions and to ensure that they receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.  In this administration, the division has engaged in Olmstead enforcement activities in approximately 45 matters in 24 states on behalf of children and adults with physical, mental, and developmental disabilities who are in or at risk of entering segregated settings, including state-run and private institutions, nursing homes, board and care homes, and sheltered workshops.  Just last year, we participated in 18 Olmstead matters across the country.  Under statewide settlement agreements we have reached in eight states, over 46,000 people with disabilities across the country will have the opportunity to live and participate in their communities.

One of the most recent examples of our work ensuring community integration of adults with serious mental illness was in New Hampshire where the department finalized an agreement with the state to significantly expand and enhance its capacity to address the needs of over three thousand adults with serious mental illness in integrated community settings.  The agreement requires New Hampshire to create mobile crisis teams and community crisis apartments throughout the state as an alternative to more restrictive settings; to increase Assertive Community Treatment teams; to provide much more supported housing that is scattered throughout the community; and to significantly increase the number of people receiving integrated supported employment services in New Hampshire.

All of the decree requirements will foster the independence of people with serious mental illness and enable them to participate more fully in community life.  The expanded community services will significantly reduce visits to hospital emergency rooms and will avoid unnecessary institutionalization at state mental health facilities, including New Hampshire Hospital (the state’s psychiatric hospital) and the Glencliff Home (the state nursing home for people with mental illness).  Recently, the governor of New Hampshire signed into law a funding bill that will enable the state to implement the terms of the decree.  The new law authorizes approximately $9 million in additional mental health funding through next summer and commits the state to over $64 million in additional mental health funding through state fiscal year 2018.  Click here for more information.

To find out more about DOJ Olmstead enforcement work, visit the Olmstead: Community Integration for Everyone website, and visit our Faces of Olmstead website to read about some of the individuals whose lives have been improved by the Olmstead decision and the department’s Olmstead enforcement efforts.  For more general information on the Americans with Disabilities Act, visit ADA.gov, or call the toll-free ADA Information Line at (800) 514-0301 (voice) or (800) 514-0383 (TTY).

Monday, July 21, 2014

This post is courtesy of the Civil Rights Division 

During LGBTI Pride Month, advocates, scholars, authors and artists joined officials from across the government at the White House Forum on LGBTI & Disability Issues.  This first-of-its-kind event focused on intersections between the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) and disability communities, and was attended by representatives from across the federal government.  As the 24th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) approaches on July 26, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division reflects on the civil rights challenges faced by both communities.

As the arm of the Justice Department tasked with enforcing both the ADA and civil rights laws that protect LGBTI individuals, the Civil Rights Division was proud to participate in this important forum.  Megan Schuller, an attorney in the Disability Rights Section and member of the division’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Working Group, emphasized the similar challenges faced by LGBTI individuals and by people with disabilities, the unique challenges faced by LGBTI people with disabilities and the fact that both groups are stronger when they work together.

Many of the civil rights challenges faced by LGBTI people also confront people with disabilities.  Both groups are discriminated against in education, employment and housing.  Both groups face stigma from public service providers.  And both groups remain targets of harassment and hate crimes.  The division strives to address these critical issues.

The ADA demands equal opportunity for people with disabilities in public accommodations, employment and state and local services, and stands as a natural intersection of the civil rights struggles of both groups.  Alliances between the disability community and other civil rights movements were critical to passage of the ADA, and provided a united front against challenges to the act, such as efforts to exclude people with AIDS, which were defeated due to the united front of the disability and LGBTI movements. 

As a result, the ADA protects Americans with HIV or AIDS, which disproportionately affect LGBTI people.  Combating stigma and discrimination based on HIV status is crucial to ending this epidemic.  The division’s HIV/AIDS enforcement under the ADA since the National HIV/AIDS Strategy was announced in July 2010 has been robust.  Much of that work has involved allegations that individuals were denied care or were treated differently in health care because they have HIV.  In 2013, the division also successfully challenged the South Carolina Department of Corrections’ policy of segregating and discriminating against inmates with HIV, and in March 2014, reached a settlement agreement with Gwinnett College resolving allegations that the school did not allow a student with HIV to fully participate in its programs and classes. 

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, which may include discrimination based on a person’s nonconformity with stereotypes associated with that person’s real or perceived gender, as well as on the basis of disability.  Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 also protect students from discrimination on the basis of sex, while the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act prohibit discrimination against students with disabilities. 

The division’s settlements with the Arcadia School District in California and the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota also show that sex-based harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated and the division will use the laws and tools it has to fight the next generation of civil rights challenges. 

The division also vigorously prosecutes hate crimes, including crimes against LGBTI persons and individuals with disabilities.  The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 criminalizes violence committed because of actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability, if linked to interstate commerce.  Since the act’s passage, the division has made indictments in 27 hate crimes cases, including six separate cases in which 10 defendants committed offenses because of sexual orientation.  In 2013, the department charged five people with a hate crime for abuse of victims with mental disabilities; the first case in the nation to challenge a hate crime against people with disabilities. 

Though much progress has been made in these areas, substantial work remains.  To illustrate, while the ADA protects individuals from disability-based discrimination in employment, the civil rights laws do not yet fully protect individuals from discrimination in employment on the basis of their LGBTI status.  The same is true of education, housing and other areas where there are not explicit prohibitions of discrimination based on sexual orientation.  Even so, the division is committed to using every tool available to fight for the rights of LGBTI individuals and persons with disabilities.  As the White House Forum reminded its participants, those battles are essential to achieving a more equal America for all.

Friday, July 18, 2014

OIP’s Best Practices Panel (from left to right): Vanessa Brinkmann (OIP), Melanie Ann Pustay (OIP), Karen Finnegan (Dept. of Sta
OIP’s Best Practices Panel (from left to right): Vanessa Brinkmann (OIP), Melanie Ann Pustay (OIP), Karen Finnegan (Dept. of State), Martin Michalosky (CFPB), Erie Meyer (OSTP), and Mark Graff (NRC)

OIP’s ongoing series of Best Practices Workshops continued yesterday with a panel discussing proactive disclosures and how agencies can make information posted online more useful to interested parties.  The workshop series, designed as a part of the Administration’s efforts to modernize and improve FOIA administration, looks to showcase successes achieved by agencies across the government on a wide range of FOIA issues and to share successful strategies so that agencies can learn from one another.

The systematic and regular posting of information online by federal agencies in advance of receiving a FOIA request is an important aspect of Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines, and yesterday’s panel highlighted the creative and innovative ways that agencies are working to not only increase the amount of material made available online, but also the steps they are making to make such material more useful.  Serving on today’s panel were Erie Meyer from the Office of Science & Technology Policy, Vanessa Brinkmann from OIP, Karen Finnegan from the Department of State, Mark Graff from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Martin Michalosky from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. 

Each of the speakers detailed the steps and best practices they had utilized in order to carry out the important task of making meaningful and useful proactive disclosures, including:

  • Engaging with programmatic offices – By actively engaging with record creators at an agency, FOIA offices can identify potential proactive disclosures with more ease, and can work with those offices to make the posting of the material more efficient.
  • Making online information usable, not just accessible – Agencies continue to make strides in making online information more usable as they are also making more information available including posting in open formats, creating topical websites, or employing special search engines.
  • Utilizing available expertise outside of the FOIA office – Just as engaging with programmatic offices can help FOIA professionals locate potential proactive disclosures, leveraging available expertise from inside an agency (such as a Chief Information Officer) or from across the government (such Project Open Data or the 18F innovation lab) can help agencies unlock proactive disclosures that may be waiting at their agency.
  • Collaborating with stakeholders outside of agencies – Working with the public and interested agency stakeholders can allow FOIA offices to focus their efforts on particular types of proactive disclosures or identify useful formats that agencies can post information in.

Many of today’s speakers noted how their proactive disclosure processes benefited from the use of new technologies to post information in new ways in order to better serve their requester community and agency stakeholders.  A common theme from each member of the panel was how the implementation of an effective proactive disclosure process has helped create efficiencies in their agency’s FOIA operations overall.  Based on yesterday’s discussion and the importance of proactive disclosures to the FOIA process, OIP will continue to explore opportunities for specialized training in this area including a session on the requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act when agencies post information online.

The goal of this series is to provide agency personnel with the opportunity to hear from individuals who have faced similar challenges in order to leverage successes achieved by others for their own administration of the FOIA.  As seen today, opportunities exist to utilize experiences from around the government in order to improve proactive disclosure processes and make posted information more useful to the public.

The Best Practices Workshop series continues October 15, where a panel from the open government and FOIA requester communities will highlight agency best practices they have experienced while working through the FOIA process.  Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for more information about these events and about other training opportunities offered by OIP.  

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Friday, July 18, 2014

Each year, federal departments and agencies are required by law to submit a report to the Attorney General detailing various statistics regarding their agency’s FOIA activities, such as the numbers of requests processed and received, and the time taken to process them.  These Annual FOIA Reports, ninety-nine in total for FY 2013, are compiled by OIP and posted on the Reports page of our site.  The data from the agency Annual FOIA Reports is also uploaded onto FOIA.gov, the Justice Department’s government-wide FOIA resource.

In order to provide agency personnel and the public with a comprehensive picture of the government’s FOIA activities during the fiscal year, OIP routinely creates a summary of the information contained within agency Annual FOIA Reports.  Today, we posted our summary of these reports for FY 2013 (PDF).  As in previous years, the summary looks at government-wide data for many key statistics in FOIA administration and highlights significant numbers reported by individual agencies.  Additionally, the summary identifies trends in FOIA processing by comparing the FY 2013 Annual FOIA Report data with data from prior fiscal years.

As described in this year’s summary, during FY 2013 the government overall showed good progress in a number of areas despite difficult challenges and an ever increasing demand of incoming FOIA requests.  During FY 2013, the government overall received a record high 704,394 requests, and in response to this high demand, agencies processed a record high 678,391 requests.  While this impressive effort was not enough to offset the increase of incoming requests for overall backlog reduction, many individual agencies were able to reduce their backlog of requests in FY 2013.  Further, seventy three of the ninety-nine agencies reported low backlogs of 100 requests or fewer, with twenty-nine of those agencies reporting no backlogs at all.  The government overall also continued to maintain a high release rate of over 91% and it improved its average processing times for simple track requests.

OIP’s Summary of Annual FOIA Reports for FY 2013 is available on our Reports page where it can be compared with previous summaries dating back to FY 2006.  The data collected in agency Annual FOIA Reports can also easily be viewed, compared, and analyzed on FOIA.gov.

 
Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Thursday, July 10, 2014

As a part of the Second Open Government National Action Plan’s commitment to modernizing FOIA, OIP launched a new series of workshops focused on agency best practices in FOIA administration.  Next week OIP is hosting the second event in this Best Practices Workshop series on the topic of proactive disclosures and making posted information more useful for the public.  We are pleased to open this event to interested members of the public as well agency personnel.  

Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines encourage agencies to “readily and systematically post information online in advance of any public request.”  While increasing their proactive disclosures, agencies are also finding new and creative ways of making the information they post online easier to find and more useful to the public.  At this event, a panel of representatives from the Office of Science & Technology Policy, OIP, the Department of State, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will share their success stories and strategies on improving their proactive disclosures. 

As agencies continue to make progress in this area, it is important that they interact with the public in order to learn their needs and better understand how they access government information online.  To further that exchange, OIP is opening this event in the Best Practices Workshop series to the public. The details for next week’s event are:

FOIA Best Practices Workshop
Proactive Disclosures & Making Online Information More Useful
Department of Justice, Robert F. Kennedy Building
10th and Constitution Ave. NW – Great Hall
July 17, 2014, 10:00am – noon

You will need a picture ID to enter the building for this event.

The first event in this series focused on how agencies can reduce backlogs of FOIA requests and improve timeliness, and the panel of agency representatives identified a number of common approaches that they had each taken to achieve success in this important area.  As this series continues, we hope that FOIA professionals continue to learn from one another and leverage the successes of others in their own organizations for the overall benefit of FOIA administration across the government.

If you are interested in attending next week’s event, you can register by e-mailing your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “July Best Practices Workshop.”  As space for this meeting is limited, registration is required to attend.  If you have any questions regarding this event or the Best Practices series, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

Topic(s):
Open Government, FOIA Post
Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Last month, agency FOIA professionals and representatives from the FOIA requester community gathered together at OIP for the most recent FOIA Requester Roundtable.  The topic of this meeting was how agencies provide estimated dates of completion to FOIA requesters.  The roundtable focused on the statutory requirements of the FOIA to assign tracking numbers to requests and provide status information to requesters, including:

  • Subsection (a)(7)(A) - requiring agencies to assign an individualized tracking number to requests that will take longer than ten days to process, and
  • Subsection (a)(7)(B) – requiring agencies to establish a telephone line or Internet service that requesters can use to inquire about the status of their requests using the request’s assigned tracking number. 

After discussing the legal requirements of these provisions during the meeting, attendees shared a number of best practices for calculating estimated dates of completions, methods for providing this information to requesters, and the importance of good communication between agencies and the requester. OIP has previously issued guidance to agencies on the FOIA’s requirements to assign tracking numbers and provide status information for requests and today, OIP is issuing an updated version of that guidance.  This guidance further clarifies agencies' responsibilities under these statutory provisions, and can be found on the Guidance page of our website.

For further information about training and outreach opportunities from OIP, please visit our Training page.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Friday, June 27, 2014

This year has been a momentous year in the ongoing fight for LGBT rights. From the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act last June to this month’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruling that Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, we are witnessing an historic shift in the nations capacity to understand and protect the civil rights of LGBT Americans. And the Office on Violence Against Women is committed to build on this progress.  As we come together this June to celebrate LGBT Pride Month, I cannot think of a better time to highlight the important achievement of the countless LGBT advocates and allies who worked tirelessly to make sure the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA 2013) retained a non-discrimination provision. The non-discrimination provision is one of the most significant changes in VAWA 2013 and it ensures that all LGBT victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking have access to the lifesaving services funded by VAWA. This is the first time that any federal legislation has barred discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, and it is a major step forward in protecting the civil rights of LGBT Americans.  The unfortunate reality is that this provision is critically needed. For the first time, national representative data shows what we already knew – lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men report lifetime levels of intimate partner violence and sexual violence equal to or great than that of  heterosexuals. And the statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Victimization Survey (NISVS) on Victimization by Sexual Orientation are staggering: 

  • 44% of lesbian women, 61% of bisexual women, and 35% of heterosexual women experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime
  • 26% percent of gay men, 37% of bisexual men, and 29% of heterosexual men experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime
  • Approximately 1 in 5 bisexual women and nearly 1 in 10 heterosexual women have been raped by an intimate partner in their lifetime

 The VAWA 2013 non-discrimination provision reinforces that VAWA funded programs save lives and that all victims, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, deserve access to these lifesaving services. We know that many LGBT Americans continue to face discrimination, but that discrimination should never prevent someone from fleeing domestic violence or healing from sexual assault. And OVW is committed to working with our grantees, like the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), to develop organizational capacity and strengthen culturally-competent services for LGBT victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. We must ensure that providers are well trained and informed by the most current best practices.  OVW has a long history of funding LGBT organizations and remains dedicated to making  universal access and non-discrimination a reality. By funding organizations like NCAVP and FORGE, VAWA funds are supporting vital training and technical assistance to OVW grantees on culturally-competent care for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and dating violence. You can explore upcoming and archived webinars on the Training and Events page of FORGE’s website.  Another resource is the National Clearinghouse on Violence & Abuse in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer Communities, created by OVW Technical Assistance provider The Northwest Network. This comprehensive online resource provides current research and information on domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking affecting the LGBT community, and is an important space for community organizations and survivors to access useful advocacy tools like the LGBTQ Domestic Violence Legal Toolkit. This toolkit provides advocates with the necessary tools to help LGBT survivors navigate through the complex civil and criminal legal systems. I cannot overstate the importance of these and other resources, and I encourage anyone interested in learning more about any of these topics to visit the websites and reach out to these technical assistance A providers.  The Office on Violence Against Women is committed to ensuring that all LGBT survivors and victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking can access the vital services supported by OVW without fear of discrimination. As we continue to work with the entire Department of Justice to ensure equality for all, OVW will continue to work to with our grantees and technical assistance providers to expand the availability of culturally-competent services for LGBT victims and survivors.  Grantees are encouraged to review the Frequently Asked Questions released by the Office of Civil Rights, Office of Justice Programs to understand obligations under the expanded non-discrimination provision of VAWA 2013. The Office of Civil Rights, Office of Justice Programs is also available to answer questions and can be contacted via email at VAWAcivilrights@usdoj.gov.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

This blog is courtesy of Meg Morrow, an attorney advisor for the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC).  Ms. Morrow manages OVC’s efforts to respond to elder abuse.

The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) joins with other components within the Department of Justice to acknowledge the prevalence of elder abuse in the United States and to recognize promising advances in the field.  Having recognized World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on June 15, 2014, we can glean hope from the increase in awareness and recognition of elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation in this country while facing the challenges of the work that remains.

OVC believes that the more we educate victim service providers, criminal justice professionals and allied practitioners about victim issues, the better able those professionals are to serve victims who need those services.  In the area of elder abuse, OVC has worked diligently to develop training for the full range of professionals who interact with elders who may be victims of abuse, including victim service providers, physicians, nurses, law enforcement, adult protective services, aging services providers, judges and court personnel and community corrections professionals.

In that spirit, OVC teamed with the department’s Elder Justice Initiative and Access to Justice Initiative to develop an interactive, online curriculum for legal aid and other civil attorneys on identifying and responding to elder abuse.  As Deputy Attorney General James Cole said when he announced this collaboration, “Legal services programs have a unique opportunity to prevent and remedy elder abuse.”

Funded through the Elder Justice Initiative, this curriculum includes six one-hour modules that address a range of issues relevant to civil attorneys who serve older clients in the course of their practice.  This training has the basic information and tools attorneys can use to identify and address the needs of their older clients who may be experiencing some form of abuse.

This week, the Department released the first three modules of the curriculum: What Every Legal Services Lawyer Needs to Know About Elder Abuse; Practical and Ethical Strategies; and Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.  The three remaining modules, Elder Abuse in Long-Term Care; Financial Exploitation; and Guardianship, Conservatorship and Surrogate Decision Making, are scheduled for release later in the summer.

Legal aid attorneys regularly work with older clients who are victims of elder abuse, but too often the attorneys do not recognize the warning signs of abuse or know where to turn for help.  With this curriculum, the department aims to ensure that these critical allied practitioners have the resources they need to identify the abuse and take action.

Later this summer, Access to Justice is issuing a case study, Civil Legal Aid Supports Federal Efforts to Prevent and Remedy Elder Abuse, which will be made part of the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable Toolkit that Associate Attorney General Tony West recently announced at the April 8, 2014, White House Forum on Increasing Access to Justice.  This case study will explain the unique role civil legal aid lawyers can play in helping to prevent and remedy elder abuse.

OVC will continue to work with our partners at the department to expand services that address the needs of elder abuse victims.

I encourage legal aid lawyers, other civil attorneys and any other professionals seeking to learn about the identification of elder abuse to access the new training modules to learn more about what they can do to address elder abuse.

To learn more information on OVC’s efforts to enhance the response to elder abuse victims, please visit the office's website.

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Friday, June 13, 2014

Every year on June 15, communities around the world come together on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) to promote understanding and increase awareness about the abuse and neglect experienced by millions of older adults each year. Commemorating WEAAD is an opportunity for those of us working with the hundreds of thousands of older Americans who experience physical, sexual, psychological, and financial exploitation to recommit ourselves – and our communities – to ending abuse of older Americans nationwide.

We know that elder abuse is a widespread problem and can occur in any community. A 2010 survey estimated that 11% of Americans experience elder abuse each year. Although anyone can be a victim – regardless of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, mental capacity, and physical ability – the vast majority of victims are women.  Sadly, older individuals are usually abused by their spouses, partners, family members, and caregivers. Victims may refrain from seeking help or calling the police due to shame or embarrassment because the abuse was committed by someone they are close to and trust.  Because of this and the many obstacles all victims of abuse face, cases of elder abuse are underreported.  For every one case of elder abuse that comes to the attention of a responsible entity, another twenty-three cases never come to light.

The Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) remains committed to enhancing the criminal justice response to elder abuse and expanding available resources to support victims and survivors. Since 2010, 36 communities have received funding through OVW’s Enhanced Training and Services to End Abuse in Later Life Program. Our grantees represent the diversity of American communities; from large, urban communi­ties, like Los Angeles to small cities like Rochester, NY and tribal communities like Nez Perce, ID.  The Abuse in Later Life Program has made it possible for thousands of law enforcement officials, prosecutors, victim service providers, and other professionals who work with older victims to receive vital training on how to recognize and address elder abuse. Abuse in Later Life grantees have provided victim centered services to hundreds of older victims and they have collaborated with project partners to enhance their communities’ response to elder abuse by working together to enhance victim safety and offender accountability.  

As the percentage of Americans over the age of 50 continues to grow, elder abuse and abuse in later life may become more prevalent. We need to continue to work to raise awareness of elder abuse in our communities, acknowledge that abuse can happen to anyone – regardless of age – and resolve to come together to end elder abuse. 

Information and resources on elder abuse is available through the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life (NCALL) and the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA). Additional  information on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day can be found on the Administration for Community Living website.

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, neglect, or exploitation visit NCEA’s State Resources webpage or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).

Friday, June 13, 2014
Video: Celebrating Fatherhood and Encouraging Mentorship with the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative Video: Celebrating Fatherhood and Encouraging Mentorship with the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative

I would not be where I am today without the love, guidance, and support of my father.  He taught me to work hard, to dream big, to give back to my community, and to always remember the responsibility I have to be a role model for my own children.  But as we celebrate Father’s Day this weekend, we must all be mindful of a tragic truth: far too many children simply cannot count on the love and support of an attentive parent.  This is not an individual problem – it’s a national concern that affects each and every one of us.  And that’s why President Obama has launched a national call to action – known as “My Brother’s Keeper” – that’s bringing together government and private groups to address persistent opportunity gaps and provide young people with the support they need to stay on the right path.

Attorney General Holder attends an event with his son, Eric Holder III, and his brother, William Holder. (Credit: Department of Justice) Attorney General Holder attends an event with his son, Eric Holder III, and his brother, William Holder. (Credit: Department of Justice)

My Brother’s Keeper is uniting Americans from all walks of life to build sustained mentoring relationships that will help countless children across the country.  Study after study has shown just how critical it is for our children to have strong, positive role models.  With the benefits of mentorship, kids are more likely to mature into responsible, confident, and healthy young adults who are better prepared to contribute, and to lead, as full and productive members of society – and to serve as role models themselves.

That’s why I’m honored to join President Obama in calling on all Americans to get involved in My Brother’s Keeper today.  By pledging to serve as a long-term mentor to a young person in your community, you can make a real difference while inspiring others to do the same.  You can provide the positive influence that so many children lack, helping to knock down barriers to success and changing the trajectory of a child’s life for the better.

Attorney General Eric Holder hosts a My Brother’s Keeper discussion with Indian American young men at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, ND. (Credit: Denis Neumann, UTTC) Attorney General Eric Holder hosts a My Brother’s Keeper discussion with Indian American young men at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, ND. (Credit: Denis Neumann, UTTC)

The power – and the responsibility – to be a role model for our nation’s young people rests in your hands.  Please take the pledge – at whitehouse.gov/mybrotherskeeper – and do your part to help a new generation of Americans build the better, brighter futures they deserve.

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