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Getting the Most Out of Your FOIA Request, Part Two


A sun shining through clouds with the ACF Logo and the words "Sunshine Week"By Kimberly N. Epstein, Freedom of Information Act Officer

Save time getting your information. Many people are surprised to learn that not every request for information is a FOIA request.  Understanding what information we don’t provide can save you from “barking up the wrong tree.”

By law, a FOIA request is a request for an existing federal agency record, such as a report, a letter, an email or an application. 

  • The request must describe the record well enough that it can be found.
    • Example: Every paper that has XX on it, doesn’t give us enough information to know where to search. 
  • Questions, like How much…? or How many…? aren’t actually FOIA requests. 
  • Congress and courts know that answering FOIA requests can be a costly use of taxpayer money, so agencies are not required to do a person’s research for him or to make up a new document for her. 

FOIA is for federal records. The FOIA applies to federal agencies and their records. It does not apply to state or local records.

  • Example: ACF has programs about adoption, for example, but does not keep records of every adoption. Those records are kept by state and/or local authorities. 
  • Most states have some open records law for state records. These apply to state agencies, and can be researched online. 
  • If you are not sure whether the records you want are federal, state or local, you can call your state or local agency or the ACF FOIA Office at 1-888-747-1861.

Agencies don’t keep records forever. How long agency records are kept is decided according to a schedule published by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), available at The records schedule describes general categories of records and how long the records in each category are kept. Permanent records not needed on a daily basis may be stored in a NARA facility; other records may be destroyed according to the records schedule. Certain records of historical importance are transferred to the legal custody of NARA and must be requested from the NARA FOIA Office:

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