The Incredible Value of Probation Records
It took a remarkable amount of patience, persistence, and kindness with government officials and archivists—well over two years’ worth—but my client and friend finally did it. She got a copy of her research subject’s probation records from 1940s Brooklyn. What neither of us was prepared for was the volume of detailed information we’d find in the ninety-seven pages of that probation file: information about her immigrant subject’s origins, background, parents, husbands, children, and close associates, in addition to the details of the case and its participants, observational notes taken throughout the subject’s probation, and correspondence with various government agencies and charitable organizations with a particular interest in the subject or her case.
Relatively little has been written for genealogical researchers about probation records, and a brief exploration of the record type suggests that the process of finding them can vary significantly in different locations. They may be currently managed by the pertinent county or district court, the Department of Probation, the Department of Justice, the District Attorney’s Office, or local archives. In this particular case, the record was found in an unprocessed collection of Kings County Supreme Court probation case files at the New York City Municipal Archives. Suffice to say, finding probate records is too complicated a subject to tackle in one brief article. At the moment, I simply want to introduce this record set to a broader audience.
Ninety-seven pages in a single PDF can be a little overwhelming when you’re trying to navigate to a particular section, or topic, or data point. So I did what I do when I get a Civil War pension application file of a similar length, for example. I created a quick and easy table of contents. That’s what I’ve copied below. Go ahead. Give it a gander. And imagine what you could find out about your ancestor’s life with just one file like this one.
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If I may ask, what department were the government individuals in who your colleague worked over time to gain favor with to obtain that probation file? Also, how did she initially establish a relationship of trust with them? It sounds as if it takes much more that a FOIA request to get them to open give up the file.
I look forward to your response. Great article and I always knew probation files were rich with information.
Apologies for the delay in responding to this. It slipped through the cracks over the holidays.
I also apologize if I gave the impression that my friend had to curry favor with government officials and coax them into allowing her to access a public record. It wasn’t a matter of a FOIA request being denied until someone felt buttered up enough. The problem was finding the record when neither the courts nor archivists knew where it was or how it was filed.
Remember first that this is an unusual record for the public to request, so clerks and archivists don’t know the record sets as well as they do the much more common records. In this case, the record ended up being in an unprocessed collection at the Municipal Archives. If a record collection has not yet been processed, there is no finding aid to use to locate a record. For their Kings County court records, the Kings County DA’s office was supposed to deliver an index to the Archives along with the records, but they didn’t. Archivists can’t fix the absence of an index.
Of the references to the probation records we had found in other records, there were a handful of numbers or alpha-numeric identifiers by which the record might have been filed. It took time and lots of back-and-forth (dozens of calls and emails) with several archivists and clerks checking the same record sets two and three and four times before we figured out what each number or identifier actually referred to and how the probation record was filed.
Everyone went above and beyond in working with my friend and me. In fact, it was only when an archivist and the Assistant Commissioner at the Municipal Archives continued to pore through more than 200 boxes that all the pieces fell into place and the file was finally located. When it was located, it was scanned (in color) and sent to us the same day. No FOIA ever required or requested.
My only point in mentioning kindness is that clerks and archivists, like anyone, are much more likely to go far above and beyond their job requirements if we’re kind and respectful. Since I see the opposite form of behavior among some genealogists, I thought it worth mentioning.