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Connecting the Dots: Advocates’ Responsibilities for Increasing Privacy, Upholding Confidentiality, and Promoting Safety

October 21, 2019

Advocates in the movement to end violence take a stand passionately against domestic violence and for the rights of survivors. Important pillars of this movement include: privacy, confidentiality, and safety – and understanding the details about the federal statutes related to survivor confidentiality are an essential component to upholding a survivor’s right to privacy and safety.

On September 9-10, advocates from across the country joined the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) in Atlanta, Georgia, for “Strictly Confidential: Protecting Survivor Privacy in Federally Funded Programs.” At this conference, more than 130 attendees learned about best practices for increasing privacy, upholding confidentiality, and promoting safety.

Survivors Have the Right to Control Information and Decision-making and Advocates Have the Responsibility to Protect Information

Programs that receive funds under the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA), must meet certain confidentiality requirements. As an advocate, it’s important to understand the nuances around privacy and confidentiality. (Privacy means that survivors have the right to control information and decisions about themselves, while confidentiality means the advocate has a responsibility to protect information that the survivor has shared.)

One method to uphold confidentiality and help protect survivor privacy is for advocates to undergo a constant, compassionate process of self-reflection by asking: “Am I asking the survivor what they need and then working to center their priorities?”

There are individuals within an agency who are “within the circle” and with whom survivors choose to share their information. Everyone else is considered outside the circle, and information can’t be shared with them without the written, informed, time limited consent of the survivor – this includes law enforcement, child welfare agencies, other victim service programs, and more. The only exception to this is if there is a statutory or court mandate that requires the information be shared, or sharing non-personally identifying information in aggregate form (for example, that a program served 250 survivors between the ages of 18 and 45 last year).

Federal Statutes Protect Survivor Information and Confidentiality

Local programs may receive requests that try to circumvent survivor confidentiality – from community agencies, family members, abusers, even funders – which is why it is so important to understand the federal statutes that are in place to protect access to this data.

Sometimes, collaborative work can put advocates in a tough spot. One session drilled down into a potentially problematic quirk of human nature: we like to be helpful. When an authoritative person requests or demands information, such as through a subpoena, warrant, court order, or audit, our immediate urge is to comply, even though each of these requests bears different legal requirements. When it comes to disclosing survivors’ personally identifying information (PII), there can be severe, even life-threatening consequences for the survivor. This is why VAWA, VOCA, and FVPSA all require that one shall not disclose PII collected in connection with program services unless there is: 1) written, informed, time limited consent from the survivor OR 2) a statutory or court mandate requiring that disclosure.

Informed Consent and Release of Information

In order to be truly survivor-centered, discussions about releases of information must start as conversations, not with the forms themselves. Further, anything signed by the survivor that would release their information must be the survivor’s choice, not a requirement. Once again the question, “Are my actions centered on the survivor?” comes into play in this context.

For more on this topic, check out our Model Confidentiality Templates – which include the recently updated Template Release of Information which is now a shorter, simpler form and is available in both English and Spanish.

Agency Use of Technology

It’s also important to consider agency use of technology, including the kinds of technology that programs use and how they may impact a survivor’s privacy and confidentiality. While programs sometimes may find it more economical for advocates to use their own devices to communicate with survivors, this practice has several security and safety concerns. For example, it may be difficult to secure access and family members may accidentally see private files or chats.

  • Privacy and accessibility should be considered when choosing digital service platforms to communicate with survivors. Advocates must seek out software that prioritizes digital security and privacy, and should examine their organizational policies related to technology to ensure that they have solid structures to prevent possible compromises to survivor confidentiality and establish protocols if it does occur. It may seem far from the urgent business of meeting housing, employment, and other needs, but responsible use of technology is an integral part of serving survivors. Learn more with our Agency Use of Technology: Best Practices and Policies Toolkit.

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