It used to be that when someone reported a sexual violence crime, police response protocols varied, or the victim became a small piece in an investigation that centered around who did what, where and how. The focus wasn’t on the victim.
But that is changing — and for the better.
Thanks to advocacy, the sharing of information and a cultural shift, investigations, response and follow-up are centered around the victim’s safety and what he or she wants, needs or feels should happen. It’s a way to give back power that has been stripped away and should be encouraged and standardized at every law enforcement agency in the state.
Part of keeping the victim at the center of response is how we as advocates treat those we help and how we protect their individual stories.
In my training recently with Rape Response Services, Executive Director Tamar Mathieu explained that one of the most important pieces of our role is confidentiality. Our class explored what confidentiality means in the context of Bangor, a small city, and discussed when breaking confidentiality is deemed OK. (Most often, never. When it comes to Rape Response, it’s an exception rather than the rule.)
Confidentiality is not just about telling a friend or loved one about a case but leaving off the victim’s name. It means the victim’s name, any identifying details and information about the case is completely private and should only be discussed between advocates and others directly involved in the case.
“It gets really hard to know the things you know,” Mathieu said in class. “But it’s so important because people connect the dots, and we need to prevent that from happening.”
Sexual assault information is held to the same standard as someone’s medical information. These guidelines are not just part of Rape Response Services’ protocol but a requirement of federal funding, which the organization receives from sources such as the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women.
When advocates respond to a sexual assault call, some may take notes so they can talk about the incident with their supervisors or later on with the victim, but these are often later destroyed.
Another way we can keep the response process about the victim, and not about us as advocates, is to check in with ourselves and the victim throughout the process. We will be heading into a hospital room to meet a perfect stranger, but throughout the course of the night and follow up, we may learn incredibly personal information about the victim and what he or she experienced. It is only natural to start feeling close with someone, but advocates are encouraged to establish strong and clear boundaries — both physical and emotional.
Our handbook, put together by the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, states that boundaries are important because they not only create safety but help victims maintain a sense of power and self.
We are taught to only identify ourselves by first names, to only meet clients at a hospital, medical facility, police station or courthouse. And under no conditions are we to give out a personal telephone number or transport victims either home or elsewhere.
But what about those times when advocates have to break confidentiality? Does that remove the victim from the center of the response circle and put him or her at the whim of someone else’s decision making?
Advocates are mandated reporters. As such, all trainees must sign a document stating that we will report “any incident of present abuse or neglect … of a child,” or any adult considered “incapacitated” or “dependent.”
Adult victims must have decision-making power about whether to report to law enforcement, but if the victim is a child or a dependent, that responsibility falls to other adults, such as nurses or advocates.
According to Maine statutes, abuse or neglect of a child is defined as “a threat to a child’s health or welfare by physical, mental or emotional injury or impairment” and includes sexual assault, abuse and exploitation. Abuse of an adult is defined as “the infliction of injury, unreasonable confinement, intimidation or cruel punishment that causes or is likely to cause physical harm or pain or anguish; sexual abuse or sexual exploitation.”
If advocates suspect or know the child or dependent adult they are working with is being abused, we are required to submit a report. At that point, the child or adult’s safety becomes more important than their confidentiality. Advocates are taught to tell victims upfront that we are mandated reporters and should explain to victims why we must report if required to.
Too many times in recent history, people have stood by or heard about abuse and not reported, thinking someone else would take care of it. Ultimately, the victim’s well-being and safety is our priority and the priority of law enforcement.
Natalie Feulner of Bangor is the BDN newsroom administrator.