Adapt and serve: Responding to sexual assault in a pandemic

Tips on safely maintaining services for sexual assault survivors in today's socially distanced world


This article is based off a webinar the author participated in hosted by End Violence Against Women International, with Grace Frances, Andrea Munford, Matthew Stegner, and Sheree Goldman. The information contained within this article is a compilation of information shared by webinar participants.

The virtual platform has become a fixture in a world where people have been asked to shelter in place. Schools and businesses have transitioned from an in-person environment to a place where learning and business is conducted via a computer screen.

Though fewer people are seen out in public, and in many communities, large gatherings are still prohibited and/or limited, interpersonal violence has not stopped

Access to services, however, has become more of a challenge; from law enforcement follow-up to medical care, systems have had to adapt to continue serving the public. 

Interpersonal violence hasn't taken time off for the pandemic, making it that much more critical for communities to find ways to continue supporting survivors during this challenging time. (Photo/Unsplash)
Interpersonal violence hasn't taken time off for the pandemic, making it that much more critical for communities to find ways to continue supporting survivors during this challenging time. (Photo/Unsplash)

A growing conversation has been about how to continue helping those who have experienced sexual violence, while also keeping them, and others, safe from potentially contracting or transmitting the virus.

One of the ways to connect with individuals is using the same methods as schools and businesses – the internet. While in-person interviews are preferable, it is not always advisable. 

What follows are tips on how to adapt to this new format so you can still serve your community during this challenging time.

Develop a Plan

Research the various platforms currently available and identify a system that offers the best security and fits your organizational needs. Individuals will be sharing intimate details and should feel confident the environment in which they are speaking is private.

Determine if the interview will be recorded and, if so, how the video or audio will be stored. Similar to the storage of other pieces of electronic evidence, video and audio recordings should be maintained in a secure location to prevent unauthorized parties from access.

If the interviews are going to be used within the criminal justice system, consult with the prosecuting attorney’s office to ensure they are in support of this mode of interviewing.

Develop policies and procedures for conducting virtual interviews. The policies should include, at the minimum, who will have access, if they will be recorded, and how the recordings should be stored.

Have a back-up plan for if a party does not have access to the internet or there is an issue with the system being used.

Practice

Become familiar with the software system prior to using it for the first time. Utilize a victim advocate or a colleague to do a test meeting. Work through any critical errors prior to conducting an official interview.

Be prepared for the platform or internet to fail. Have contact numbers for the parties involved and be prepared to switch to a conference call. 

Prior to the interview, practice connecting phone calls (using colleagues or friends) via the telephone to make the transition smooth if it becomes necessary during the interview. If you plan to record the call, have a digital recording and earpiece ready for the transition.

The Interview

The process and procedures for interviews should only vary slightly when in the virtual environment. 

Begin the interview with an introduction and explanation of who you are and the purpose of the call. Take the time to build rapport and help the parties feel comfortable in the virtual environment. 

Consider the needs of the person being interviewed. What barriers and accessibility needs do they have? How much experience do they have with technology? Can you walk them through the platform to assist them? Is an interpreter required?

This may be necessary for someone who requires American Sign Language or for someone who does not speak English as their first language. Have the interpreter in place before the interview begins.

If the plan is to record the meeting, ask permission of everyone involved. Explain the purpose of recording the interview and who will have access. Explore the platform being used prior to the interview and if applicable, explain to parties if they utilize the “chat” feature on the platform it may be automatically transcribed. 

Advise parties they can take a break at any time. Victims may need to collect themselves or speak with a victim advocate; suspects may want to consult with their attorney.

Have a plan in place for parties to speak without being recorded, and how they can do so privately. Some platforms have virtual break-out rooms parties can use, but many do not. 

Utilize the same trauma-informed practices used during in-person interviews. Allow victims to control the pace of the interview. Listen to understand, not respond. Ask open-ended, non-judgmental questions to give victims the opportunity to provide a clear word-picture of what occurred. 

Document

Document the interview in the same way you would document an in-person interview, but with a few additions. The report should include the names of all the parties present, any time(s) when the recording was stopped and why, whether or not the report is a summary or full transcript, and where and how the recording is stored.

Adapting to a changing world

This guide is not intended to replace in-person interviews, but rather is meant to help us adapt to a world that is changing. Virtual interviews can not only provide access during times of shelter-in-place orders but also provide a tool for those who do not have transportation access, childcare, or have a fear of law enforcement.

This tool can be used to minimize more barriers, provide more access, and help us to adapt and overcome to better serve the community.

Next: How to improve sex crime investigations

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