Survivor Safety Plans
A top priority for Tribal Advocates is assisting survivors of domestic and sexual violence with creating ongoing safety plans. Safety planning can balance safety with freedom by adjusting to changing needs and avoiding isolation. Advocates help survivors by thinking through what types of scenarios might occur and what types of responses have or haven’t worked in the past. Survivors are the experts of their lived experiences, and advocates can help assess risks and offer resources based on what survivors share. The plans should be realistic and updated regularly, to make sure they are current to any life changes. The plans need to be holistic towards physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, and technological aspects of survivors’ lives.
Below is an example safety planning worksheet, with some standard Domestic Violence (DV) considerations for the survivor and their children:
While the above worksheet does include spaces to document the plan; realistically, the plan should not be kept in writing for a perpetrator to find. Safety plans are like other emergency safety drills that should be practiced so that they are easy to remember. Valuable time will be wasted if a survivor or their children need to find the safety plan in an emergency before they know how to respond. Make it as easy and memorable as, “stop, drop, and roll”.
Emergency Safety Plans
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that many Tribal Advocates have not safety planned for other types of emergencies; so hopefully, your program has been thinking about how to update policies and procedures in response. We’ve had to rapidly navigate social distancing, increase our mobile advocacy, and develop new strategies. We saw many programs simultaneously adjusting to Covid safety guidance while also evacuating due to dangerous weather and natural disasters. Documenting the processes and procedures that you have successfully used will be important for similar emergencies in the future. Consider facility/office emergencies, which could be temporary or long-term losses in necessities like utilities and water. If you haven’t started updating emergency policies and procedures, then there’s no better time to start than now.
The shift to mobile and virtual advocacy during Covid has created additional layers of confidentiality, which is critical for safety. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) regulations only allow sharing “personally identifying information in three specific circumstances:
(1) When the victim provides written, informed, and reasonably time-limited consent to the release of information (“a release”);
(2) When a statute compels that the information be released; or
(3) When a court compels that the information be released.
If a statute or court compels the release of information, the grantee or subgrantee releasing the information must (1) make reasonable attempts to provide notice of the release to affected victims and (2) take steps necessary to protect the privacy and safety of persons affected by the release.”
Additionally, VAWA regulations require grantees to make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent disclosure of identifying and individual information, especially when making use of any third-party database, or internal database managed by an outside company. If VAWA, FVPSA, or VOCA grantees put personally identifying victim information into databases and the identifying information is readable by people outside of the victim services unit (including outside tech companies), the grantees are disclosing the victim information and risk both the safety of survivors and the program’s funding. The prohibition on disclosure in an outside database also applies to a homeless management information system (HMIS). (TechSafety.org)
Safety Planning for Confidentiality: Less is Best
Confidentiality can be especially difficult in rural, reservation communities because everyone knows everyone. However, the safety of survivors is essential, and confidentiality can be the difference between life and death. We must do everything that we can to protect information that can identify survivors.
Some first steps in creating a safety plan for confidentiality, include:
• Securing physical and electronic files;
• Revisiting your Limited Release of Information form and procedures to make sure the who, what, when, where, why, and how are clear; and
• Ensuring that your program is documenting and storing only what is required for grant compliance.
Below is an example of documentation for Transitional Housing services:
Some things that you might have noticed right away, are that the participants are given code-names to protect their identities, and that the service notes section is very small. The only notes necessary are the ones you need for grant reporting requirements. It’s important to not over-document in your file notes. It should not give perpetrators unsafe or embarrassing information about survivors if the file is every subpoenaed for court.
You may have worked past jobs that required or encouraged extensive notes. If so, this documentation style is definitely a huge shift when you’ve been writing paragraphs for each contact note! You might worry that you’ll forget too much or that you aren’t documenting enough to “prove” that you provided advocacy. However, the more time you spend with survivors, the less you’ll feel like you need to take detailed notes to remember their stories and situations. Luckily, shorter notes benefit you because you’ll have more time to spend on individualized advocacy, culturally specific shelter activities, outreach projects, educational materials, etc. Relationship building is critical, and you’ll have more time to build relationships when you aren’t trying to prove that you’re building relationships.
You also don’t want the file to become storage for survivors, so don’t save unnecessary paperwork in them. If survivors need a safe place to keep important documents, then work with them to find secure spots. Less paperwork in the files makes it easier for you to find what you actually need, and less dangerous if the files are subpoenaed.
What are the next steps, then? Well, once you’ve created a confidentiality safety plan, practice it and let program participants know about it. Survivors want to know what’s in their files and how much advocates are documenting. They may not trust talking with you if they don’t know what you’re writing down. When they worry that you might document information about suicidal ideation, alcohol use, mental health treatment, and parenting struggles, then they are likely to hide things and not access healing options that could help. Transparency and honesty build relationships.
Red Wind has a variety of archived webinars, including:
- Red Wind has a Transitional Housing Toolkit available online, which contains sections on Confidentiality and Safety Planning.
- Please feel free to reach out with questions to: Wyanet Tasker at Wyanet@Red-Wind.net.
Housing and Homeless Services TTA: This project is supported by Grant №2015-TA-AX-K069 awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this presentation are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.