Publication Date: April 2009
Protecting privacy is difficult. To succeed, an advocate should remember to uphold these principles and immediately contact the victim service director and victim if confidentiality has been breached.
- All information about the victim, stated or inferred, belongs to the victim. With few exceptions, the victim owns the sole right to share this information. Identifying information, options discussed, written notes and materials, and the fact that a victim has sought or received services are confidential.
- The role of a sexual assault victim advocate is unique. An advocate must treat the victim's privacy with the utmost respect by upholding that right. The advocate should inform victims that they have the right to refuse to provide any personal, confidential information about themselves to police, hospital staff, prosecutors, other counselors, coworkers, family members, and friends. Personal information includes sexual orientation, past sexual history, HIV status, medical and mental health history, and conversations with a spouse, attorney, religious counselor, or health care provider. Also, an advocate must discuss with the victim the possible consequences of sharing or not sharing information (for example, how this could be used in court proceedings) so that the victim can make informed decisions.
- The victim service center's policies and practices are the fundamental support for maintaining victims' privacy. Privileged communication laws are not enough to protect confidential information. Program policies can address the full range of privacy rights and expectations for all clients. Furthermore, community stakeholders need to be informed that advocates do not share information because advocates believe that victims' right to privacy and ability to control personal information is central to their healing and recovery.
- A victim's decision to disclose information must be voluntary and free from pressure.
A victim has the right to explore options and to make decisions related to private information. The advocate's role is to provide and discuss options that will help the victim decide if, when, how, and with whom confidential information will be disclosed. Any decision made by the victim must be respected and honored. The advocate must refuse to disclose the victim's confidential information. However, an advocate and center should understand that their ability to protect a victim's right to privacy to the full extent of the law may vary depending on the law of that jurisdiction. These decisions and actions should be made with the assistance and advice of legal counsel. This may mean incurring attorneys' fees, that the media becomes involved, or that the advocate or center risk contempt of court penalties. Upon hiring of staff and volunteers, the victim services center should provide a confidentiality agreement that fully informs staff and volunteers of this obligation, the risks, their responsibility, and best practices for protecting the security of a victim's information.
- Advocates can release information only with the informed consent and authorization of the victim (or the legal guardian in the case of a victim with limited mental capacity). Informed consent means that the victim has been fully informed of the potential benefits and risks of releasing confidential information and the victim fully and freely consents to do so. The victim's authorization to release information should be made in writing. The authorization should be time-limited and specific regarding the information to be shared and with whom that information will be shared.
- A victim can withdraw the authorization to release information at any time and the advocate should inform the victim of this option. Also, the advocate should explain that withdrawing the authorization does not affect the release of any information already disclosed, and that the victim does not have control of or the ability to retract information previously released.