|High-Tech Advocacy: The CyberCrisisTM Anonymous Messaging System
The Network of Victim Assistance (NOVA) in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, uses the CyberCrisisTM Anonymous Messaging System to give rural crime victims access to services and information while it also protects their anonymity.
"I didn't know where to turn in order to get help until . . . I read the article [about CyberCrisisTM] in the [local paper]. Thank God for this. It's surely nice to think someone cares." (PCAR Pinnacle newsletter, winter 2003)
A full-time outreach coordinator receives the incoming questions through the CyberCrisisTM system, seeks answers from NOVA's counseling and legal staff, and sends the victim a response. The goal, explains the Internet coordinator, is to link victims with victim service providers in their own area.
Using the online service is simple:
History and Future Plans
- Users access the CyberCrisisTM system through the NOVA Bucks County Web site and register by creating a username and password to which only they have access. (CyberCrisisTM uses the same highly secure encryption technology as banks and retailers.)
- Users are then prompted with a series of optional demographic questions (e.g., age, gender) placed on the system for grant purposes. Each county that employs the CyberCrisisTM system can tailor its own mandatory and optional questions.
- The user then posts a message in an anonymous, highly secure mailbox created with a unique username and password.
- The system notifies the Internet coordinator of all new users and messages.
- The Internet coordinator responds to the message within 1 to 2 days, and the system notifies this coordinator when the user retrieves the message.
Implemented in 2002 with an advertising campaign funded by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, the system received 133 messages in its first year, from local victims and from victims as far away as Germany, Japan, and New Zealand. In 2003, the system received 108 messages, averaging about 10 a month.
Although CyberCrisisTM is primarily a referral and resource system, NOVA's long-term goal is to provide counseling and advocacy to victims with its own Internet outreach staff. Information about implementing an anonymous messaging system is available at the CyberCrisisTM site.
Other forms of technology also can be effective avenues for communicating with victims, such as relaying questions and responses by e-mail or an automated phone system. In addition, a recorded message line can give victims and witnesses 24-hour access to directions, case status, and other information.
Agencies that want to use the Internet to provide victim services should consider the safety issues that victims of domestic violence face. Even though CyberCrisisTM keeps the victim's identity, questions, and answers confidential, an abuser may still find out that the victim visited the site (through a pop-up URL, for example), which could trigger further abuse.
Information about Internet safety for victims is available at the University of Minnesota's Violence Against Women Online Resources site. Additional information on Internet safety is available on the American Bar Association's Web site. Agencies that use Web-based services should include warnings similar to the ones provided on these pages.