Pressures To Violate Confidentiality
Sexual assault victim advocates often face pressure to violate victims' confidential communications. Individuals acting in a different capacity than a sexual assault victim advocate may be unaware or may not fully understand the complex nature of the confidentiality restrictions placed on advocates by law, center policies, and the wishes of victims. For example
- Parents or guardians of an offending or non-offending minor may feel that they have a right to information about their child.
- Residential facility staff and school personnel may seek information for a variety of reasons (e.g., regarding the case specifically or campus needs in general).
- Defense attorneys are interested in confidential information for obvious reasons (i.e., to distort victims' accounts, to discredit victims, to effectively defend their clients in cases where damages are being sought, etc.).
In spite of these pressures, it is the advocate's responsibility to be informed about the state/territory victim's rights laws and to uphold the privacy rights of sexual assault victims.
In addition, many individuals play a role in assisting victims, including sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs), sexual assault forensic examiners (SAFEs), and other health care providers; professionals responding to situations involving the survivor's personal safety (possible threats of homicide or suicide); multidisciplinary teams, such as sexual assault response teams (SARTs); police investigators; prosecutors; and state agency representatives from child protective services and other mandated reporting agencies. These professionals routinely gather information as part of their jobs in an effort to help the victim and are likely to seek information from the victim's advocate.
Because the advocate works in the interests of the victim, the advocate may feel that sharing information with other professionals may be appropriate. Nevertheless, the advocate works at the direction of the victim and should share information only at the victim's request and with the victim's informed consent, except when release of information is required by law. In such cases, the advocate should immediately notify the victim that the advocate will be making a mandatory report and the extent of information that will be covered by the report.
If the advocate does not comply with a third party's request for confidential information, the advocate runs the risk of alienating or angering that person. The advocate may be accused of "obstructing justice," not being a team player, or not helping the victim. Even though saying "no" can be difficult in such situations, the advocate must maintain their role as an advocate for the victim and respect the victim's confidentiality. When declining to share information with other professionals, the advocate should explain that sexual assault victim advocates have a responsibility to maintain victims' confidentiality and cannot share information without the victims' informed consent. Providing this explanation to a third party can help to clarify limitations and maintain working relationships.
The advocate's role is to respect victims' confidentiality while advocating for victims. In response to requests for information, advocates must continue to maintain victims' confidentiality and to educate others about their unique roles. Cross-discipline training, interagency coordination, and protocol development regarding confidentiality can help alleviate many of the confidentiality issues that arise when attempting to provide comprehensive, collaborative services for victims of sexual assault.