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When it comes to their relationship to technology, many campus-based survivor advocates and preventionists would probably say “it’s complicated.”

As someone who works for an education technology company, AND who has supported survivors of technology abuse, cyber-stalking, and harassment, I’ll confess to my own somewhat fraught relationship. After all, technology–including phones, tablets, computers, apps, and social networking website–can simultaneously be harnessed to increase safety for survivors and connect them to resources and hijacked by those who commit violence to harass, punish, isolate, or surveil a survivor. While many campus advocates have embraced and promoted the online resources offered by such organizations as the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s live chat, or the innovative online support groups for male survivors offered for 1 in 6, or have adopted or developed bystander apps such as Circle of 6, far fewer have included technology as a part of their on-campus advocacy.

As I have spoken with many survivor advocates across the country in the past year about their use of technology, what I have heard over and over again is that advocates agree that using technology would probably increase their ability to connect to survivors, and this makes sense. As 2016 research of communication habits on one campus illustrates, college students don’t call people to talk on the phone–only 2.2% use the phone as their primary means of communication. They also are much less likely to read email that comes from a university official who is NOT their faculty members. So, what do they use to communicate? No surprises here: social media (50.2%) and texting (35.2%). And yet, how do most campus advocates communicate with their clients? Email and the phone. Bluntly, as advocates, if we’re NOT using text or social media to communicate with our clients, we’re just not as likely to reach them. Period.

But I hear you. Remember that fraught relationship thing with technology that I mentioned earlier? Just thinking about using text messaging or social media with clients opens up a chasm of anxiety in my former advocate soul. What about confidentiality? What about down time? Would I always be on call? What about boundaries? Will my client become too dependent on me? How would texting possibly work without jeopardizing either an advocates’ or a survivors’ well-being?

To help answer this question, I reached out to Kara Fitzpatrick, Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Campus Advocate for Crisis Services, a Buffalo based crisis center that has been responding to and educating around all forms of domestic, sexual and elder violence in Erie County, NY since 1968. While Kara works for Crisis Services, she is co-located on the campus at University at Buffalo and works closely with the Prevention Excellence Award winning Sexual Violence Prevention Program in their Wellness Education Services office. As a campus-based advocate, Kara has adopted a number of technology resources to better connect with her clients. When asked why she pursued using technology, Kara shared that using text and other forms of online communication was really, for her, about meeting her clients where they are. She noted that most of her clients are millenials (as she is as well) and that, for many, “there is something really intimidating about a phone call. It forms an unnecessary barrier.”

Kara pointed out that texting works well in a number of other ways for survivors. For example, she explained that because clients are more likely to respond to her texts, she is able to increase engagement with them–which can lead to forming closer relationships and facilitating critical trust-building that strengthens in-person interactions as well. Kara also pointed out that the text format can be particularly helpful for clients who are actively experiencing trauma because, as she notes, it can “give clients some space and time to process” incoming information–or to even decide when they’re ready to respond, versus simply declining the call and never calling back. Kara connects the ability for survivors to choose when to respond to a text message–in what context, at what time–to a trauma-informed framework that infuses all of her work with clients.

Kara offered a number of key considerations and strategies for advocates to consider in adding texting as a client communication tool to their advocacy shop box.

    • Set clear and specific boundaries with clients about texting. Kara frames her conversations about texting with clients in terms of both choice and collaboration. Clients know that they have a choice in how they communicate with their advocate, and that their advocate is openly available to them, on their terms. However, a key distinction here is that “openly available” doesn’t also mean constant access. Kara and other Crisis Service advocates turn off their work phones at the end of the day, and don’t respond to client texts after hours. This is where collaboration comes in. Clients are also provided with alternate resources that are available 24 hours a day, and are encouraged to build a net of possible resources that they can turn to in crisis when their advocate is not available. This practice, Kara notes, also builds client resiliency.

 

    • Educate clients about confidentiality in the text environment. Kara ensures that she discusses with all her clients the limits of confidentiality when it comes to texting. She discusses with them that texts are a written record and can be subject to subpoena. Beyond confidentiality issues, Kara also encourages clients to consider what kind of content is appropriate and inappropriate for text. A good guideline to share with clients is whether a client would post a message they are about to text to their advocate on their social media site. If it’s not appropriate for Twitter, don’t text it.

 

  • Maintain your own professional role. While a lot of Kara’s education is focused on the client, she notes that advocates also need training to use texting effectively. Kara encourages advocates to limit their text messages to clients to appointment reminders, requests to meet in person, or general check-ins. Specifics about a client’s situation or other more complex issues are better discussed in the face-to-face meeting or in a phone call. Also, remember that maintaining boundaries is a two-way street. Advocates should find out from their client when they prefer to receive text messages, what kinds of information they would like to receive by text, and how often. And, Kara emphasizes, don’t send mixed messages about advocate availability by initiating a text message after hours. Lastly, advocates should use language in their texts that they would use in their in-person meetings; fwiw–probably good to avoid the lmao.

Lastly, Kara reminds me that survivor advocacy is fundamentally about supporting clients in their efforts to keep themselves safe–physically as well as emotionally. Texting is just another mode for achieving this fundamental goal.

If you’re interested in learning more strategies for positive uses of technology in prevention and response for intimate partner violence, check out this webinar co-hosted by EVERFI and the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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