NARRATOR: The internet provides a greater opportunity to serve victims and survivors in a wide-reaching and ever-present way. In this Achieving Excellence podcast, Jennifer Wilson Marsh, Director of Hotline and Affiliate Services for the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, talks about how organizations can assess their readiness to deliver online services.
JENNIER MARSH, DIRECTOR OF HOTLINE AND AFFILIATE SERVICES FOR THE RAPE, ABUSE, AND INCEST NATIONAL NETWORK: Before your organization embarks on this, there's a lot of thought that needs to go into it internally and assessment about whether the organization is ready. Because it's online services, people often think that it's easier, it's less intensive, but what we've found is actually just the opposite. It takes a lot of time to create a system, and a lot of financial resources, legal expertise, and just a real organizational commitment to do it the right way.
NARRATOR: The first, most direct step to take is to put clear information on your website and on materials promoting your service that explain the risk and benefits when using online or digital communication. Another early step would be to assess your infrastructure for your technology.
JENNIER MARSH: You need to make sure that the database is storing information—personally identified information—in a secure way with secure servers. Is it a service that you want to look into encryption for? There's a lot of technical expertise out there on how to try and make things safe and secure, which is really the opposite inclination of what the internet is about. We always automatically want to gain and gather as much information as possible—IP addresses, etc.—and as an organization, you need to determine, based on state laws as well as national laws, what is the best fit for the service you want to provide.
JENNIER MARSH: So if you choose a program like analytics to track usage to your site, how do you determine what pages you put analytics on? Will you put it on your homepage to see what people are looking at or would you actually put the analytics page on your pages where you're providing services. Again, that collects personally identifying information that you won't necessarily control. And so if that's the case, you would need to share that with all visitors. We recommend a sixth-grade reading level, which can be difficult, especially when you're talking in legalese, to get it to that point. But again, you can't always control who's using these services, so if there is a minor who comes to the site and is looking for information, they should be able to read and clearly understand what information is collected, how that information is collected. And on top of that, you also have to take into consideration things like the Child Online Protection and Privacy Act and what that stipulates in terms of what information can be collected from minors without a parental consent.
NARRATOR: Once you are online, you have a global reach. This new expansion has implications for the kind of legal counsel you'll need.
JENNIER MARSH: RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline as well as the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline. And anytime you're providing services online, you need to be knowledgeable about not only the state statues in the state that you're operating but anywhere in the United States, and even be knowledgeable about international resources, because there's no way to really set parameters on service provision—geographic parameters. And people are going to come to you that you may not be knowledgeable about, but you need to have resources that you can pull from so that you can, again, direct them to the most appropriate services, whether it's a local service provider in their area or maybe it's a different national service provider. But anytime you engage with a victim on that level, if you're providing services to people who may live outside your jurisdiction, you need to be familiar with the statutes in that area, particularly laws that pertain to confidentiality and privilege, as well as mandatory reporting, so that you protect their rights as well as the organization.
NARRATOR: In an online environment, the notion of informed consent changes. This is another area your organization will need to review and modify before going online. Your clients will need to be thoroughly informed.
JENNIER MARSH: Before a person engages in the service, they should know everything about who is providing the service. Is it a volunteer? Is it a peer? Is it a licensed clinician? Are they providing referrals? Is it counseling or is it just crisis intervention? They pretty much need to know everything you need to know before you walk into any building to get counseling. You know, folks research their therapist, they research who they're going to be talking to. It's the same thing. Even though it's online, it doesn't mean that those things are less important. And so we never throw people on to service, and that allows the user to be more satisfied with their experience because they said, "This is the service that I need and that I want right now." And the staff are better prepared to meet those needs because they've been specifically trained on what those are.
NARRATOR: Your policies around informed consent will also need to consider staff limitations and technology. The model standards for serving victims and survivors of crime have many guidelines around technology and its use. The standards also provide guidelines for training. And, Marsh says, staff training will be necessary before you can effectively provide online services.
JENNIER MARSH: Training is imperative, and not only on the basic communication skills, but staff should know the issues surrounding using technology and safety and be able to talk about them comfortably with users. Online service provision, although it's still based on all we know about effective crisis intervention and how to talk to victims, there are very serious and very extreme differences than providing traditional services, whether it's on the phone or in person. With the way people communicate online is different and the way people communicate through SMS or texting is different, and you want to make sure that the empathy, the support—that nothing's lost in that conversation.
NARRATOR: This Achieving Excellence podcast touches only the high points of assessing organizational readiness for providing online services. Consult the Standards document for further information on assessing your readiness.
JENNIER MARSH: The points that I've discussed are very basic and at the same time very complicated. There's a lot more to each one of those. And as exciting as embarking on online or mobile service provision is, I would encourage any organization or agency that's considering it to talk to people who are experts in this field—legal experts, technology experts, folks who have been providing online services—and really evaluate and learn as much as you possibly can in an effort to protect your organization and also make sure that you do no harm in moving forward and the services are really a benefit to all those who use them.