Putting data privacy for survivors first
Local governments are responsible for protecting people's personal information. But in the system of support for survivors of domestic violence, stakes are high and protections are few.
Content warning: This piece contains references to gender-based violence and the experiences of survivors of domestic violence within public systems.
Survivors of domestic violence come to care providers and local governments for help in their hardest moments. But many survivors struggle to trust institutions with crucial information because of difficult perceptions or harmful experiences in the past.
We can’t solve problems we can’t see. Organizations serving survivors have to work together, not only to help people in crisis, but also to understand and address the systemic prevalence of domestic violence. Survivors might encounter organizations that provide emergency housing, transitional shelter, or legal services. Some organizations work on prevention and education with specific groups like youth, monolingual populations, or certain religious communities, and some provide crisis counseling and case management in real-time.
Trust dictates how much personal information survivors feel comfortable sharing when receiving services. Survivors need to know how providers are sharing their information, what organizations will do with it, and how they’re protected. They need agency to control the disclosure of their personal information, which could be weaponized in the hands of law enforcement or their abusers.
The challenges around privacy, agency, and transparency facing survivors of domestic violence mirror the challenges facing society when personal data is exposed across personal and political contexts. While we in the data community might think big about what it means to trust someone with your personal information, or what it takes to build that trust, frontline workers who support survivors of domestic violence confront that question head-on every day.
This week’s Civic Source is a transcript of a recorded interview between me and my friend, Elise Hansell, Policy & Grants Manager for the City and County of San Francisco’s Department on the Status of Women.
Tell us a little bit about your work.
I work for a city department in San Francisco that focuses on health, safety and economic empowerment for women and girls. My work involves local policy-making, legislative advocacy, research, and grant-making. I don’t provide direct services — our department is just six staff — but we fund a network of community-based service agencies that serve survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking. Our department is a convener between direct service providers and local government agencies working on criminal justice, human services, public health, homelessness, transgender initiatives, the mayor’s office, kind of everyone.
How do people enter the system across your network of partners?
Everyone is doing intake. Survivors can come into contact with city agencies or nonprofits, sometimes because of domestic violence, other times because of related issues like housing or legal support. A lot of people think law enforcement is where survivors go, but really more than half of the people who experience domestic violence don’t report it. When they do, we see a higher number of people first reaching out to community-based organizations.
And how well would you say those organizations are talking to each other?
I work on the Family Violence Council which brings together city departments involved in child abuse, domestic violence, or elder abuse. We collect data from about two dozen agencies and publish a report about where people show up across systems to inform coordination. It’s good research, but it doesn’t cover the entire scope of coordination problems. For example, in our homelessness response system, there’s no way to coordinate intake for survivors of domestic violence. A lot of organizations have piecemeal referral systems that have been developed between their partners. The police department can partner with domestic violence agencies, and then those agencies have partnerships with homelessness response programs, and they can use federal resources dedicated to survivors to get out emergency housing vouchers. There’s a lot of cross-pollination, but there’s not really a clear understanding of intake across the board. I haven’t seen any evaluation of what information is collected about you if you file a police report versus entering through the homelessness response system or in a medical setting.
How do you usually use data and information as part of your role?
Our department administers a $9 million grant fund, so we collect data from our grantees. It’s hard to measure outcomes when people are doing crisis intervention, but we get baseline data for what services are provided and demographics of people who are reaching out for help. It’s helpful because domestic violence is so under-reported that there isn’t great local-level research. Data supports our advocacy to try to get more investment in prevention and intervention. And it helps address gaps in service provision or equity issues where people aren’t receiving support.
Why do you think it matters for information about domestic violence to be public or accessible?
If you don’t understand the scope of a problem or where people are reaching out for support, then you won’t be able to reduce incidence or test out new intervention strategies to address the gaps. Domestic violence can become politicized so it’s very important for us to truly understand the issue instead of relying only on narratives or anecdotes. But those are important too! Looking past the quantitative data, there’s not a ton of qualitative data to tell us about survivors. It’s a double-edged sword because a lot of the work we’ve done trying to reduce the harm of law enforcement protocol has been built on anecdotes about groups that have been marginalized like immigrant survivors or trans survivors. For example, we’ve heard that monolingual survivors can be arrested when the abuser is the one who speaks English. Or in queer couples, it’s happened that both partners have been arrested when one is the reporting victim.
Is it a police accountability issue for us to know more about those situations?
Not just that. It also shows how important it is to have community spaces where advocates and policy-makers can come together and acknowledge that these things are happening. So even if the survivor isn’t going to submit a complaint to the department of police accountability, an advocate can come and share what they’ve seen to get us to reconsider a policy.
So it’s important that quantitative information is used with qualitative information and that’s why it matters to have advocates in the room and able to respond to the data.
Yes, the data can get thrown around a lot, especially in political campaigns. Domestic violence got called out recently because some critics of the DA said he wasn’t doing enough to address it. They’re hard cases to prosecute so often when the police department or the DA’s office use the data, they’re throwing examples at each other. That’s where it matters if you have access to the local data but no understanding of how it fits together. It can create a lot of conflict.
What are some risks survivors might face or think through when they share their information with institutions?
This is something I think there’s not enough awareness around. A major consideration, whether or not it’s top of mind for survivors, is that when police respond to a call, details of your case or testimony will be made available to the defense counsel who represents the abuser. That could put victims at risk. When we share tools with law enforcement, we try to be really clear and let the survivor know that answers will be shared in court. Also, in California if you’re a survivor in an emergency room or medical setting and you’re disclosing domestic violence with serious injuries, the medical professional is a mandated reporter to law enforcement. It’s a blanket generalization, but most things that go through law enforcement are not survivor-centered. Places where people are seeking out shelter or services are more trusted. In organizations that receive funding through the Violence Against Women Act, there’s a confidentiality privilege between the institution and the survivor. But I think a gap is that a lot of information in the Homeless Management Information System, where people are tracked for housing services, might not have protections for survivors. I think there’s an effort to create another housing coordinated entry system that would have different protections for survivors.
Just to paint a picture, what is front of mind for survivors when they’re sharing information with providers?
I think for some survivors, there’s an awareness of how government agencies like Child Protective Services work and that there are government-mandated reporters. For example, there’s a big movement to end Failure to Protect laws. Because if police are responding to a home and there are children present, a survivor may or may not share all of the important information out of fear that something might happen to the custody of their kids. Undocumented survivors might also be really fearful of having their information in public systems.
What are some of the safeguards that the providers in your network have in place to protect survivors’ privacy?
You can have your name redacted from police incident reports involving domestic violence. There are also some time-limited informed consent rules where you can share sensitive information like case notes with a provider for a specific meeting with time-limited constraints. Oftentimes in family court, you need a police report to justify an emergency protective order, so requiring that type of proof means more systems are getting access to sensitive information. But another safeguard is that if people are trying to get accommodations at work related to their experience of domestic violence, you can have a service provider write a letter to your employer certifying the experience of abuse so you don’t have to reveal a police report to your supervisor.
How can individuals speak up for themselves to protect their information?
I honestly don’t really have a good answer. We have the redaction from police reports and survivors can take some steps to seal records. For specific projects like a task force, we might have seats for survivor voices so we’re able to engage people who have been directly impacted. But I don’t think there are that many mechanisms.
What do you think the city or your partners could do to protect the survivors’ privacy?
There are different layers. We have to understand the data infrastructure and the different entry points for survivors. It’d be really helpful to have someone at the city who has a clear understanding of how these systems interact, what can and can’t be shared — like a process map. I work with a lot of agencies but I don’t think anyone has a bird’s eye view. On the individual level, there’s variance in the training we have for frontline workers who are doing intake. We ask how frontline workers are working in trauma-informed ways but we could also ask how they’re abiding by the laws around confidentiality. There’s a lot of room for human error.
Right. This is a really complex space and trust is a fundamental factor in whether we have the information to solve the actual problem of domestic violence. It’s also an area where the data can be so politicized that when we in the general public hear about it, it’s being used by lawmakers or policy-makers to put a stake in an agenda. But then there’s not enough investment in how the trust actually gets built and how the data gets better.
Yeah, often it’s used and it’s not really invested in. Since trust is so fundamental and we don’t have a big picture understanding of these data or privacy laws, a lot of advocates err on the side of being overly cautious. And maybe they’re not being overly cautious, maybe they’re just being wise, because there isn’t a structure. The reason people go to community providers is that they know their information can be more protected there. Although I think it is really important for advocates to be highly protective of that, we are also going to need to work together.
Have thoughts about this topic? Know of someone whose work should be in the spotlight? I want to hear about it.
Mapping referral pathways for survivors - Hera Hussein and her team at Chayn are researching shared data infrastructure to provide a single source of truth for survivors.
#DefundPrisonsDefendSurvivors campaign - Survived and Punished, an organization co-founded by abolitionist thinker and writer Mariame Kaba, fights for the 90 percent of incarcerated people in women’s prisons who are survivors of domestic or sexual violence.
We are imagining a world we have never seen before - adrienne maree brown’s keynote for the St. Louis Racial Equity Summit in 2021.
“Handle with Care: Domestic Violence Safety Planning in the Age of Data Privacy Laws” - A paper by Jenny Wu on the landscape of consumer data privacy laws and the gaps around tech-enabled intimate partner abuse.