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Beyond Trauma-informed: 'Survivor-informed' Interviewing

 

Prosecutors, detectives, lawyers, HR personnel, reporters, counselors, and researchers – these are just some of the professionals who may find themselves interviewing trauma survivors as part of an investigation. Optimally, the goal of any investigation is not only to hold perpetrators accountable and prevent future harm but also to aid the survivor in their recovery. In fact, the latter might be the most important goal for the survivor and the reason they participate in the investigation. Many interviewers are kind and thoughtful people with a lot of experience. However, kindness does not equate to being ‘trauma-informed’. And being trauma-informed sadly does not always equate to being ‘survivor-informed’.

I use the term ‘survivor-informed’ to mean determining, respecting and prioritizing survivors’ choices, as opposed to making assumptions about those choices. That sounds very obvious, but although being survivor-informed should be integral to trauma-informed practice, it is often missed entirely. In my experience, the more trauma training we professionals receive, the more we assume the driver’s seat in interactions with the survivor. After all, we are now the ‘experts’ and expertise is often tied to our sense of efficacy and mastery in our chosen profession. You could say expertise contributes to our identity and may even provide meaning and purpose in our life. Hence, this is not something we let go of lightly. Wanting to be at the top of our game is what usually motivates us to learn more about trauma in the first place.

But where does this leave the survivor?

As Judith Herman says in her 1992 book Trauma and Recovery:

“Trauma robs the victim of a sense of power and control over her own life, therefore the guiding principle of recovery is to restore power and control to the survivor… The more helpless, dependent and incompetent the client feels, the worse [their] symptoms become."

Lack of power and control is activating at best, retraumatizing at worst, because this was exactly the dynamic at the time of the trauma – the survivor had no power and control to protect themselves from harm. However, the survivor is usually the person with the least power in any investigation, even though they are the person who knows the most, is affected the most, and stands to lose the most.

Think about it: Who is paying for the investigation? Who has selected the investigators, will be receiving all the information, and then choosing how to proceed? Who decides which information to disseminate and to whom? The way investigations are structured does not afford the survivor much power and control over the process.

It would be hugely beneficial to the survivor’s sense of safety and recovery if they could have greater agency in the process. After all, the investigation concerns the survivor’s life and may draw on very painful memories – sometimes memories that are being told for the first time. In order to prevent harm, the survivor’s process should always trump the investigative process. The investigators can be useful in the survivor’s process, helping them piece together events and even unearthing corroborating evidence, but the investigation should not overtake the survivor’s process and their healing. Investigators get to go home after the job is done but the survivor will be dealing with the impact of these memories for a long time to come.

The investigator’s first concern should be the survivor’s emotional and physical safety. Yet to feel safe the survivor will need choice and agency. Agency is only possible if the investigation is a collaborative process. The survivor should be part of the team and, if possible, included in discussions of next steps, not just informed later. The goal is for the survivor to feel empowered by the experience, not to feel like a child, benevolently cared for but without power and without voice.

Practical tips*

Here are some tips from working alongside survivors and seeing where the opportunities for safety, collaboration, empowerment, choice and trustworthiness (the five principles of trauma-informed care[1]) were missed. The very real pain of survivors will not have been for nothing if investigators take these lessons to heart and, to echo the words of Maya Angelou, ‘when you know better, do better.’

  • Interview team:
  • Trust. The survivor should screen the proposed interviewers to ensure the survivor feels comfortable working with each of the team and having veto power if not. (This works for everyone because the survivor does not feel safe they will not trust the interviewers with the information.)
  • Consistency. Ensure that the potential interviewers have the flexibility in their schedule to be present for the duration of the investigation to ensure consistency. Not only does this build trust, but survivors often feel safer when there is predictability.
  • Emotional support: Traumatic memories are often fragmented, spotty, non-linear or chronological, fade in and out, and are preserved with the understanding, fear, and confusion present when that memory was formed (that is, are hard to look at and interpret with current knowledge, maturity, and degree of safety). The recall can be overwhelming and traumatic. Supports need to be in place, such as:
  • A survivor ally to intervene on the survivor’s behalf should they need to take breaks and or suspend interviews if experiencing nervous system activation, reexperiencing (flashbacks), etc. The survivor advocate can also support the investigators in remaining mindful of implementing a trauma-informed, survivor-led process if the excitement of finding answers to questions starts driving the process.
  • A brief check out at the end of each day. This is a pulse check to see how everyone is feeling. It makes the survivor feel very vulnerable to tell painful secrets to impassive investigators and not know how those secrets are landing or even what is going to happen to that information immediately after the interview.
  • Written summary of any information the survivor needs to know (next steps, etc.) provided at the end of the session. This way if the survivor is not able to absorb the information at the time they can read it later.
  • Emotional regulation support, such as breathing, stretching, walking around, holding someone’s hand. The investigator should ask the survivor what they found to be the most helpful in the past rather than presupposing what works for them will work for the survivor.
  • Outside support for integration of trauma memories (for example, EMDR.)
    • Support in aftermath.
      • Who will be available immediately after the interview sessions? (Unlike therapists, trauma does not keep business hours.)
      • What is the provision for aftercare? Who determines this and how do they determine what is adequate? Again, the survivor should be consulted about what they need, rather than assumptions made.
  • Pace and duration of the investigation:
    • The survivor should determine the pace and sequence of reviewing information so that they do not become overwhelmed. Some memories have not been processed and may need to be revisited later in the investigation as the survivor builds trust and safety with the investigators and finds coping strategies and resources for support.
    • Length of investigation interview period. This should be determined by not only the best pace for the survivor but also how much time it takes to tell the whole story and not determined by budgetary or other constraints (within reason). Try not to leave the survivor hanging with either the story incomplete or large chunks of time between sessions.
  • Location. Ask the survivor what would work best. Certain venues may have trauma associations.
  • Access to information. Part of the motivation to go through this emotionally wrenching experience is the survivor’s desire to create a coherent narrative of the trauma, which is in itself healing. Trauma memory remains in the fear-center of the brain (the amygdala) causing flashbacks and intrusive memories until it is processed and stored as coherent narrative in the higher brain (neocortex).
  • Retaliation. If at any time the survivor feels they would be putting themselves, their family or others at risk by revealing information, the decision not to reveal it must be respected and the investigative team should not pursue further investigation.
  • Reporting. The investigative team must make clear which information they are compelled legally or ethically to report to law enforcement, ethical oversight body, etc.. Before making make a report, they must inform the survivor and give them an agreed-upon number of days to emotionally prepare themselves for any reaction in the public or private sphere. The survivor will agree with the investigative team at the outset of the investigation on which members of their immediate family they may wish to inform of any impending report.
  • Report dissemination. Before the investigation begins, the survivor should know how, when and to whom the investigators plan to disseminate the final report. Once the report is released, the survivor would like to have editing power for any PR outreach materials including press releases or, for example, the website for the organization commissioning the investigation. The survivor should be invited to participate in any media interviews and in the collection of any awards/recognition of the report.
  • Intellectual property. The survivor should be given written assurances that their IP rights will be protected, including any book/TV/film/digital rights over their own story. The survivor should receive satisfaction that the release of the report does not affect these rights or negatively impact any attempt of their own to tell their own story.



*Some of these tips will be more applicable than others, depending on the type of investigation.

[1] Trauma-Informed Services: A Self-Assessment and. Planning Protocol. Community Connections: Roger D. Fallot, Ph.D. and. Maxine Harris, Ph.D. March, 2006.

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