Victims of Crime Research Digest, Issue No. 7

Assisting Victims Through Technology

Melissa Lindsay

In the fifth issue of the Victims of Crime Research Digest, McDonald (2012) discusses the darker side of technology, that is, when technology is used as a means of harming others, such as facilitating identity-related crimes or online sexual exploitation. Although technology can be used as a means of victimizing others, it can also be used to help victims of crime in innovative ways.

Victims of crime have a number of needs, including "access," which is defined as "the ability to participate in the justice system process and obtain information and services"; safety; support; "information about justice system processes and victim services that is clear, concise, and user-friendly"; a voice; and a continuity of services (International Association of Chiefs of Police 2000, iii).

To explore the use of technology in responding to these needs, the Department of Justice Canada conducted a study to determine how technology is being used to help victims of crime in Canada and whether the use of technology is beneficial to victims and to service providers. The study also sought to ascertain what service providers believe to be good practices (i.e., practices they have found to work well) in this area.Footnote 1

Organizations providing victims services and federal departments and agencies whose work focuses on victims of crime were contacted for examples of how technology is being used, either by their own organization or by another organization, to help victims. Based on recommendations from respondents, other non-governmental organizations were also contacted. Information on other technological tools was also gathered from the websites of organizations working with victims of crime as well as from projects funded through the Department of Justice Canada’s Victims Fund. To determine whether the use of technology is beneficial in helping victims, the respondents were also questioned on the feedback they had received on the technological tools used and on what they deemed to be good practices in using technology to help victims of crime.

Available Technologies

There are a number of technological tools used to help victims of crime in Canada. They can be categorized as follows: interactive websites and online games; online videos and presentations; the use of cellular phones for text messaging and cellular phone programs; telephone services; victim notification systems; technology in the courtroom; victim services directories and maps; cellular phone applications; computer-facilitated discussions; Web 2.0 technologies; and "other" technologies.

Interactive Websites and Online Games

A number of different interactive websites and games are available to help victims of crime. Some of these websites (e.g., www.courtprep.ca and Cory’s Courthouse Footnote 2) provide online court preparation for children and youth. The Canadian Child Abuse Association also provides the Child Witness Court Preparation Program that has online interactive tools for children and youth. One of the components of the Program is the interactive tool for children entitled "Superhero Island," Footnote 3 which teaches children about court and allows them to practice testifying. Other interactive websites include the Parole Board of Canada’s interactive parole board hearing,Footnote 4 which allows individuals to see and hear what happens in a hearing process, and the Collectivité ingénieuse de la Péninsule acadienne’s (CIPA) interactive website (www.parcelles.ca), which is set up as a road map to help women in abusive relationships. The Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence against Women and Children (METRAC) has an online game entitled "What It Is," Footnote 5 which teaches youth about sexual violence and provides information regarding available resources and services.

Online Videos and Presentations

There are a number of different online videos and presentations which are used for various purposes, including court preparation/orientation for different groups, such as children and youth, and adult witnesses (e.g., Justice Education Society of BC’s "Your Voice in Criminal Court" Footnote 6 ). Additional websites and service providers offer videos that provide information on other specific elements of the criminal justice system, including services offered by victim services workers and victim witness assistance programs, as well as information on restorative justice programs. There are also a number of other videos that cover several aspects of the criminal justice system, such as New Brunswick’s Department of Public Safety Victim Services’ online video "You Are Not Alone: Be Supported through Difficult Times," Footnote 7 while others are designed to provide information and education on different types of crime (e.g., elder abuse, violence against women, impaired driving).

Cellular Phones and Cellular Phone Programs

Different service providers use cellular phones for the purposes of text messaging clients. In some cases, text messaging is the only way to get in touch with clients, as some may not have a landline or are otherwise difficult to contact. Many service providers also have cellular phone programs in which high-risk victims, especially those at risk of domestic violence, are provided with cellular phones. In some programs (e.g., Manitoba Justice’s Cellphone Emergency Limited Link-up Program [CELL]), the phones are pre-programmed to dial 911.

Telephone Services

Different types of telephone services, which provide multilingual service, are available to victims. The services provided can include information, referral services, and crisis support. One telephone service, the Ontario Victim Services Secretariat’s Victim Support Line, also provides information about provincially sentenced offenders. The Northwest Territories’ Victim Services uses real-time interpretation provided by the Canadian company, CanTalk, to connect with clients. Finally, various victim service providers use teletypewriter technologies to communicate with clients who are hard of hearing.

Victim Notification Systems

There are a number of different victim notification systems which allow victims to register and receive alerts when an offender’s status changes (e.g., when the offender is released from custody). The alerts can be provided via different means, such as through an automated voice message prompting the victim to call for additional information, regular telephone calls, and letters. These notification systems exist both provincially (e.g., Ontario and British Columbia) as well as federally through the Correctional Service of Canada’s Victim Services Program.

Technology in the Courtroom

While not new, the use of technology to assist with giving court testimony is increasingly available to help young and vulnerable victims and witnesses. These testimonial aids include closed-circuit television and videoconferencing. Videoconferencing is also used to allow individuals to participate in sentencing hearings. In addition, in Prince Edward Island, technology is available to assist the hearing impaired and "courts have been equipped with technology equipment to more discretely display electronic documents or exhibits that are categorized as sensitive information" (Child Advocacy Centres Knowledge Exchange 2011).

Victim Services Directories and Maps

Several organizations provide victim services directories on their websites, presented as either search engines or as maps. Generally, the directories presented as search engines allow individuals to input their location, as well as type of service or program they are seeking (e.g., Policy Centre for Victim Issues’ Victim Services Directory Footnote 8 ) and generate a list of organizations and associated contact information in their area. The directories that are presented as maps have either maps of Canada, which allow individuals to scroll over to the province or territory where they would like to find services, or maps of a particular province, which highlights services in specific jurisdictions (e.g., Legal Information Society of Nova Scotia’s Youth Resources Map Footnote 9 ).

Alarms

A number of different Victim Crisis Assistance and Referral Services (VCARS) in Ontario provide Domestic Violence Emergency Response System (DVERS) alarms, which are "personal alarm systems installed in the homes of victims who are deemed at serious risk of violence or death by an estranged partner. The VCARS sites who offer this program will recommend DVERS alarms to individuals who are considered to be at very high risk of domestic violence, sexual assault, and criminal harassment." Footnote 10 DVERS alarms are offered in 38 communities in Canada.Footnote 11

Cellular Phone Applications (Apps)

Various victim-centered cellular phone applications (apps) are available for smart phones and are used for a number of different purposes. Apps have been developed for safety purposes by functioning as a personal alarm system (e.g., EVA BC’s SOS Safety app and YWCA’s Safety Siren). When the buttons on the apps are pressed, emergency information is sent to a pre-determined contact (in the case of the SOS Safety App, the information is sent to the monitoring centre). Other apps have been developed that provide information on different types of victim-related information, such as METRAC’S "Not Your Baby" app, which provides information on how individuals can deal with sexual harassment in different situations. In addition, The Kids Help Phone’s "The Always There" app provides information on coping with stress and allows youth to connect with Kids Help Phone counsellors via live chat or phone.

Computer-Facilitated Discussions

Various organizations are also able to connect with clients and provide services via the computer. For example, Access Pro Bono uses Skype Footnote 12 to connect with clients in several of their clinics in rural and remote areas, while the Canadian Child Abuse Association provides court preparation to children via the computer and the Kids Help Phone website allows visitors to pose questions to counselors online or via live chat.

Web 2.0 (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube)

Many organizations that provide services to victims of crime use Web 2.0 technologies, such as Facebook and Twitter, to share information. For example, the Ontario Network of Victim Services’ Facebook site posts links to articles, videos, and other information related to domestic violence and victim services in Canada, while MADD Canada has a Facebook site and a Twitter page which include links and news stories as well as a YouTube channel with their public service announcement videos.

Other Types of Technology

There are also a number of other types of technology that do not fall within the categories described above. These technologies range from facilitating Protection Order applications via telephone or fax, which is provided by the Manitoba Justice Victim Services Branch, to the use of laptops and computers to allow victims to watch their police statement during a pre-court preparation meeting with Victim Services Coordinators, Crown and/or Police, as is done in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Feedback

Overall, the feedback the respondents received from clients (including parents of child victims) and victim services staff on the technologies was generally positive. The respondents noted that the tools are helpful for a number of reasons, in particular because they increase access to services for victims. For example, victim services providers indicated that cellular phone programs provide better access to services for victims. In Manitoba, using telephone or fax to facilitate the completion of Protection Orders also increases access to those in rural and remote areas. In addition, the respondent from EVA BC indicated that the SOS Safety app is accessible because it is on one’s cellular phone, which individuals often carry, and the app can be used by anybody with a smart phone.

The respondents provided a number of other reasons why they believe the tools are beneficial to victims. For example, in addition to increasing accessibility, the respondents noted that testimonial aids such as videoconferencing and CCTV prevent children and vulnerable adults from having to see the accused when testifying, which helps to reduce stress, anxiety, and re-traumatization.

Also, respondents reported that clients appreciate the ability to connect with service providers through text messaging and that, for some, text messaging is the best, or only, way to communicate with them. Service providers also indicated that the use of cellular phones for text messaging is a useful form of outreach to victims. It was noted by one jurisdiction, however, that there is an increased need for cellular phones for Victim Services volunteers, which has led to an increased demand on budgets.

Good Practices

Respondents provided a number of general suggestions regarding good practices in using technology to help victims:

  • Collaboration and coordination between all of the partners involved in the criminal justice system is essential in order to ensure that the technology is being used to its full benefit.
  • It is beneficial to use the tools that have been produced in other jurisdictions and by other organizations and to share information about the technological tools with clients and coordinators.
  • Services should be streamlined and designed for the convenience of the victim (e.g., ensuring that federal programs are provided around the clock to account for different time zones).
  • The information provided to victims should be personalized to ensure that they do not have to sort through general information.

Respondents also gave specific suggestions:

  • When technology is used in the courtroom (such as CCTV), it is helpful when it is supported by an individual knowledgeable in the use of the equipment so the technology runs smoothly.
  • It is important to ensure that the information exchanged via text messaging with clients is not confidential.
  • It is important to ensure that individuals using tools such as the SOS Safety app are comfortable using the technology and that no assumptions are made about people’s familiarity with the technology.
  • As no single strategy is sufficient in violence protection, the SOS Safety app should be used in conjunction with a larger safety plan.
  • It is also essential to develop and provide information on how an individual can be tracked through smart phones and on what precautions users can take.

Conclusion

It is clear that there are a number of technological tools being used to help victims of crime across the country, ranging from victim notification systems to the use of technology in the courtroom. Many jurisdictions are using the same types of tools to deliver the same services, such as cellular phones to connect with clients via text messaging and online videos and interactive websites for court preparation.

The tools have a number of benefits, including addressing multiple needs. For example, computer-facilitated discussions provide a means of accessing support as well as user-friendly verbal information (i.e., information provided in a language that can be understood by different types of users, such as children receiving court preparation via the Internet). The use of technological tools also comes with some challenges, however. For example, affordability may be an issue for some clients, especially for tools that require cellular phones or the Internet, while others may have difficulty accessing reliable Internet or cellular phone reception. These challenges highlight the importance of not relying on only one tool when helping victims, as every tool has inherent strengths and weaknesses. To successfully help victims of crime, especially high-risk victims, a multitude of tools and strategies may have to be utilized.

Many of the tools would benefit from a formal evaluation to determine if, and how, they are helpful to victims and how they might be strengthened and adjusted as needed. The information would also be useful to other service providers interested in learning about the technologies and how best to use them to assist their clients. Technology is constantly evolving, and the use of technology to assist victims of crime needs to evolve as well.

References

Melissa Lindsay, MA, is a researcher with the Research and Statistics Division, Department of Justice Canada, in Ottawa, and is doing research on a range of victim issues.

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