Using Online Communication to Assist Crime Victims
Penelope Hughes  -  2008/4/16
Have you experienced any instances in which a chat with a victim was interupted due to a computer error? These can certainly happen with a telephone hotline as well, but I was wondering how they might be treated differently, if at all, if it happens during a chat.
1.  Penelope
 While very infrequent, we have had instances where a chat was interrupted, but we are not always able to know if that was caused by computer error or if it was because the person ended the chat abruptly. We make a point of providing the telephone hotline number (1.800.656.HOPE) at the beginning of each session and stressing to the individual that if the session is interrupted due to a computer problem, they can always call the telephone hotline. In the unlikely situation that a persons session is interrupted due to a computer error, we can reconnect that person to the same volunteer upon request.
Have you noticed any user demographic trends that you can share?
1.  Penelope
 The Online Hotline is an anonymous hotline and we have a strict policy of not soliciting any personally identifying information from users of the service. However, we did create a way for our volunteers to make a note of certain demographic information that is voluntarily revealed during sessions. This information is stored in a way that maintains the anonymity of the service while at the same time giving us an idea of demographic trends. According to this information about 73 of users are under age 25 and about 32 of users are from rural areas. Also 14 of users are males and 15 of users are friends or family members. Additionally, this information shows that very few people are using the service immediately after an assault and most are discussing an assault that occurred over a year ago.
Will this method include the Victim-Counselor Privilege Law for victims?
1.  Penelope
 Extensive and ongoing research found that there is little to no case law on point regarding online communications across state lines, so we have taken every care to preserve confidentiality. For example, transcripts of sessions are not retained so everything disappears when the session ends. Also, IP addresses are not logged and we keep no records to indicate a persons use of the Online Hotline or the content of a session.
We are currently updating our website and would like to include an option for "Ask an advocate." We're hoping that we can get more interest in learning about our services, etc. Can you discuss any potential areas of concern that you may see? Thank you!
1.  Penelope
 There are a few areas of concern that you should think about. First, online safety must be addressed. It is critical to make sure that users of your website are aware of online safety issues and are using the internet in a safe way. This is of paramount importance. This must be clearly explained on any website. The website should provide explanations of online safety, escape buttons, privacy policy and terms of use, and these should be reviewed with the user if possible.Additionally, be prepared for people to come to you with more than logistical questions. Many people may try to use the service for counseling and you will need to make users aware of exactly what kind of service you are providing, the qualifications of the people providing the service, any limitations of the service, and especially the limitations of technology. All of this should be covered in the terms of use.
Are there any different, or additional, training methods you implemented to prepare advocates/volunteers for this type of interaction?
1.  advocate 2
 Can you share how you have conducted your recruitment of volunteers?
2.  Penelope
 Yes. A portion of our training itself is done online in an effort to familiarize volunteers with effective online communication. In addition to standard sexual assault education, our volunteers receive training on computer and internet safety as well as effective active listening in an online context.
I noticed that the hours for the online hotline are not 24/7, but that the hours for the telephone hotline are. Do you plan on extending the operating hours? Also, how did you determine the hours that the online hotline is currently available?
1.  Penelope
 Yes, we hope to be 247 by the end of the year. The current hours are determined on the basis of our telephone hotline call volume.
What is currently being done utilizing online communication with crime victims?
1.  Penelope
 To our knowledge there are only two online hotlines that provide secure, real-time services to crime victims. These are The National Sexual Assault Online Hotline and The Teen Dating Helpline at
What has been the largest obstacle to implementing online communication with crime victims?
1.  Penelope
 Because we are providing a 50 state service, we had to create policies and protocols that are applicable to all 50 states. This required a great deal of legal research and development of extensive training materials.
What do you see as the benefits of using online communication to assist victims of crime? What would be the easiest way to start this within your organization while ensuring best practices and confidentiality?
1.  Penelope
 The anonymity that online services provide affords a great deal of comfort to visitors who may not otherwise want to come forward. Also, according to recent Pew Internet and American Life study more people turn to the internet when faced with a variety of problems (which included legal or medical issues) than consult experts or family. (The study is entitled Information Searches That Solve Problems)Other Pew research shows that 75 of adults use the internet; 92 of people ages 18 29 use the internet; also 80 of internet users have looked for health info. And regarding the second part of your question, please see the previous post addressing starting a local service.
what kind on security does your online chat use? firewalls? encryption software?
1.  Penelope
 We have designed the software application and the hosting environment to maximize confidentiality and security of the communications between volunteers and victims. Features include:1) IP addresses of users are never captured.2) RAINN does not retain any transcripts or other records of sessions. 3) The application has been designed to make the sessions anonymous - the connection between users and volunteer cant be unraveled.4) All traffic is encrypted.5) Volunteers are timed out after an idle period. 6) The Online Hotline does not require software to be installed by the user or the volunteer, it does not use persistent cookies, and it is set up so that online conversations are not stored anywhere on the users computer. The application does not utilize remote scans.7) Our servers, which are hosted at AOL, are protected by a state-of-the-art security infrastructure. AOL utilizes firewalls, access control lists, intrusion detection, a fully-staffed 24x7 Network Operations Center and a team of systems and network engineers to protect the Online Hotline. The servers containing account and database information for volunteers are completely hidden to the Internet.
Do you have a problem with prank chats, chronic chats and what is your protocol for handling them?
1.  Penelope
 To date we have had very few identifiable prank calls that we can tell, so there is a much lower rate than a phone hotline. And regarding chronic users, visitors are informed that the service is not for ongoing counseling. Also, every session is monitored by supervisors who are able to recognize visitors who might misuse the service and assist the volunteer in directing the visitor to more appropriate services.
Given the fact that online interactions don't allow for reading body language or facial expressions, how do you ensure that participants limit or eliminate being mistaken or having something misunderstood?
1.  Penelope
 We train our volunteers in effective online active listening, part of which is ongoing clarification to make sure that the volunteer is on the same page as the visitor.
Does anyone have experience with online support groups for victims? Any issues with security?
1.  Penelope
 There are a number of sites that provide online support groups for victims of crime. We strongly encourage those sites to adhere to best practices for online safety including warning visitors not to post personally identifying information, monitoring all discussions for inappropriate postings and providing appropriate disclaimers and safety information to users.
How do you handle minor disclosure of abuse and reporting practices?
1.  v
 so you don't follow just the specific reporting laws within your state where the hotline is located? what was the reason for determining that?
2.  Penelope
 We follow the mandatory reporting policy of the state in which the report must be filed. We have an up-to-date 50 state database and if information triggering a report is revealed, we will file the report as required by law. However, we do not ask the user to reveal that information and we explain to each visitor that if they reveal certain types of information, that we will file a report. We give the visitor the information and support they need to make that choice whether or not to reveal details that would trigger a report.
What have you found to be the most significant success for the online hotline? For example, have you reached a different population than you hadn't before?
1.  Penelope
 Yes, we have definitely reached populations that we had not before. Survivors of incest comprise a significant percentage of visitors. The anonymity of the service allows people to come forward when social stigma can be overwhelming. Also, we have seen that we are reaching a number of people who had never sought help before because of the ability to write their experience as opposed to saying it out loud.
How are you trained to deal with someone who may be suicidal/homicidal?
1.  Penelope
 We worked with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to develop training based on an assessment and contracting model which all volunteers and supervisors complete.
If a victim is online and then is suddenly attacked, would you contact 911 services if not asked?
1.  Penelope
 All volunteers are trained to check in about safety concerns at the beginning of each session. If it is suspected that at any time a visitor may be in danger, they are encouraged to call 911.
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