Frequently Asked Questions

This section provides an overview on questions that commonly come up concerning confidentiality releases, U.S. Federal Laws on confidentiality, record retention and deletion, mandatory reporting, the use of surveillance cameras, answering subpoenas and much more. For ease, this section is set up in an easy-to-read question and answer format.

Confidentiality & Partnership Questions

If a community pulls together a team of representatives from law enforcement, victims services, prosecution, and courts, are the victim services representatives prohibited from speaking about the victim without a release?

Different partners in a multi-disciplinary team may have different confidentiality requirements, and each partner needs to understand his/her own respective obligations. For example, police and prosecutors do not generally need a release to speak about the case, but an advocate from a non-profit agency can only speak about a survivor if the survivor signed a release of information allowing that disclosure.

However, the non-profit agency or its representatives can talk generally about many things that are useful to the group, such as domestic violence and sexual assault dynamics, services that are available, aggregate totals, and general information that is not personally identifying. The non-profit advocate can also gather information that is helpful to a survivor in those partnerships and help a survivor decide what information s/he would like the partnership to know and how that information should be shared.

What if there’s a cooperative agreement form signed by all professionals involved stating that any information shared during the meeting will not be shared outside of the meeting?

Regardless of any cooperative or confidentiality agreements, non-profit victim services cannot share personally identifying information with partners of a team (multi-disciplinary team, SART) without a release from the survivor. Such cooperative agreements to not share are typically unenforceable outside of the group, thus putting survivor information at risk of forced disclosure. The survivor needs to request and approve that the non-profit advocate can talk about his/her case with the team. Survivors also have the right to choose which aspects of their case are discussed and what members of the team are part of the discussion.

Each participant in the team needs to be aware of his/her particular confidentiality obligations and needs to obtain his/her own releases from the survivor to discuss individual information. Survivors need to be informed of every agency that is part of the team and be informed if additional people are added to the team. It can be helpful to have a staff person who is not involved with any specific case to be the member of the team in order to avoid accidental disclosure of details.

An analogy: If your primary care doctor, your lawyer, and your therapist/counselor were to sit on a community health task force together, they could not discuss your private information, the details of your medical or psychological history, or anything else that might be identifying without getting your permission to do so because of their confidentiality obligations.

What information can we discuss with our task force partners without a release?

Quite a bit, actually. You can ask follow-up questions about the information being shared with you.  You can discuss general trends in cases. You can address things such as, "I'm hearing that young women on the university campus are having challenges with law enforcement trying to figure out who has jurisdiction: campus police or the municipal police?  How do know who has jurisdiction?" You can discuss hypothetical cases, such as how your agency would respond in a variety of situations, and common scenarios, but you cannot discuss anything on any level that would identify individual cases or people. Remember, things like the number of children the survivor has, the faith the survivor practices, or the survivor's ethnic heritage might be personally identifying, particularly in small communities.

If your agency has an advocate who never works directly with survivors, that person may be the best person to sit on the taskforce because he or she can provide feedback in these partnerships without accidentally sharing identifying information. It's important to remember that you need a signed release of information to even share that a particular person has received services from your agency.

If a police officer drives a survivor to a non-profit DV/SV program, and later calls to ask how the survivor is doing, can the advocate share survivor information without a release? What about if the officer calls and would like to leave a message for the

Even if the officer knows that the survivor is or was at a non-profit advocacy office, the non-profit advocate cannot share survivor information without a release. The advocate can generally thank the officer

for caring about victims, explain that the advocate "can neither confirm nor deny if the survivor is receiving services," and can offer to take a message and post it on the program's private bulletin board. The non-profit advocacy program should have a consistent response (e.g., the answer should not differ depending upon the victim) so as to avoid inadvertently providing information about any individual survivor's location.

Can collaborative agencies with an MOU containing confidentiality language share victim information for funder reporting reasons without getting a release?

No. Regardless of the language within a MOU, releases are always necessary to share personally identifying individual client information. However, you can share aggregate information for reporting to funders. Aggregate information are totals, so it's acceptable to report that your program referred 7 people in a particular month, but it is not acceptable to provide any individual identifying details.

It is important to remember that what is identifying varies from community to community. It is never appropriate to share names, dates of birth, and U.S. social security numbers. Keep in mind that a combination of information could also be identifying; for example, sharing that you served a 42 year-old Caucasian woman with 4 children, ages 11, 9, 8, and 6 or a 32 year-old Asian woman with a 2 year-old could identify them. Individual "de-identified" profiles can be used to re-identify people in other databases (such as HMIS). Communities and agencies should consider what information is identifiable for individuals receiving services, focus on sharing aggregate, non-identifying information, and should always provide the least amount of individual information possible.

The three major U.S. federal funding sources (Office for Victims of Crime, Office on Violence Against Women, and Department of Health and Human Services) do not require you to unduplicate victims between agencies, so there is no need to share personally identifying individual client information to meet federal reporting requirements. In addition, domestic violence programs that receive HUD funding are exempt from entering identifying information into the HMIS database.

What if it is discovered that a client staying in shelter has an outstanding warrant for his/her arrest? Does this fit under any “exemption”? What are the requirements for cooperating with authorities?

There is no "arrest warrant" exemption in VAWA or FVPSA. There is no obligation or law that requires non-profit advocates to proactively inform the police. If a program becomes aware of a warrant, they can and should notify the victim and help him/her self-report to the police and get legal assistance.

What if law enforcement asks if a person is in shelter because there is a missing person’s report for them? Do we need a release to tell them whether the person is in shelter?

There is no "arrest warrant" exemption in VAWA or FVPSA. There is no obligation or law that requires non-profit advocates to proactively inform the police. If a program becomes aware of a warrant, they can and should notify the victim and help him/her self-report to the police and get legal assistance.

What if our state has a duty to warn law (if survivor is suicidal or homicidal)?

First, check and be absolutely sure that you understand your state's law. Some agencies assume that they have a "duty to warn" but the state law does not actually support that assumption. If you reveal confidential survivor information without a specific state law mandate or without having a signed release of information, it may be a violation of VAWA, FVPSA, or state law. Some states require reporting to police or to the intended victim of the threat if a survivor is in imminent danger of harming herself or others, and in that case the report would be an exemption to the confidentiality requirements. In other words, if you are legally mandated to report this situation, then you may do so without a release. Check with your state domestic violence coalition if you are unsure if your state has a duty to warn law that applies to you, and make sure you know exactly what it requires you to do. VAWA and FVPSA require that you only disclose the minimum amount of information necessary to comply with the actual law.

Does the prosecutor victim witness agency need to have procedures in place to secure the victim's confidentiality and privacy and use the "Model Release" form when sharing or storing information?

Survivors should be informed of the confidentiality limitations that pertain to victim assistants (victim/witness advocates) employed by a prosecutor's office. Victim/witness advocates do not necessarily need to obtain a release of information form to share survivor information, but they are required to give notice. It is best practice to provide written information to survivors about what happens with their information and get signatures from survivors indicating that they have read and understand your data collection/information sharing practices. If any or all of the information s/he provides to you could possibly be released to other parties (including the attorneys in the prosecutor's office), inform the victim of this before s/he chooses to begin working with you.

When communicating with victims, it is important to distinguish between a "policy" of not sharing information, a law prohibiting the sharing of information, and any laws requiring the sharing of information (such as constitutional requirements that law enforcement share information with criminal defendants).

We are advocates employed by a non-profit domestic and sexual violence program and housed within the courthouse. Are we able to share information with the prosecutor?

While it is common for non-profit advocates to have workspaces in courthouses, prosecutor offices, police departments, or other locations, your physical location does not change your confidentiality obligations. If you are employed by the non-profit organization, the VAWA and FVPSA confidentiality protections still apply, and you are not able to share information with the prosecutor or anyone else in co-located situations without a written, specific, time-limited, signed release of information. Co-locating has many benefits but also some challenges and non-profit advocates must prevent accidental disclosure of confidential client information outside of the personnel within your agency.

Can releases be for mutual exchange (meaning that the advocate can talk to police and the police can talk to me, for example)?

Some organizations, such as law enforcement, may not need a release form signed to be able to share limited information, but the partnering non-profit program would need a release on their end to share any identifying information.

For two agencies that are both required to have releases, it is always best practice for each agency to have its own release. This ensures that survivors are fully informed by each agency of their respective obligations and the specific information to be released by each agency.

Keep in mind that you must have a release to share information; another agency cannot obtain a release from the survivor for you to share information with them.