We hope (part three)

As the final week of the inquest got underway yesterday, I found myself thinking about an issue that has arisen several times over the past two weeks: how do systems find the right balance between increasing the safety of survivors of intimate partner violence and protecting their privacy and the privacy of others?

We’ve heard from witnesses who have told us about the restrictions they face when they have information that might be useful to someone dealing with an abusive partner but sharing it could breach the privacy of another person. We’ve also heard about high-risk case review teams that exclude some people who might have useful information to share, out of concern for privacy and confidentiality

It’s obvious I am not the only one thinking about this issue; the lawyers and the jury have raised questions about it with several witnesses.

Making her safer

There’s no doubt the issue plays out differently in rural communities than it does in urban areas. For example, if my job involves doing safety planning with women in an urban setting, and I know a client’s current partner has a history of IPV, I can tell her that and be confident it is unlikely she will know who those former partners are or other details about their lives.

Not so in a rural community. There is every likelihood that the woman I am talking to now will know exactly who her partner’s former partners are and probably also where they live and work. Those women may know one another, at least on a community social level. What they may not know are the details of their lives with the abuser and that they have turned to community services for support in dealing with him.

In this setting, by giving my client information about previous situations in which her partner has been abusive because I think may help her stay safer, I have – even without mentioning names – effectively breached the privacy of other women to whom I have provided services or to whom I might provide services in the future.

Workers from more than one community-based service have told the jury that, in these situations, they are not permitted to share information about past abusive relationships with a woman they are supporting because of confidentiality requirements. None, however, was able to point to specific requirements, whether in law, policy or contract.

Greater clarity is needed for those who provide frontline services – whether to survivors or abusers – about what regulations they are required to follow. Frontline workers need to have a fulsome understanding of the limits to confidentiality so they can inform their clients accurately about what circumstances would require them to share information with other service providers. As well, community-based and other services in rural communities should have collaborative discussions about how all of this plays out in communities where people tend to know one another’s business.

Managing risk

The safety/privacy issue also rears its head in the context of high-risk case reviews. These reviews, which take place in most parts of Ontario, are conducted in IPV cases that are deemed to be high risk, and are part of a broader strategy of community coordination, cooperation and collaboration.

Permanent membership on the review teams is restricted to players in the criminal system: crown attorneys, victim witness assistance program staff, police, victim services and probation. Others – shelter workers, the C.A.S., community counselling agencies and so on – attend by invitation only, to share but not receive information.

The reason given for this is that only those within the criminal system are permitted to have access to the confidential information about both the victim and the perpetrator that is being shared.

There is considerable evidence to the contrary.

In a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada case, the court ruled that public safety interests can outweigh solicitor/client privilege when three criteria are established:

  • There is a clear risk to an identifiable person or group of persons
  • The risk is of serious bodily harm or death, and
  • The danger is imminent

Privacy legislation permits the sharing of otherwise private personal information under “compelling circumstances” or when those sharing the information have a “consistent purpose.”

The Police Services Act allows police to share personal information about a person who has been convicted or found guilty where they believe that person poses a significant risk of harm to others and that disclosing the information will reduce that risk.

Whether it is a frontline worker wondering what information they can share to support a survivor to be as safe as possible or a high-risk case review team wondering who they can include as members, women and children deserve to be supported by collaborative information-sharing approaches at the community level.

Dare we hope that this could be one of the outcomes of this inquest?

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