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SART and Confidentiality Basics

Extra important disclaimer! The following content is a general framework to help SARTs and is not intended to be used as legal advice. Please consult your state/territory specific legal advisers if you have particular questions, needs, or concerns. Now, back to the regularly scheduled blog!

Information sharing is typically one of the most difficult points that teams come across when trying to discuss their response to sexual violence in their communities. Sexual Assault Response Team members frequently ask me and my colleagues questions about how to handle sharing information about victims/survivors with the team. Or they talk about how other team members may seem them as difficult because they can’t share client information without prior consent. No matter how long your team has been meeting or what the context of the conversation, it is critical to review your compliance with confidentiality during team meetings and in conversations with one team members.

For this post, let’s talk about the differences between privacy, confidentiality, and privilege. Each of these terms are a routine part of our communications with victims/survivors as well as with other agencies and SARTners.

  • Privacy: the decisions each individual makes about sharing their information. Every person has the right to choose how and when to share information about themselves. When we engage services—whether it be social media, medical care, or advocacy—every person has the right to control what they share and with whom. This is privacy.
  • Confidentiality: confidentiality is a professional (and legal) obligation to protect someone’s private information. When someone provides “confidential services” it means that the agency agrees to take every effort to prevent the sharing of an individual’s private information, unless that person has given explicit consent (usually in writing). This is confidentiality.
  • Privilege: is a legally binding obligation (statutes and laws) that ensures a professional cannot be forced to share someone’s private information and data. There are legal and professional consequences if a professional shares privileged communication. Advocates are bound by privilege in most states. This is privilege.

In each instance, your agency (as well as you as a service provider) are not allowed to make information sharing decisions on behalf of victims/survivors—unless you have legal/ethical obligations do so. Some examples of those legal/ethical obligations might be mandatory reporting (multiple professions) or providing exculpatory information (victim-witness advocates, Prosecutors/district attorneys/commonwealth attorneys). There are other instances of legal and ethical obligations to share private information.  Outside of those instances, no service provider can or should make information sharing decisions about a client’s information—this includes any identifying information or case details.

Each member of the team has different obligations to protect case and client information. It’s essential that SARTs have the conversations about each profession and their information sharing/protecting requirements. By discussing and understanding the limits of each discipline’s relationship between communications and privacy, confidentiality, and privilege, we can have better and more effective SARTs. It’s our job to uphold protecting each person’s private information as service providers and team members.

Any questions, ideas, or experiences with learning about privacy, confidentiality, and privilege are welcomed in the comments!