Text messaging has become a quick and convenient communication tool to relay short, simple messages, or provide limited timely information. In places that have limited cell service or cell tower signal strength, text messages may be more reliable than connecting through cell phone voice services. However, there are safety, privacy, and confidentiality issues associated with using text messaging that need considered.

Safety & Privacy Concerns for Survivors

Documentation. Unlike a verbal conversation, texts contain a trail or history of the conversation. This means that if someone has access to the survivor’s phone, they can read the entire thread of a conversation between a survivor and the advocate. This can have major implications for the survivor’s safety and privacy.

Impersonation. One of the concerns when texting with survivors is being sure that the person you are texting with is the survivor and not someone attempting to impersonate the survivor. Cellphones are easily picked up by friends, family, and even the abuser. If the survivor’s cell phone doesn’t have a passcode on the phone (or the other person knows what it is), it is very easy for them to pick up the phone to view and respond to texts.

Miscommunication. Because you are communicating in short 140 character snippets, important clues in the conversation may be overlooked. What might be conveyed by body language or voice tone is missing, so communicating by texts might appear blunter, unclear, or insensitive. Also keep in mind that many acronyms associated with the use of text messaging may not have the same mean or connotation to the recipient.

Phone monitoring. If the abuser is monitoring the survivor’s phone, then they could have access to the text conversation. Survivor can delete the sent and received messages, as well as the program’s number from their logs. If the abuser is monitoring their phone through cell phone spyware though, he/she will be able to see each and every message sent and received without the survivor being aware of it.

Safety & Confidentiality Concerns for Advocates

Confidentiality. The advocate’s cell phone will also contain the text conversation as well as client contact information. If it’s known that your program allows texting as a communication option, these conversations may be requested by attorneys, judges, or law enforcement. The response will depend upon the program’s confidentiality obligations in federal and state law. Most agencies have strong obligations to ensure the confidentiality of survivor information, and text messaging is another area that will need to be addressed if used.

Access. If the cell phone that the advocate is using is an agency cell phone, other staff may have access  to the phone and could see the conversation or contact information. If the cell phone the advocate is using is her/his personal cell phone, the advocate’s friends and family could see the conversation on the phone. Additionally, agencies may lose control over information stored in the phone if the employee leaves. (Note: It is not best practice for advocates to use their personal cell phones to communicate with survivors.)

Best Practices – Hotlines

Best practices around texting with survivors often depend on the goal of the texting. Some programs want to text with survivors in the form of a hotline. In this scenario, the survivor texts the program to ask about domestic violence or resources. This is often an anonymous conversation.

  • Texting, by its nature, is difficult to be anonymous. One cannot hide their phone number when they text (unless they use a virtual number, which most people do not), so the agency will be collecting cell phone numbers from those they text. Agencies will need to implement stringent retention policies on how often they destroy the phone numbers from those who text. Phone numbers will show up on the phone and remain in the text log. Agencies operating texting hotlines should delete those numbers right away. Check your billing records to see if the texting part of your bills contain actual phone numbers. If they do, check with your phone company to see when and how they release their customer’s data in responding to legal requests.
  • Delete text conversations and contact information. In addition to not retaining the phone numbers from hotline texts, agencies should not keep the content of the conversations. Just like an anonymous hotline phone call would never be recorded, agencies should not keep the record of the text message. That conversation should be deleted immediately.
  • Assess for safety. Although a hotline text may not be conducive to a thorough intake, agencies should still assess for safety and inform the survivor of the risks in using texts to communicate. Survivors may not be aware of the possible risks when using text messaging. Begin text conversations by informing the survivor of issues they should be aware of, such as: whether this conversation will be viewed/seen by anyone else (within the agency), does the advocate have any mandatory reporting obligations, and any other information survivors need to know. Advocates can end text conversations by informing the survivor that the conversation will be deleted on the agency side, and sharing tips on safe texting practices.
  • Use third‐party texting platforms. If possible, use a third‐party platform to operate hotline texting. A platform will allow the users to send texts to an anonymous number (and not an actual cell phone). Depending on the platform, the program may be able to have the texts route to multiple cell phones. The platform may also be able to respond to texts with standard disclaimer/informative texts before and at the end of each conversation. Using a third‐party platform means that the program will not collect any phone numbers from those who texts. However, be sure to check with their privacy policies to see what information they share with others and how they respond to legal requests for information.

Best Practices – Texting to Supplement Phone Calls, Face‐To‐Face Interactions

Communicating through text messaging can be an effective tool in helping keep survivors engaged, relay information, or remind them of important dead ines. This is helpful when the survivor needs the information quickly and isn’t able to talk on the phone.

  • Talk about how and when to use text messaging. Before texting with survivors, always have a conversation with them about when and how you can text one another. Unlike a hotline call, in this case, the advocate will have a relationship with the survivor, will have a better sense of what the survivor is comfortable with, and can be aware of the survivor’s specific safety risks. Talk about safety risks around saving text conversation logs and saving contact information into the phone’s contacts.
  • Set boundaries and expectations. Have a conversation with the survivor about your available work hours and when you can and can’t respond. Unlike a hotline, where the texting is either done through a third‐party platform or perhaps a dedicated cell phone, these texts will often be between the survivor and the advocate’s agency‐owned cell phone. This means that the survivor will have a specific phone number to reach the advocate any time. Be aware of your own boundaries and talk to the survivor about his/her expectations and your work hours and availability.
  • Less is more. Advocates should not save survivors’ full name, phone number, and other contact information into the phone’s contacts. Save as little information as possible and when the client‐ advocate relationship is over, delete all contact information from the phone.
  • Delete information regularly. Just like any other type of communication, whether via email or phone, if the agency doesn’t normally retain those conversations, text conversations should also be deleted regularly.

Best Practices – Texting as a Method of Services, Such as Counseling or Advocacy

In rare cases, it might be necessary for the survivor‐advocate relationship to be completely through texting; but this should only be done if the there is no other option for communication. Texting only is not the best method to perform advocacy simply because sometimes face‐to‐face communication, a video chat, or a phone call is necessary. We strongly advise against using texting as the only method of counseling or advocacy.

  • Check in regularly about safety and privacy. It’s easy to become comfortable with texting and forget that unlike other forms of communication, a log of the entire conversation history is stored and that information on a cell phone can be easily accessible to others.
  • Be aware of the potential for miscommunication. Like email, it is easy to miss or misread emotional cues in written words. With texting, you’re also limited to only 140 characters. Check in regularly to make sure that you both understand one another.
  • Some things require in person contact. Some things require the survivor to be present, such as signing a release of confidential information. A texted permission granting release is not allowable under federal confidentiality laws.
  • Anonymous texting more difficult. Unlike a phone call, blocking one’s number while texting is   not very easy. The phone number of both parties will usually be visible when texting. One exception is if you are using a third‐party texting application. However using a third‐party   texting application, such as Kik or WhatsApp, will require both parties to download the app and connect with each other through the app. Depending on who you’re working with and the   device they are using, it may or may not be possible for them to download a separate app to talk to you. Another exception is when virtual numbers are used. A survivor can use a virtual number and text from that number so their actual number is kept private.

Best Practices – Other Things to Consider

  • There are many options to text someone. For example, you can text someone via email or through a free text messaging platform online. Be aware that as you connect different types of communication methods, you must also consider the security and privacy issues of those other types of communications. Emails have different sets of privacy and security issues, including spyware on the computer or someone else having access to the email account (and not necessarily the device).
  • Some texting platforms allow the texts to disappear after a certain period of time, such as SnapChat or TigerText. While this might be an attractive platform for both survivors and advocates to use to communicate with one another, be aware of issues around those applications. Both users must download the specific app and connect with one another from the app. Depending on the survivor, this may not be the safest or the most convenient method of communicating.

Policy Suggestions

Each program will use texting for different purposes. How it is used and the policies around its use should meet that specific purpose. The common thread is to create policy that addresses confidentiality, privacy and safety.

No matter your goal, if you are texting with survivors, here are two key points to always keep in mind:

  1. When implementing texting as a method to communicate with survivors, make sure that you have a conversation with each survivor about text messaging safety. Technology continues to advance at a rapid rate and staying current with technology and its application is essential to advocacy practice and survivor safety planning.
  2. Also be aware that texting allows both parties to store the history of the conversation as well contact information. Incorporate practice and procedures to ensure the management and destruction of confidential information, conversations, and contact information stored or derived from devices.

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©2014 National Network to End Domestic Violence, Safety Net Project Ÿ

Supported by US DOJ-OVC Grant # 2011-VF-GX-K016. Opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of DOJ.