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Connecting Justice Communities: Why Trauma-Informed Technology Matters for Domestic Violence Survivors

By Katie Lam
Published: October 29, 2019


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In Oklahoma, survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence often seek help from their local Family Justice Centers. To shield themselves from their abusers, survivors rely on a range of support staff at the Centers for assistance filling out legal forms. One critical form is called a Petition for Protective Order (PO). POs provide protection for survivors by telling abusers that they must stop their violent and harassing behavior. POs also allow law enforcement to intervene on a survivor’s behalf before a violent event occurs.

Although filing POs is an important legal step for survivors, the process of completing these forms also forces survivors to painfully repeat their stories and specific details, sometimes a dozen times in their search for legal support and assistance. For advocates at Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma (LASO), the harmful repetition of filling out these forms demonstrated an urgent need for a new and more thoughtful system. After a Tulsa County judge reached out to LASO for help automating the PO process, LASO decided to team up with Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive online forms program to create a new practice of completing and sharing the information needed to create POs.

Using LawHelp Interactive’s expertise in developing online forms (LawHelp Interactive helped complete almost 42,000 domestic violence documents in 2019 alone), as well as help from Asemio, a community data systems company, LASO developed a tool that takes a trauma-informed approach towards filling out critical protective orders for survivors. This project was supported by funding from a Legal Services Corporation Technology Initiative Grant, a funding program that helps legal aid programs develop, test, and replicate innovative strategies to more effectively meet the legal needs of low-income Americans.

I spoke in depth with Margaret Hamlett Shinn, a lawyer and Community Education & Pro Se Coordinator at LASO, and Tara Saylor, an independent evaluator, about their experience developing and evaluating this tool.

What role does LASO play in its community?

Margaret: Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma is a statewide, nonprofit law firm. We have 18 offices across Oklahoma. Oklahoma, like every state, is largely rural with a few couple of major population centers. Most of our rural offices cover 8 or 9 counties. LASO is the main civil legal services provider for folks that can’t afford a lawyer. We partner with community agencies to have lawyers embedded at domestic violence safety centers, employment agencies, every place that we can find that it would help remove a barrier for someone who needs to maintain income, be safe, or get back on their feet.

Tell more about the work LASO does at domestic violence safety centers.

Margaret: When someone comes into a family justice center, they typically have a myriad of issues. The survivor may or may not want to file any legal action at the point, so we kind of stay in the background until there is a need for legal services. The center provides advocates who can help people navigate different systems like counseling, nurse examiner services, law enforcement reports, and human trafficking support services.

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…when someone has suffered a trauma, typically like the ones inflicted in a domestic violence situation, the brain takes over in a way that we’re not accustomed to.

We provide two roles. First, we help advocates interview survivors in a more trauma informed way as they prepare the forms needed for a Protective Order. After that step, our lawyers look at cases where intervention may be needed, such as divorce, child custody, paternity, some other type of legal intervention.

How have survivors historically had to complete the PO process?

Margaret: Over the years, paper forms have developed and the court now requires a set of standard paper forms, which includes 8 forms. But in order to complete these forms, there is a packet of about 17 different pages of materials. There is a lot of handwriting and a lot of repetition. In some cases, filling out these forms means writing your name on the top for filing purposes, other times it’s providing the abuser’s name over and over again. Survivors can’t just tell their story one time, to one advocate, or fill out one very short form.

That sounds exhausting. How does this process affect survivors?

Margaret: I’m not an expert by any means, but I do know that when someone has suffered a trauma, typically like the ones inflicted in a domestic violence situation, the brain takes over in a way that we’re not accustomed to. It really goes into fight or flight mode and is trying to assimilate all of the things [someone needs] to survive. Really basic things become obscure. To avoid retraumatization, it’s important when working with a survivor to let them tell their own story and proceed in places that they allow you to, and to avoid continually referring to the pieces of trauma unless there is a need to. It’s more important to then continue on with the true help that someone needs. Typically at violence centers, that’s safety planning and answering questions like, “How do I proceed from here? Where do I get shelter?”

How does this tool help minimize retraumatization?

Tara: One of the most obvious ways that this tool reduces retraumatization is to shorten the PO process. Typically the paper PO process takes between an average of an hour to 2 hours for a victim to complete. But with the introduction of the LHI Connect tool, we observed that this time was reduced dramatically. With the tool, the average victim was completing the PO in only 45 minutes. By reducing the time that people take to retell their story and reducing the number of times that they have to, for example, write out their perpetrator’s name, it just naturally leads to less [retraumatization]. The electronic version gives the victim an opportunity to tell their story as they want to tell it. An advocate or navigator can go into the Connect system and fill out pieces of the PO very quickly and seamlessly in the order that the victim presents it. It’s harder to do that on paper.

How did your team design this tool to take a trauma-based approach?

Margaret: First, we engaged the expertise of LawHelp Interactive’s Claudia Johnson. Having worked with Claudia for many years, we could count on her expertise working with all of the tools LHI offers. We wanted to develop an interview-style tool that would elicit information from survivors in a natural way, while also taking into consideration that everyone is different after experiencing trauma.

We ultimately went with the tool that allows the most flexibility for the navigator to move through the interview. We worked with LHI to integrate data from the Salesforce data management system at Palomar OKC. The Salesforce integration allows data management systems and databases like Salesforce to transfer information directly into an LHI Interview in a LHI Connect Point. This avoids the repetition of hand written forms and creates a unique way to manage review and printing of the PO’s prepared at a Safety/Justice Center. This new process makes it easy for a navigator or advocate to take a look at a case and find any holes the paperwork might be missing, assigned a matter for review by another, or close the file.

How else does this tool improve the PO process for survivors?

Tara: A victim will spend at least 3 hours in a Family Safety Center in Oklahoma. She’ll meet with multiple parties that can help her, which is a wonderful concept. Essentially all of the partners who can assist with the domestic violence case coalesce around the victim as opposed to the victim having to run all over town. That is such a huge benefit. But if there is a drawback, it’s that when the domestic violence survivor presents at a Safety Center, she may not realize that she will meet with an advocate, a navigator, a police officer, a nurse, a lawyer. And so that can be a really time-consuming day for victims. To add the PO process onto a victim is a lot. So I think it’s important to understand the context and why shaving the PO process down to 45 minutes is really significant in and of itself.

Was there anything that a survivor or navigator said that stood out to you during the evaluation process?

Tara: When we designed the data collection for this project, we were very sensitive to the fact that a survivor isn’t really served by meeting with an evaluator after hours of domestic violence assistance. So we were really careful to think about not just how can we reduce trauma in the PO process, but also how can we prevent trauma in the evaluation process. I purposefully did not meet with any survivors. But I did meet with advocates and navigators who work directly with survivors. What surprised me the most was how much time saved was reported. To save almost an hour, that’s perhaps a third or a quarter of the time a victim is there.

We also did a short survey for survivors to fill out, if they wanted to, after they completed the paper PO. I was especially interested in respondents who had previously filled out the paper PO. We asked whether respondents have previously filled out a paper PO so we could understand the difference between that experience and this new experience. Survivors commented things like “This was so much easier, it was calmer, it was more streamlined. It was better and faster.” All of the survivors comments were really positive. So I found really inspiring because this is a group of people who have filled out a PO both ways and much preferred the new way.

How else did the team ensure that the process become more accessible?

Margaret: One of the things we wanted to do was to translate the interview itself into Spanish in case someone comes into a center who wants to fill it out themselves. We have a pretty large Spanish speaking population in Oklahoma, so we translated not only the interview itself, but also the paperwork into Spanish and English on one page. We were told by the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office that when someone is served who is a Spanish speaker, [the perpetrator] often runs straight to the victim to interpret [the document]. So it puts everyone in jeopardy. When someone is served, they receive an official copy and they immediately see that document in their own language. The defendant or respondent is being served with papers that state exactly what the issue is and why they have to go to court and what they need to do in their own language.

What else LASO has done to support the development of this tool?

Margaret: We have implemented the use of the forms automation (not the integration) at two other Safety/Justice Centers in Oklahoma. The Tulsa Family Safety Center (FSC) with advocacy partners, Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS). The FSC actually helped develop the concept initially and participated in the development and enhancements made to LHI Connect. We have also implemented the forms automation with ProjectSafe, serving survivors in Pottawatomie and Lincoln Counties in Oklahoma.

We’ve begun reaching out to other counties in Oklahoma who have Safety/Justice Centers or DV advocacy providers. Each of the 77 counties in Oklahoma have judges and sheriffs who want something to look a little differently on the forms or service information. With this tool, we can customize what a county might need so that if someone comes to me in Tulsa county but I know that they’re filing a PO in Pawnee county, we are able to have the forms and all of the information correct for reach county’s preferences, including the information the sheriff’s need for Service. This will be a lengthy process and but the tool is flexible enough to allow for this type of customization of one single automated interview.

What are you most excited about in rolling out this tool?

Tara: I’m really excited to see how the integration that they developed for this project is going to be used in totally different types of projects. The National Alliance for Hope and three family justice centers in Tulsa, New Orleans and Oregon, might use this. It’s just really exciting to see a project that’s been really focused in Oklahoma have a potentially national scale. The sky’s the limit in terms of how this integration with Salesforce can be applied to other legal problems. I think that’s very exciting. I just continue to be inspired by the creativity of LASO and Pro Bono Net in creating these tools that really have the ability to make a significant change in people’s lives.

Margaret: [The SalesForce integration developed] free code that’s available on Github. It could be used not just for the domestic violence context, but it is pretty impactful in the domestic violence context because the upshot is when one part of the system moves more efficiently, the human side of it has more time and capacity to really help people. For a navigator or advocate to have more time to work with someone to ensure some safety, then that’s to me the most impactful part of it. Any place we can expand the skills that the lawyer brings to the table in an efficient way for the benefit of other people, not just in our own community, that’s a good thing.

Interested in learning more about how you can use LHI Connect and integrate LHI forms with standard legal aid or advocacy case management systems? Contact Claudia Johnson, LawHelp Interactive Program Manager, at [email protected].