Written by: Zanab Jafry
Scenario: There was an incident of sexual violence on your campus, and a finding of a breach of your post-secondary institution’s sexual violence policy has been made against the respondent. As an administrator making an outcome decision in this case, you are committed to delivering outcome decisions with care and want to know how to best balance procedural fairness with trauma-informed practice and a harm reduction lens.
Recommendation: In using trauma-informed approaches to limit trauma impacts, and harm reduction strategies to reduce overall harm experienced in the complaints process, we enhance procedural fairness by lifting some of the limitations faced by complainants and respondents, resulting in a fairer and more effective overall process.
Context: Across Canada, it is common for post-secondary institutions (PSIs) to treat trauma-informed approaches to investigations, adjudication and appeals, and the delivery of those decisions and outcomes as being separate from “the process,” or even at odds with procedural fairness.
However, there is a growing awareness of the urgent need for trauma-informed approaches and trauma-informed care (including harm reduction) when supporting people who are involved in reporting processes.
Trauma-Informed Practice: is the idea that fairness in complaint processes can only be achieved where there is an acknowledgement of how rape culture, forms of oppression, neurobiological responses to trauma, stereotyping, victim-blaming and more compound the magnitude of the gender-based violence experienced by the complainant. This is the lens through which intake of complaints, the offering of support, the investigative process, hearings and decisions should be viewed. Trauma-informed practice should also inform the type of environment fostered within a PSI (definition provided by Rebecca Akong).
Harm Reduction: We recognize that engaging in any process surrounding adjudication of sexual violence or gender-based violence is going to cause harm to those involved. Incidents of sexual violence cause deep trauma and revisiting details will likely be very painful. Harm reduction is the development and implementation of strategies, processes or policies that aim to avoid further traumatizing or causing harm to all involved parties and, more broadly, the campus community.
Roles and Responsibilities: Respondents and complainants both have a role to play as providers of information. As they will be providing the details and evidence that only they have access to, we need them to be able to provide information to the best of their ability so that investigators and decision-makers can fulfill their roles as receivers of information and make an appropriate outcome decision in a thoughtful and fair way. This entire process is reliant on creating an environment where information can be provided fairly and received fairly.
Impact of Trauma: However, we know that the impact of trauma often gets in the way of creating such an environment. It can impact both parties in the following ways:
Limit their ability to recall details, and inhibit the strength of their memory.
Prohibit them from describing triggering moments that are relevant to the investigation.
Lack of trust in the people who are talking to them about the investigation.
Make them reluctant to continue with the investigation.
In limiting the quality of information that can be provided, trauma prevents both the complainant and respondent from fulfilling their role as providers of information and prevents decision-makers from hearing relevant information that might impact their decision.
How can involved parties fulfill their roles when limited by these impacts? And are institutions receiving this information in an optimal way? Are they hearing everything that they need to hear?
Trauma-Informed Procedural Fairness: Our position is that by using trauma-informed approaches in the process itself, we are enhancing overall procedural fairness because we are limiting the impacts of trauma that compromise the involved parties’ ability to fully partake in the investigation process and as providers of information. We are creating an environment where the providers are providing information in the most optimal way possible and decision-makers are also receiving pertinent information in an optimal way.
Delivering Decisions with Care: We can implement principles of trauma-informed practice and harm reduction when delivering the outcomes in the final stage of a complaint process. To deliver decisions with care, we recommend the following:
Inform involved parties of the date of release for the decision letter well in advance.
Provide a “heads up” at least 24 hours before the news goes out.
Ensure news is not delivered on a Friday so that all involved parties can seek support on campus.
Ask if involved parties would like to support persons or advisors to receive a copy of the letter, where not prohibited by policy or collective agreements.
Wherever possible, encourage the respondent to respect the complainant’s wishes, even where they were not explicitly enforced in your decision.
All of these strategies work to reduce the overall harm that is experienced by involved parties in a complaints process. For more information and to explore this topic further, please watch our recent webinar, Making Outcome Decisions: Legal, Institutional and Other Factors to Consider.
Suggested Citation: Jafry, Zanab. (2020, September). Delivering Outcome Decisions with Care: Strategies for Trauma-Informed Practice & Harm Reduction. Courage to Act. www.couragetoact.ca/blog/outcomedecisions