Evidence Challenges In Sensitive Safeguarding Cases: Understanding The Impact Of Trauma

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Safeguarding is a matter of vital importance but challenging to effectively implement and manage. For sports organisations operating at international and national levels...
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Introduction

Safeguarding is a matter of vital importance but challenging to effectively implement and manage. For sports organisations operating at international and national levels, the investigation of highly sensitive cases involving psychological and sexual harassment and abuse can be the most difficult aspect of the safeguarding process.

When conducting investigations, Safeguarding Officers and Investigators operating in a sport environment are confronted with the need to acquire highly sensitive information, usually from a vulnerable individual (children or adults at risk). If not obtained in the right way, the process can have damaging psychological consequences for the victim. How evidence is obtained in these cases, often reliant on interview testimony which can be inconsistent or incomplete when recalling traumatic events, will also have a direct impact on the ability to reach definitive conclusions from the investigation.

Negative experiences of the investigative process and inconclusive outcomes have long-lasting implications on the effectiveness of an organisation's safeguarding framework. Individuals reporting such behaviours can lose faith in the system, developing a mistrust of the organisation's ability to protect them against perpetrators operating within the sport. This can lead to a decline in other incidents of a similar nature being reported.

Engaging with individuals who have experienced potentially traumatic events is a process to be handled with the utmost care. The investigative process must be conducted in a way that will minimise re-traumatisation for the alleged victim(s) or any witnesses who are providing evidence, whilst also seeking to achieve the best evidence to ensure conclusive outcomes.

The Impact of Trauma on Interview Testimony

Trauma and Memory

The significance of trauma and how it can impact someone's ability to recollect an event or sequence of events is often underestimated. Studies have shown that trauma experienced by an individual can have a profound impact on memory. 1 When attempting to recall past events, particularly where the event has invoked a traumatic response, the quantity and quality of information are limited. This can result in inconsistent or incomplete accounts. Inconsistent testimony is often associated with an unreliable witness or one who lacks credibility. This outcome not only impacts the victim(s) of the case but also may deter others from speaking up and reporting similar behaviours. Being aware of trauma and how this impacts memory can help investigators interact with victims and witnesses in a safe way causing no further harm to the individual. This approach also ensures that the best possible evidence can be obtained.

Time

Harassment and abuse behaviours are often reported to have occurred repeatedly over substantial periods of time. This impacts the ability of any individual, alleged victim or otherwise, to provide detailed and accurate accountsof what they experienced or witnessed. Delays in reporting are common with individuals (particularly those categorised as vulnerable) "testing the system" by informally raising concerns to peers or others in the sport before making any official report. 2These delays create further challenges for individuals as their memory of specific incidents may become distorted or confused. Investigators can find it difficult to establish timelines for events reported, limiting the opportunity to identify other lines of enquiry that could corroborate the account given in an interview (e.g., witnesses, records, or data).

Emotional Responses

The inherent risk of exploitation in the sport context plays a part in an individual's reluctance to report harassment and abuse. Sport regularly engages with vulnerable groups of people, including children. Elite adult athletes are also considered to be vulnerable. They are often categorised as "adults at risk" because of the power imbalance between them and their coaches, managers, or support staff and the demands on them to compete. Sport officials, including managers, governors, coaches, medical staff, and volunteers working in authoritative roles, have powerful influences over athletes looking to succeed in the sport. The act of grooming can leave a victim feeling isolated, guilty, ashamed, and fearful which in turn, can impact the length of time taken to report their abuse. Grooming behaviours also create a perception of trust which can leave the individual feeling confused about how they perceive their relationship with the perpetrator. This can potentially delay and distort disclosure. It may even lead to the omitting of details of recalled events at the point that an account is provided.

The Need to Apply a Trauma-Informed Approach

Achieving Best Evidence

Applying a trauma-informed approach to your investigation means you are considering its impact on the individuals involved and how this affects the evidence they provide. Trauma-informed investigations also consider the risk to individuals engaging with the process, including the welfare of investigators exposed to distressing evidence and information.

There are interview techniques investigators can adopt when speaking to alleged victims and witnesses in harassment and abuse cases. These techniques are primarily aimed at enabling the interviewee to feel empowered by building rapport, transferring control, and eliminating any perceived authority of the interviewer's role. This increases the quantity of information elicited from the interviewee. Studies have shown that the accuracy of the information provided also increases when these techniques are applied. 3 More detailed accounts in interviews create better opportunities to identify sources that can be used to corroborate the account. This is important when reporting as it enables more definitive conclusions to be reached.

Re-traumatisation

The investigative process will often be daunting and potentially traumatic for alleged victims. Applying a trauma-informed approach will help minimise any further trauma or stress. Repeated interviews where the individual is required to provide their account of the reported abuse over and over again should be avoided. Repeated tasks, especially interviews, will have a psychological impact on victims who are providing accounts of alleged abuse. Obtaining a full and accurate first-time account using a trauma-informed approach in the interview will limit the need for further interviews and minimise the risk of re-traumatising the victim(s) or other witnesses.

Therapeutic Advantages for Trauma-Informed Approaches

For victims of psychological, sexual, and physical abuse, trauma can have a long-lasting effect on how they engage with others, emotionally and socially. 4 Individuals often report feeling out of control and unable to trust others when suffering repeated harassment and abuse. As described earlier, testing the system is an example of this inability or reluctance to trust others or the organisation. When an individual makes a disclosure of harassment and/or abuse, this means they are putting their trust in you, the organisation, and the system. How this disclosure is handled is crucial to whether that individual will maintain trust in the process and the wider organisation.

The investigation is a key part of the remediation process. Its aim is not only to establish the facts of the matter but also to reassign some control to the person reporting and build trust in the remediation process. Individuals who are responded to and managed with care during the investigation will more likely hold a positive view of the organisation's safeguarding practices, which will contribute to a "speak up" reporting culture.

Victims of abuse have also reported that the interview process, when conducted using trauma-informed techniques, was an opportunity for them to be heard, providing therapeutic advantages as part of the investigation process. 5

Keeping the alleged victim(s)/complainant(s) informed of the investigative process throughout, including reporting on expected timelines and providing a clear understanding of all possible outcomes available can help individuals feel empowered. This can positively contribute to the individual's healing process and overall mental well-being.

Conclusions

Adopting a trauma-informed approach to sensitive safeguarding investigations is advantageous as it enhances the level and reliability of evidence gathered. It can also provide therapeutic advantages to the victim(s) of harassment and abuse. A trauma-informed investigative strategy leads to the duty of care being discharged and the best evidence being obtained. The long-term impact is that individuals are more likely to positively engage with an organisation's safeguarding frameworks and practices, ultimately resulting in successful safeguarding outcomes and improved culture.

Footnotes

1. Front Sports Act Living, 2022; 4: 1017308 - A conceptual analysis of maltreatment in sports: A sport social work perspective, Milne, R & Bull, R (1999). Investigative Interviewing: Psychology and Practice

2. Front Psychol. 2022; 13: 907247 - The journey to reporting child protection violations in sport: Stakeholder perspectives

3. Milne, R & Bull, R (1999). Investigative Interviewing: Psychology and Practice

4. Front Sports Act Living, 2022; 4: 1017308 - A conceptual analysis of maltreatment in sports: A sport social work perspective,

5. Milne, R & Bull, R (1999). Investigative Interviewing: Psychology and Practice

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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