By Keith Rohman
Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes, and as investigators we see it all. Whether it is someone reporting a sexual assault in a Title IX investigation, a mitigation witness in a death penalty case, or the survivor of an auto accident, investigators regularly encounter the impact of trauma. Some people we interview have suffered trauma unrelated to our investigation, such as loss of a loved one or childhood abuse.
Interviewing people who have experienced trauma is never easy. With COVID-19 and the need for video interviews, it is harder than ever. Investigators need to find new approaches to conducting trauma-informed interviews, so we can get people’s accounts as completely and accurately as possible.
The hurdles are obvious. The first, of course, is the trauma of living through COVID-19. Everyone’s life has been dramatically disrupted. Some have experienced the loss of a family member or live in fear for the vulnerable people they are close to. Many college students have lost their independence and are back home. Hopefully, those are supportive and loving environments; sadly, they are sometimes toxic and even dangerous.
Talking about intimate personal matters to an investigator is often hard, but many witnesses find it even more difficult when the conversation is through an anonymous camera lens. This can be especially true when privacy is at a premium in many homes. At the same time, those accused of misconduct are dealing with heightened fears about the investigation. The possibility of losing your job or being expelled from school is highly stressful in the best of times; these are not the best of times.
Fortunately, there are approaches you can take to effectively conduct trauma-informed interviews remotely. The first step is for investigators to acknowledge the hurdles and how the loss of in-person contact affects the investigative process. Then, you can move toward techniques and strategies to mitigate this with a trauma-informed approach for video interviews that incorporates transparency, support, and rapport-building.
When starting the interview, spend more time discussing the circumstances and situation around the witness. Talk about the challenges of doing this interview on a video platform and not in person. Ask whether they are in a safe place to talk. Do they have enough privacy? If the witness has concerns about privacy, try to problem-solve with them. Maybe they can talk to you in a car or garage or backyard. A campus Title IX hearing officer told me about students testifying at video hearings from inside a bathroom or a closet. In any event, your offer to help problem-solve can build rapport by demonstrating that you are thinking about their situation.
Set up a process at the beginning for how the witness can contact you by text or phone if they have difficulties with the connection or if their privacy is interrupted. On your own side, as PII has discussed in an earlier blog on conducting remote interviews, make sure your background looks professional, without personal photos or artwork that might distract the witness.
Our voices and our faces are the only tools we have on video conferences, so make sure the technology works to your advantage. Too many investigators are conducting video calls without the right lighting. Poor lighting makes you appear fuzzy. If your lighting is less than ideal, consider getting a “selfie” light or other type of webcam light. They are inexpensive and very effective. Run a test call with a colleague to make sure all of these pieces are working.
Timing matters as well. Trauma-informed video interviews should be short, ideally not more than an hour. Google “Zoom fatigue” if you want to better understand why. This means investigators need to decide ahead of time what information is critical. We sometimes think we need every detail; being trauma-informed means accepting that may not happen.
Finally, use the tools you already have for showing empathy and caring. Use a warm tone of voice. Being calm and centered can calm the witness. Slow the pace of your comments and questions a bit. Closely watch how the witness is doing, and if they look stressed, suggest a short break. Even if they say they want to keep going, tell them you need a quick break and take a second to stand up and stretch. It can lighten the mood a bit.
And do not forget your own self-care. Being trauma-informed means you know that trauma is contagious, and in these days, we are all living with a heightened level of stress.
There is much more to say about this subject, and PII’s Title IX training affiliate, T9 Mastered, will be hosting a webinar on this subject. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or join T9 Mastered’s mail list to be notified of this event, which will feature myself and trauma expert Dr. Brenda Ingram.
Keith Rohman is the president of Public Interest Investigations, Inc. He has been a licensed private investigator for more than 35 years. He has extensive experience conducting trauma-informed interviews on cases ranging from death penalty matters to campus sexual assault allegations. Dr. Brenda Ingram provided invaluable assistance in preparing this post.