Challenges to Serving Survivors—Mandated Reporting
The second major change discussed by advocates was the requirement for mandatory reporting by all campus employees, which many viewed as a threat to confidentiality and safe space for survivors and as ultimately having a “chilling effect” on reporting. The early implementation of this requirement created confusion for many advocates and students.
One of the “effective responses” to campus sexual assault encouraged by the White House Task Force (White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, 2014), confidential reporting options have been found to encourage survivors to report (Brubaker, 2009; W. A. Walsh et al., 2010). Although the OCR guidelines (U.S. Department of Education, OCR, 2014) clearly identify professionally licensed therapists and counselors, health care providers, and clergy as responders who can assure confidentiality, the expectations regarding victim advocates have been less clear, and on some campuses, at the time of the interviews there was no provision for confidential reporting.
Some of the advocates worked in Women’s Centers, traditionally a major site for advocacy work on many campuses, and in some cases, advocate positions were moved out of Women’s Centers after the DCL went into effect. Sometimes this meant that they could no longer protect victims’ confidentiality, and the change was not always clearly communicated to students, as one advocate lamented: “So not only has this kind of privilege been ripped away from us, it’s not been done in a very transparent way so the students know.”
Further complicating matters are positions that include more than one role, where one might be confidential and another a mandated reporter. For example, some advocate positions also include prevention/education responsibilities. In these situations, the reporting status of the individuals in those positions changes depending on which role they are performing at any given time, which can be confusing to students and stressful to advocates.
Overall, as these findings attest, advocates shared many similar concerns about their role and challenges to serving survivors. This advocate provided a clear and succinct summary:
If I had a magic wand I would want what we had before, I would want confidentiality, I would want trust from the Title IX office and some of the leaders who look to our office with suspicion. I would want them to see us as the subject matter experts that we are and trust that we serve students in the best way we feel possible.
These themes relate to many aspects of professionalization. In the next section, we discuss the potential for professionalization to address some of the challenges advocates are facing.
The Promise of Professionalization
Historically, the field of advocacy has resisted the movement toward becoming more professionalized (Rodriguez, 1988). As campus victim advocates work to bring value and recognition to their work, however, their collective identity may be shifting to an identity that is more professionalized. This type of shift tends to happen intentionally, as members choose to make changes based on their own experiences and on the political climate within and external to their organization/profession (Gamson, 1996; Reger, 2002; Robnett, 1997; Whittier, 1995, 1997). Collective identities are also dynamic and can change as new goals and discourses arise (Reger, 2002). In light of the challenges, several advocates in this study believed that professionalization through licensure and certification would be beneficial.
Many advocates discussed how professionalization might generally help address conflicts with other campus and community providers by enhancing the value, authority, and status of the role. For example, one explained, “now there is a Title IX certification for advocates and so the work is becoming more professionalized, there’s more credibility.” One participant specifically related challenges advocates have been experiencing in terms of recognition and respect for their role to the current lack of professionalization among advocates:
The professional trajectory of advocates is almost nil—you basically have to push back on your colleagues on behalf of the survivors and I don’t know how many times I was told “you can’t tell me how to do my job.”
Some advocates described the need for common policies, guidelines, and standards of practice among advocates on different campuses–aspects of professionalization discussed by several scholars (Ammons & King, 1984; Frednreis & Vertz, 1988; Wilensky, 1964). Similarly, one advocate felt that professionalization efforts could help clarify the advocate role and discussed how implementing professional standards such as certifications could help achieve this goal:
I think what would help, honestly, is more clarity in the role of the advocate. . . . Maybe using a standard of practice, like when you’re using the word, would be really helpful too. . . . I always think of licensed clinicians where they have a standard of practice and . . . we don’t really have that.
In this way, establishing standards can also help to clarify the advocate role and emphasize that it fulfills a societal need.
Some advocates also discussed the idea of creating a code of ethics that could promote confidentiality and guide them as they carried out their role. As one advocate described,
I think there’s been a lot of conversations about the professionalization of advocacy, you know, I think that we’re kind of in this limbo right now. I think it’s a job and a career and we’re professionals, but in terms of, like, social work, and standards and codes of ethics and things like that . . . we don’t have and I think we might be moving in that way. . . . I hope that that means we’re getting some more protections around confidentiality. I think that would be the benefit of moving in that direction, so regardless of what that looks like and how we get there, I hope that’s what comes next.
This advocate identifies another potential benefit of professionalizing advocacy, that is, that it could address the major challenge of protecting advocates’ confidentiality. Many advocates hoped that professionalization would provide additional legal protections of privilege and confidentiality, a feature advocated by Evetts (2006). Another advocate explained this potential benefit:
I think [the formalization of the advocate role] would be a good thing for the protection of confidentiality. Like the biggest issue is that if it’s not formalized then there isn’t a uniform way in which campus advocates, in particular, can be recognized as confidential. And so you then get in the tricky space of the university may designate you that way, but if the winds blow the other direction, universities often won’t go the other direction, so having a legal stance to be able to say, to have that confidential and other kind of role would be great.
Although many advocates looked to professionalization as a potential solution to the major problems they identified with Title IX–that is, loss of protections for confidentiality and diminished value of advocacy–others were skeptical that this move would solve these problems without further undermining the goals and ideals of advocacy. For example, one reflected, “Right, like what are the unintended sides of doing that? So . . . yeah, I kind of sit on the fence on that one. What’s next for advocates?” Further questioning the move toward professionalization, another advocate offered, “If it becomes more professionalized and incomes increase demand, then maybe you have people attracted to the positions that have other interests in mind. That is the only concern I have.” In fact, research has indicated that increased professionalization within traditionally female-dominated fields and feminist organizations can lead to a decrease in survivor-centered practices and on promoting social change, as we discuss further below (Lehrner & Allen, 2009; Macy, Giattina, Parish, & Crosby, 2010; Moe, 2000; Nichols, 2013; Schechter, 1982).
This study begins to fill a void in the literatures on campus sexual assault and advocacy by examining an under-researched group, campus sexual assault advocates, providing additional insight into the reframing of campus sexual assault under Title IX. The DCL has led to broad and dramatic changes in how universities approach this issue, and advocates are in a unique position to assess those changes vis-à-vis their own role and perspective as well as those of survivors. The enhanced regulation through Title IX has resulted in additional campus personnel, particularly those with formal training and expertise in Title IX, and changes to confidentiality through mandated reporting. Major challenges to advocates’ ability to serve and support survivors are the limits to confidential outlets for reporting and competition with Title IX officers for authority and respect as experts in the field, as well as conflicts between advocates’ and organizations’ goals. The findings suggest that the stressors and conflicts addressed in the literature as typically experienced by advocates have increased since the DCL letter went into effect. The findings also contribute to the literature on professionalization by exploring the meanings of expertise, ethical standards, and role clarification within a particular field, as well as perceptions regarding how the evaluation of work might be enhanced through professionalization. We further explore implications of the findings for policy and practice, a summary of limitations of the study, and recommendations for future research below.
Policy and Practice
While advocates consider the potential benefits and drawbacks of professionalization, they may find themselves torn between the overall values of the advocacy field and its feminist influences, the desire to implement survivor-based advocacy, a past tendency to avoid professionalization, and their own personal views regarding the benefits of professionalization. As anti-violence programs have become increasingly reliant on state funding, the professionalization of many anti-violence movements and fields has increased (Incite!–Critical Resistance Statement, 2005). With this reliance, however, has come a separation from a social justice and community-based focus (Cohen, 1985; Incite!–Critical Resistance Statement, 2005; Kim, 2013). Within the field of social work, for example, and consistent with concerns expressed by some advocates in this study, professionalization has been found to lead to the undermining of social movement goals (Kim, 2013); that is, promoting social justice or reducing inequalities may no longer be a primary focus.
Research has also indicated that the professionalization of feminist and social service organizations can lead to a decline in the survivor-centered approaches as standardized service provision is favored (Haaken & Yragui, 2003; Moe, 2007; Srinivasan & Davis, 1991). This conflict between feminist activist goals and organizational priorities is at the heart of the community-based versus campus-based advocate conflict, and it is unclear whether it could be resolved through professionalization.
On the contrary, while professionalization may entail standardization, this standardization could still be considerate of, and even protect, the ideological priorities of advocacy as ethical standards. If the practice of survivor-based advocacy becomes a part of a standardized/professional code of ethics, advocates can demonstrate that, to be seen as a professional in their field, one must commit to a focus on the needs of survivors. Because individuals are often challenged to reexamine their own ethical standards by their peers and colleagues (Plant, 2015), a code of ethics adopted by advocates could also help to promote these ethical standards and the idea of survivor-based advocacy to other service providers. For example, in her study of midwives, MacLellan (2014) found that there were often challenges balancing the demands of their institution and the needs of their clients. By implementing ethical standards similar to those of hospitals, midwives were able to increase trust with other service providers and their clients. We suggest that in the case of advocacy, the reverse might be a better way forward. That is, the ethical standard invoked by advocates to prioritize survivors’ needs and decision-making autonomy should be adopted by all those responding to sexual assault on and off campus as a strategy for increasing trust and improving the response. As one study participant noted, this type of certification or training may be especially helpful at smaller institutions in which there may be less training and support available for advocates, for it could allow for networking and resource-sharing opportunities.
Professionalization may also help guard against those without sufficient experience working as advocates or supervising advocates. As Wilensky (1964) discussed, a licensing requirement can help to protect job territory; in the case of advocates, this would mean that only those who have proven that they are themselves qualified to work as an advocate would be able to do so. This way of valuing experience as expertise could allow advocates to have more freedom over how they carry out their role, as they would be seen as experts, and who could be trusted to make appropriate decisions, and for campus policies to become more survivor-centered. This could also allow those who had worked as an advocate for many years to be recognized for their past work and be favored over those who come from different backgrounds.
Protections of privilege and confidentiality are of primary concern to advocates, and professionalization may be one route to securing such protection. As one advocate suggested,
. . . until there’s some kind of official certification for victim advocates, an official law that states that we victim advocates should have the same privileges or very similar privilege of confidentiality as a counselor, I think there’s going to continue to be a fight back and forth as to what our role is, what our rights are, what we can do, what we can’t do.
The Department of Education provides some guidance suggesting that advocates can be designated as confidential sources, but there is variation across states regarding which specific roles have legal protections of privilege (Campus Technical Assistance and Resource Project, n.d.; U.S. Department of Education, OCR, 2014; A. Walsh, 2014). A. Walsh’s (2014) indication that “any other person with a professional license requiring confidentiality, or who is supervised by such a person” has privilege suggests that if advocates were to professionalize, this could help formalize and protect their confidential status (p. 19).
Overall, based on advocates’ perceptions and the literature, there seem to be more potential benefits than costs with professionalization, but the greatest risk seems to be the potential loss of social activism and systematic change that have historically been at the foundation of advocacy. Whether or not professionalizing advocacy will guarantee privilege or increase the perceived value of advocates or the respect they are afforded remains to be seen.
This study was exploratory and based on a small nonrepresentative sample; as such, the findings are not generalizable to the larger population of advocates. Although the participants represented a variety of individual training and experience, campus types, sizes, and locations, they did not represent all variations across these dimensions. The findings also suggest that the leadership, climate, and culture of individual campuses can have major impacts on advocates’ work, and these details, and the relative influence of each, should be explored further in larger, representative studies.
An additional and important limitation is that the advocates who participated in this study were largely White, cisgender, and heterosexual. Their perspectives on both advocacy and sexual assault likely reflect their relatively privileged positions and potentially neglect the experiences of marginalized groups. As suggested by Hippensteele (1997),
Most white, presumedly straight, women supporters and advocates lack the experience to fully comprehend the complexity of sexual harassment commingled with race and/or sexual orientation oppression, thus few women of color or lesbians expect influential people within the institution to be sensitive or responsive to their sexual victimization. (p. 301)
Enhancing the diversity and inclusion of advocates in both research and practice is critical to representing the experiences and meeting the needs of all survivors.
As practitioners and researchers continue to assess the impact of Title IX on how we respond to campus sexual assault, it is important to address the myriad roles of campus and community personnel and how they are experiencing these changes. We need to identify challenges and barriers to supporting survivors as well as ways to increase and enhance coordinated responses and shared goals. As efforts to professionalize the field of advocacy continue, it will be important to assess their impact and the extent to which professionalization can solve some of the problems advocates currently confront and the extent to which professionalization changes the field and its value. For example, would professionalization help or hinder the challenges faced by advocates working on campuses and conflicts with community-based advocates? Would professionalization of both roles enhance or further undermine collaboration? Future research could also expand upon this study by conducting studies with a larger sample of advocates to identify and better understand variations across type, size, and location of campuses among other potential factors.
As we continue to find better ways to investigate these issues, university administrations should support and respect the work and expertise of advocates. In addition to complying with Title IX and other federal laws and mandates, if universities are committed to serving the needs of survivors of sexual assault, it is critical that they commit to finding ways to support and value the work of advocates and to involve them in decision making and policies and practices to respond to sexual assault on their campuses.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
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