Daily, professional counselors work with clients who live in unsafe situations involving exposure to violent and exploitative relationships. These unsafe situations might include experiencing partner violence or being the victim of child abuse or human/sex trafficking.
Especially now, during the coronavirus pandemic, partner violence and child abuse are on the rise. Clients are at a heightened risk of violence during the pandemic because of increased stress (which can exacerbate violence), isolation from support systems, and more time spent in close quarters with potentially abusive family members.
When working with clients who are being victimized, counselors have an obligation to promote these individuals’ safety. While perpetrators often use technology against clients to control and further victimize them, recent technology apps have been developed that can help counselors facilitate client safety. We will discuss several of these apps in this article.
Harnessing technology to empower clients
Many client safety concerns must be considered in counseling. First, technology is often used by perpetrators as an additional vehicle for abuse. Technology outlets provide perpetrators with opportunities to antagonize, stalk and ultimately continue abusing and exploiting their victims. Technology that can be used to perpetuate abuse includes tracking devices, location-enabled applications on cellphones, cameras, microphones, social media apps and even simplistic communication methods such as abusive text messages, emails and phone calls.
Clients are often forced to surrender their devices completely, especially if their technology use is being monitored by their abuser or if their number is in any way known by their abuser. Clients might consider changing their phone numbers and presence on social media, but this can be difficult, expensive and time-consuming.
Although taking steps to maintain digital — and, thus, physical — safety involves placing thick boundaries around technology use, it is important to realize the role that technology can also play in supporting survivors’ safety, autonomy and empowerment, all of which are crucial factors in a trauma-informed counseling approach. Counselors can work with clients to maintain their desired level of digital connection while also encouraging them to take measures to be safe.
Overview of apps for client safety
Several apps exist that can offer crucial support and assistance to clients. These apps are free and are compatible with iOS and Android devices, meaning they are widely accessible regardless of the devices clients use. These apps can be powerful and empowering resources. They are particularly helpful for those in violent relationships and for trafficking survivors seeking to extricate themselves from unsafe relationships. They can also empower clients who have been sexually abused or assaulted, as well as those looking to enhance their safety “just in case.”
All of these apps can be easily incorporated into clinical practice. For example, counselors can support survivors in setting up and configuring these apps and talk with clients about how best to use these apps to promote their safety. For many survivors, these apps can be a small step on the long road toward rehabilitating a sense of personal safety. Thus, counselors can play a crucial role in supporting survivors as they process the tangled emotions that accompany the steps of starting to feel safe again.
In this way, the use of technology via apps is an interactive and engaging intervention that can help empower survivors. By incorporating these safety apps into counseling, clinicians can help survivors begin to feel, perhaps for the first time, that they are worthy of protection and deserve to feel safe.
Safety plans are an important part of counseling when working with clients in unsafe relationships. Historically, counselors have developed written safety plans on paper with clients, but these can be dangerous because abusers can discover them, and this may invite violence.
One app that can be useful in developing electronic safety plans is myPlan. This app allows clients to craft safety plans and keep them stored in the cloud of their devices. Plans are saved in the app itself, which is then backed up in the cloud, making it difficult for perpetrators/abusers to access.
On this app, individual survivors respond to several brief questions (automatically generated by the app) regarding their relationship and situation. The app then produces a safety plan tailored to the specific needs of the survivor, based on the responses the person provided to the questions.
Use of this app puts a more secure and technologically advanced spin on safety planning. Keeping safety plans in the cloud allows clients to have immediate access to their plans. In addition, this app connects survivors with local resources, live chats with advocates (trained volunteer advocates working with loveisrespect.org) and even emergency medical/shelter options. The live chat option provides real-time support for survivors that can complement and enhance the safety plan.
Noonlight (formerly SafeTrek)
Noonlight allows individuals to call emergency services without having to dial 911 or make any sudden motions that could alert the abuser that the person is seeking help. In actively unsafe situations, this app can save lives. The app can be especially useful for clients who remain in harm’s way or continue to have contact with their abusers.
Noonlight allows users to simply hold the phone in their pocket, purse or another location that is not suspicious. The app comes equipped with a large safety button that, when gently touched, gives real-time notification to local emergency services to send help. The app is location enabled and holds an individual’s data to pass along to law enforcement in the event that the individual is unable to speak, text or otherwise seek help.
This app can prove especially useful for individuals who are being restrained or are unable to verbally communicate their distress. Furthermore, it helps to provide peace of mind and a sense of empowerment to clients. If an individual is at risk of ongoing abuse, this app can assist them in acquiring emergency assistance.
Another app helpful for clients affected by unsafe situations or ongoing abuse is Aspire News. In the event that a client’s phone is being monitored, this app appears as an ordinary news app with daily headlines, weather reports and so on. Embedded in the “Help” section of the app, however, are emergency contacts, resources, and information on shelters and other supportive services offered to those affected by abuse. The app is location enabled, meaning that it can tailor resources for wherever the client is at that particular moment.
Although this app is geared mainly toward clients affected by relationship violence, it can be equally useful when working with clients in other unsafe situations. It may be especially helpful to those being trafficked because these individuals are moved around frequently and may not be aware of local resources or shelters where they can go for assistance. Aspire News can connect these individuals with resources wherever they go, regardless of their familiarity with the area.
Many resources in the app target survivors of intimate partner violence and sex trafficking, but they also service those experiencing sexual abuse or exploitation. Aspire News connects clients with resources such as shelters, food and hygiene pantries, case management, law enforcement and even counseling. Aspire News may be a helpful app to provide to any client concerned about an abuser searching their phones or punishing them for seeking help.
The relatively new bSafe personal safety app offers a variety of helpful tools and resources. It provides specific supports to clients who may be enduring ongoing abusive situations and wish to record or gather evidence against their abusers. The evidence can then be saved to the cloud so that it cannot be destroyed.
The bSafe app has both audio and video recording capabilities (the form used is selected by the app’s user) to capture whatever abusive act may be occurring. The app also offers the ability to livestream an abusive incident or assault as it is occurring. All of these evidentiary recordings can be saved to the cloud to ensure that they are not lost or destroyed by an abuser, even if the abuser destroys the device itself. The app also forwards the footage or recording to trusted people whom the client has previously identified and included on their emergency contact list.
For clients who choose not to report their abuse, it can still be empowering for them to know they have evidence to document the trauma they have survived. This leaves the door open for them to report their abuse in the future if they so choose. Accruing such evidence may also help clients feel heard and believed concerning their lived experiences within an abusive relationship. The evidence gathered by the bSafe app may also assist clients in obtaining protective orders against their abusers or perpetrators.
In addition, the app can automatically alert contacts to call 911. The app is location enabled, meaning that it equips trusted social supports with the individual’s location in the event that the individual is in distress and unable to call for help themselves. The app also offers an SOS button and a “fake call” service, further allowing survivors to reach out for support during an abusive situation without pinging the radar of a perpetrator who may notice or monitor cellphone usage. By simply pressing the button, individuals are able to notify emergency services to send help immediately through use of the app’s location-enabled technology.
National Human Trafficking Hotline
Safety planning is crucial when working with clients who have experienced sex trafficking. These clients may be at ongoing risk as various abusers and pimps attempt to wrangle these individuals back into a life of exploitation. As counselors, we can empower this specific population with knowledge of ways to maintain safety during the recovery process.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline has recently begun offering more advanced and accessible options for individuals to use. The hotline provides a plethora of resources and assistance to help clients keep themselves safe. One such resource is the BeFree Textline; individuals can reach out for assistance by texting “HELP” to 233733 in the event they cannot speak freely in the presence of their traffickers or johns. This text line is a powerful resource to share with clients because it offers a great deal of support.
Crisis Text Line
The Crisis Text Line (CTL) can be reached by texting 741741. Callers are then connected with a trained crisis counselor. The CTL is a valid resource for all clients but has immense value for those impacted by relationship violence, trafficking or sexual abuse.
Given that the CTL communication occurs over text, many clients may find it less threatening, or perhaps less noticeable to their perpetrator, to connect with an advocate. The CTL will then connect clients with appropriate referrals and resources that they can use to find support and maintain their personal safety.
Empowering survivors with technology
The aforementioned resources offer examples of apps and other tools that can support clients in their ongoing struggle to maintain safety. Technology can play a unique and emerging role when we work with these resilient clients as counselors. These apps and text tools demonstrate recent advancements in technology that can foster support, safety planning and healing for clients.
Use of these tools is one small way to remind clients that they are indeed worthy of protection, safety, peace and healing. As counselors, we have the privilege of walking alongside these clients in their brave and unique recovery journeys. These technological nuggets provide resources to empower clients while helping to preserve their safety, dignity and healing resilience.
Marissa Gray is a licensed professional counselor working at Youth Intensive Services in Youngstown, Ohio. She provides trauma counseling to those who have been involved in the sex trafficking industry. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Victoria Kress is a professor at Youngstown State University. She is a licensed professional clinical counselor and supervisor, national certified counselor and certified clinical mental health counselor. She has published extensively on many topics related to counselor practice, particularly regarding work with abuse and trauma survivors. Contact her at victoriaEkress@gmail.com.
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