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Providers of domestic and sexual violence interventions have new guidance to help them safely deliver trauma-focused services and supports virtually, thanks to a new handbook from public health experts at the University of Alberta.

Stephanie Montesanti

Stephanie Montesanti

“At the onset of the pandemic, the anti-violence sector had to quickly pivot to remote-based virtual delivery to ensure continued access to interventions for individuals experiencing or at-risk of domestic violence or assault,” said Stephanie Montesanti, associate professor in the School of Public Health.

Rates of domestic violence in Canada have risen during the pandemic by up to 30 percent, according to a national survey by the Ending Violence Association of Canada.

“The lockdowns expose what many of us have known: that the most intimate spaces – homes – are not always safe places. With the rapid shift to virtual delivery, providers in the sector are exploring how to effectively deliver virtual trauma-focused interventions, such as digital tools for safety planning and mental health crisis counselling, and to ensure client safety in the virtual environment,” said Montesanti, who is also a scientist at the Centre for Healthy Communities and a member of the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.

The handbook was created in collaboration with the Working Group on Remote Delivery of Services at IMPACT, a provincewide initiative to eradicate domestic and sexual violence in Alberta. According to Montesanti, IMPACT brings the entire sector together to foster collective action and peer-to-peer support.

“There was very little guidance and opportunity to prepare for the switch to virtual services,” said Montesanti. “They had to change their workflow practices and get staff comfortable with virtual platforms and transition interventions online, so they wanted to work with our research team to identify best practices and evidence to support decision making and guidance on virtual and remote-based delivery.”

Deb Tomlinson

Deb Tomlinson

Deb Tomlinson, chief executive officer at the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services and part of the working group, found that bringing together evidence-based research with on-the-ground, practical considerations that service providers face every day resulted in a handbook that will help people experiencing domestic or sexual violence get critical support.

“There is still a great deal of stigma with experiencing violence, and people may be reluctant to reach out for help. That can lead to very serious mental health problems and limiting access to justice,” said Tomlinson. “This handbook helps make virtual interventions confidential, safe and accessible.”

The comprehensive handbook was created based on evidence from a rapid evidence assessment, environmental scan and consultation conducted by Montesanti, PhD student Winta Ghidei and their team. The handbook covers every aspect of virtual service delivery, from planning for and assessing whether virtual interventions are appropriate for people and families experiencing violence, including survivors, to creating safe environments online for all clients, and highlighting a number of promising practices for virtual or remote-based delivery.

Critically, the handbook provides information on assessing risk during virtual visits and how to safely respond to disclosures and safety planning.

“We included sample scripts for providers that can help guide sensitive conversations and reach out without putting the client at risk,” said Montesanti. “Given that they support clients with traumatic experiences, trust and empathy are so important.”

The handbook also provides strategies for service providers to make sure they are aware of and sensitive to cultural differences in the virtual space.

“Domestic violence touches all people, so cultural safety is important, especially when we look at the statistics, which show a greater risk of domestic and sexual violence for Indigenous people and newcomers to Canada,” said Montesanti.

Another unique aspect of the resource is a focus on practising self-care for service providers to prevent burnout, given the impact of the pandemic on the mental and emotional well-being of service providers.

“It is vital to promote self-care. The pandemic has affected us all, and very little has been done to support self-care for the provider,” said Montesanti.

The handbook is available for free online. Aside from being an important resource for the anti-violence sector in Alberta, Montesanti believes the guidance provided in the handbook can be used as a model for other jurisdictions.

“Having this handbook in place can also prepare Alberta service providers and anti-violence workers to adapt their organizational practices and service delivery approach for future epidemics or disruptions in the province and to improve access to and delivery of interventions in rural and remote areas.”

| By Shelby Soke

This article was submitted by the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

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