Conducting investigations often means communicating with people at one of the hardest times in their life. People may share or disclose all kinds of stories, from the traumatic events you are investigating, to their personal mental health history. It is the investigator’s role to listen, acknowledge and support parties’ concerns, all while maintaining professional boundaries to carry out the investigation.
Plenty of trauma-informed procedures and training are available for clinical practitioners and people in high-risk industries, but there’s not much information out there for investigators beyond the basics. We’ve used our learnings from thirty years of practice to put together a few trauma-informed recommendations which will be useful to investigators working in all sectors.
Put your safety first
If you’re working with potentially traumatic subject matter, you’re using up emotional resources and resilience. Healthy boundaries between your work and you are essential to protect you from vicarious trauma and burn out. Once you’re running on empty, you will be unable to help anyone, which is why your wellbeing has to come first.
There are plenty of tools out there for building resilience and coping with potentially traumatic events: it can be great to talk about what’s impacting you, or do self-care. Make sure you understand what self-care actually is (hint: it’s not just self-indulgence!) and always consider seeking out peer support. Peer support does not have to be a formal program – you can ask any willing colleague to swap stories and strategies with you, or ask your supervisor to support you with reflective practices.
Carry out (only) your role
Our primary obligation is to carry out investigations which do no harm. It is never an investigator’s job to be a therapist or to help parties feel better, but we do have a responsibility to avoid re-traumatising parties or engaging in conduct which is by itself harmful (e.g. bullying a party into participating). This means you should try to convince a party to participate willingly, rather than use your power to compel their participation. If an interview is causing too much distress, you should consult with the party to decide whether to pause it. If a party’s support person is causing them harm, consider how your investigation process can be adapted to limit the opportunities for this to occur. Our duty arises within the investigation process only, and anything outside of this should be referred to your client or manager.
Build your knowledge
Different types of investigation are associated with different kinds of potentially traumatic event. An insurance investigator might investigate serious vehicle accidents, whereas a child safety investigator will see very different issues. Whatever the cause, investigators need to understand how trauma happens in their sector and what indicators the parties might display. Once you understand trauma indicators, you’ll be able to see when a party or case needs a trauma-informed process. A trauma-informed investigation is one which uses understanding and sensitivity to adapt the investigation process to the needs of the parties. How can you understand their needs? By simply asking them what they want, listening to their answers and responding with respect and flexibility.
Investigators also need to understand how traumatic events – particularly when combined with mental health concerns and other intersectional challenges – impact evidence. Trauma can affect perception, recall, formation of memories, ability to report memories in a cogent way, behaviour during interview, and more. A trauma-informed analysis of a party’s evidence should ensure that behaviour arising from trauma is never used to discredit or blame a party (although it may impact the reliability of their evidence), and the investigation report should be free of judgemental or insensitive language.
Make participation safe and consensual
Forcing a party to participate in an investigation is almost never the best approach. Even if you can compel them to attend an interview, or even answer specific questions, you certainly can’t force using details out of their mouth. Instead, consider the reluctant party’s needs and interests, and use these to help convince them to consent to interview.
A “safe” investigation can look different for each person. One risk for investigators is that you might accidentally use language or ‘triggers’ that negatively impact parties, or make parties relive a traumatic experience. The only way to avoid this is to quickly identify trauma indicators when you see them, so you can start a conversation with parties to learn what will help them feel safe. This could include anything from asking them whether they prefer ‘victim-survivor’ or ‘complainant’, to setting some ground rules for conducting their interview, to providing a written outline of the investigation process so they know what to expect. By exploring the risks together with the party, you give them the power to control those risks.
Know your process
Many sectors and organisations now have formal policies setting out how they will respond when trauma impacts, family violence or other vulnerabilities are identified. These processes tend to focus on identification, respectful listening, and referral to external supports and systems, ending with a list of relevant services. An investigator should always have that list handy, because you may need it at any time.
The above is only a summary of a trauma-informed investigation process, much too brief to reflect the breadth of skills and strategies you will need to conduct a truly safe process. Wise Workplace Training can assist your organisation with advice on a procedure for your internal and external investigation needs, or a complete course on trauma-informed investigations which is tailored to your sector.
For more information about the services and support available from Wise Workplace Training, reach out to our team on [email protected].