Expert Notes on Documenting SGBV: Trauma-Informed Interviewing

This is an important note featured in our newly-released section to the Video As Evidence Field Guide: Using Video to Support Justice and Accountability for Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. Given the importance of avoiding re-traumatization and misrepresented information, we have not included guidance on interviewing survivors in this section. This note explains why you should not film testimony relating to SGBV unless you are properly trained. To download the full section, click here

by Katherine Porterfield, Ph.D., Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture

Trauma-Informed Interviewing: An Essential Skill Set in Documentation with Trauma Survivors

SGBV crimes are traumatic to victims and witnesses. Trauma is a biopsychosocial experience in which an overwhelming event or events cause the body and brain to enact nervous system reactions in order to survive. These survival reactions—fight, flight, freeze, and even faint—while adaptive in the moment of threat, can leave physical, psychological, and interpersonal symptoms in survivors. These can include feeling hyper-aroused (in a fear state), intrusively re-experiencing images and memories, feeling shame and humiliation, withdrawing, and shutting down or avoiding discussions of the trauma. All of these reactions can then be triggered by interviews or questioning of survivors. A video interview may heighten the intensity of the survivor’s reaction, so it must be conducted carefully.

A poorly conducted interview risks re-traumatization of a survivor.

‘Re-traumatization’ involves the triggering of trauma-based responses through the interviewing process. Questioning about an assault, for example, requires a survivor to recount memories that may thrust them into a fight or flight cascade of reactions, with racing heart, sweating, and stomach distress. An interviewer who is not aware of these signs of hyperarousal may ‘press on’ with the interview, rather than respond to the survivor’s condition. This inadvertent triggering of a trauma reaction can result in survivors becoming highly distressed and symptomatic.

Advocates and others who interview survivors of SGBV must be trained in trauma-informed practices. This type of training can prepare interviewers in best practices for interviewing a survivor. Preparing for an interview with knowledge of the person’s cultural background, social history, or any other data regarding the traumatic events may help an interviewer be more attuned to the survivor. Learning about the human response to trauma and to revisiting trauma memories can assist the interviewer in recognizing the survivor’s reactions and responding to them sensitively. Understanding how memory inconsistencies can be a product of neurophysiological trauma responses that were elicited during the trauma is crucial to conducting non-confrontational interviews with survivors who may seem to confuse or lose details of their experience. Training in structuring an interview with a trauma survivor teaches interviewers about the importance of giving control to subjects when possible, building rapport and ending an interview with time for the survivor to regain composure or plan for their next steps.

Interviews with survivors of sexual violence can be effective, safe and, even in some cases, healing for the victim. However, this requires an informed, sensitive interviewer, trained in the impact of traumatic stress on individuals and attuned to survivors’ reactions, as much as what they say.


For more expert notes, download the full section here.

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