Advocates have the responsibility and privilege of keeping records in a way that protects client information, maintains confidentiality, and collects the information required by funders.
What? Less is best.
Record the minimum information necessary to help accomplish the client’s goals and meet funding requirements. Documentation should focus on factual information such as services provided. Do not record speculations, safety planning, or other details that, in the wrong hands, could cause more harm than good.
Where? Lock it up.
Records should be kept in a locked file with access limited to pertinent staff.
When? Only when a client says so.
Clients are in charge of how and when their information is shared. Clients must request information-sharing in writing (via a Release of Information). Make sure you are clear about who they want to have their information, what exactly should be shared, and why they want the information shared.
How? Talk it out.
Talk to survivors about how information sharing works at the beginning of the advocacy relationship. Let them know that you will keep their information confidential and that you and your program are committed to releasing information ONLY when they ask you to and ONLY after you have discussed together how that information will or could be used. Help the client understand the potential positive and negative consequences of sharing information. Be sure to talk to them about the times when you are required to make exceptions to this practice.
Why? Information is powerful.
Federal and state laws protect survivor information, and advocates and programs could be held liable for inappropriately releasing information. Client records contain personal information that could impact safety. Assuring that the client determines what information is shared, and to whom, is central to client safety, autonomy, and self-determination. Always remember that client information belongs to the client, not the program.
You may be required to release information without a client’s written permission.
- In the event of a court order, after a judge privately reviews the records to determine their relevance. It’s best to seek legal counsel before releasing records in response to court orders and subpoenas.
- If the program suspects child abuse or neglect, you are required to contact Child Protective Services. Be aware that CPS may ask for the child’s relevant records. CPS does not have the right to request the parent’s records. This is a good reason to keep separate files for parents and children.
- If the program knows there is potential suicidal behavior or threat of harm to others that is likely to result in a clear, imminent risk of serious physical injury, or death to themselves or another person.
What to know about your program’s policies
- Where to find the policy on written records or client notes
- Who is in charge of destroying client records and how often that is done
- Who to contact if someone wants to serve a subpoena or law enforcement demands information or records
- Who to talk to for help with confidentiality or record keeping
- Steps to take when an outside party requests information or records
- Steps to take when a client requests records or asks to send records to an outside entity.
For more detailed information, check out our Confidentiality resources.