Donna O. D’Andrea pulled her smartphone from her purse and talked about everything it can do, from managing emails to social media to staying connected with family and friends.
But D’Andrea, a victim advocate with Avanzar, the former Atlantic County Women’s Center, has seen the darker side of the technology.
“It’s empowered individuals, but it’s also allowed individuals to be threatened,” D’Andrea said. “If anything is that good, there’s always a downfall.”
Smartphones can give a victim’s partner access to private information, or the abuser can use it to control the victim by taking or breaking it or refusing to pay the monthly bill, D’Andrea said.
The phone becomes a part of the domestic violence cycle, “and then they’re lost and totally disconnected,” she said.
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“For every feature of technology that enhances survivors’ safety, there’s a feature that puts the survivor at risk,” said Deanna Dyer, legal director for the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence.
The coalition dedicates an entire portion of its website to technology safety, with links to safety tips and strategies for survivors.
Frequently, abusers damage or break survivors’ cellphones, she said.
But, the smartphone in a victim’s pocket can be a huge help, too, collecting evidence and having any restraining order right on their hip.
“Take a picture of the restraining order,” D’Andrea said. “You can just show the police officers.”
And both women said judges are becoming increasingly more comfortable admitting tech evidence into a case.
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In Atlantic County, a pilot program has been working to make it easier for victims to share the evidence they have on their phones, said Jawwaad Johnson, assistant family division manager for the Atlantic County Civil Courts.
A little black box called Viacollage works to capture video, photo and text message evidence wirelessly through an app in the courthouse.
“It allows for the data to be captured and stored on a server, and it can be reviewed should the case go on appeal,” Johnson said.
Currently, that evidence is printed out by complaining parties or read onto the record by the judge, he said. But printouts can be difficult because court staff don’t know the sources of the printouts, whether they’ve been changed or edited, he explained, and readings can be difficult, because if a judge misinterprets the text, it can affect the record.
“When cases do arise and they include threats of harassment over the phone, or something graphic is posted to social media, somebody doesn’t have to print it out to bring it here,” he said.
And social media has become a large part of the conversation surrounding domestic violence and technology, for better and for worse.
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“We’ve seen social media be used as a mechanism to break through that isolation or minimize its effects,” Dyer said, adding that support and connection through social media becomes very important for survivors.
D’Andrea agreed, saying social media provides outreach for some but can be dangerous because survivors don’t necessarily know who’s on the other side of the conversation.
“Survivors have the right to use technology just like anyone else does,” Dyer said. “The objective is to navigate technology that is in compliance with their personal safety plan, which looks different for each survivor.”
And that doesn’t mean giving up their smartphones entirely. Dyer said privacy and security settings are important to monitor and edit when needed, but “the object is never to encourage survivors to unplug, but to encourage them to make the best decisions for themselves.”
If you’re a domestic-abuse survivor in need of some assistance navigating technology, call the National Domestic Hotline at 800-799-7233.