Practically overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced community corrections agencies to fundamentally change their supervision practices to adapt to remote supervision. With the need to adapt swiftly, agencies’ leadership teams have not had the benefit of the methodical process that usually accompanies significant shifts in operations. As a result, we don’t have all the answers yet. In this installment of the APPA Technology Committee’s blog series, we contemplate the effect of tele-supervision, as well as privacy and data integrity considerations, in this new, social distancing, pandemic environment. In the next installment, we will explore practical modes to meet the need for uninterrupted client contact during these unusual times.
Over the past two months, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has forced community corrections, like other areas of the public sector, to rethink normal business practices. The APPA Technology Committee recognizes that, in response to social distancing orders, many agencies have increased their reliance on virtual communication.
In this article we will focus on tele-supervision, defining it as the enabling of staff to continue contact with clients when a sustained period of remote work is necessary. We will discuss the effectiveness of remote client communication and explore privacy, policy, and practical considerations that could support tele-supervision.
Is Tele-Supervision Effective?
The Committee is unaware of any research that exists on comparing face-to-face and virtual contacts for community corrections outcomes; however, a literature review on tele-delivery of behavioral health services yields promising results. Lack of community-corrections-specific research on the matter notwithstanding, a number of studies and meta-analyses have been conducted over the past two decades on the efficacy of telemedicine and, more specifically, on cognitive-behavioral programs designed to treat mental health and substance abuse disorders.
Consensus is that tele-delivery of cognitive-behavioral interventions, via video-meeting capability, has the same effect as face-to-face delivery with respect to the client’s working relationship with the provider, ability to develop and execute treatment plans, and overall impression of the treatment provided. In one study, clients who engaged in virtual substance abuse counseling fared better than those who reported for face-to-face meetings. Consistently across the literature reviewed, tele-delivery of interventions had no negative effect on outcomes. The conclusions in these studies, coupled with the knowledge that the quality of officer-client contact is a defining factor in the effect of the contact, appear to support the use of virtual meetings with clients as an effective risk-management strategy.
Regular visits with clients often involve sharing protected information, such as personal health information (PHI), personally identifiable information (PII), and social history. Generally this information has been shared in the relative security of the community corrections office. When this safety bubble pops, we believe the most effective remedy is to construct a virtual office which replicates the technological security of the community corrections office. To protect clients’ privacy and mitigate the risk of protected information being compromised while working from home, you should:
- Close the door when you are discussing sensitive information if others are home, and/or use headphones with your computer;
- Lock your computer when you are away from it – just as you would at your office;
- Protect your computer screen from being visible to others in your home or to others through windows; and
- If protected information such as PHI or PII must be transmitted, ensure these communications are encrypted:
- Use secure e-mail where possible;
- If applications other than e-mail are needed to communicate these data, ensure that their mechanisms are encrypted;
- Communicate PHI and PII with trusted parties via phone where interception and data retention are less likely to be factors.
Be aware that there are legal implications for breaching privacy laws. Legal considerations about the transmission and storage of protected information, such as PHI, are beyond the scope of this paper and should be contemplated by individual agencies. Seek guidance from your management or counsel to understand how protected information can be transmitted to and from third parties and your responsibilities for storing the information safely at your virtual office or on electronic media.
Here are some recommendations to protect officers’ privacy while conducting remote work:
- Avoid use of personal computers to conduct your work unless you use an agency virtual desktop with an encrypted connection:
- Using an agency virtual desktop via a personal computer is, in effect, using an agency-issued device, and it prevents any data from being stored on the personal device;
- When using a personal computer with an agency virtual desktop, be cautious to ensure your personal computer is protected from malware and is up to date with any security patches;
- Avoid use of personal phones to conduct official business, as they could become discoverable; and
- Never use your personal social media accounts.
Many agencies have responded quickly to ensure their officers can maintain critical operations; tele-supervision creates physical space between officers and clients keeping everybody a little bit safer. However well-intended a solution is, there are accompanying liabilities that are not always obvious. Using personal devices and accounts for work purposes can expose personal information to discovery in court proceedings, especially if the device is used to collect, transmit, or maintain relevant case information (e.g., photographs, text messages). For this reason, the Committee strongly discourages the use of officers’ personal devices and social media accounts for work purposes.
The premature deletion of official records can be equally as problematic by creating the appearance that information is being hidden. Ideally, each agency should have a sound records management policy that addresses electronic record creation, maintenance, storage, retention, and destruction, that would include automated mechanisms for each phase of the records management cycle. We recommend that agencies develop and implement data retention policies that speak to the proper care, retention, and destruction of records inclusive of communications with and about clients via tele-supervision tools and applications. Absent such a policy, our recommendation is that officers not delete message strings with clients.
In Summary: Considerations for Tele-Supervision
Increased reliance on remote work is likely to pose new challenges for information security and client privacy. It is important that agencies provide uniform and legally sound guidance to their staff members to ensure consistency and security. In the same vein, agencies should clearly communicate expectations on data retention practices that cover the breadth of communication media with clients. The quality of contacts with clients, whether in-person or virtual, are likely to remain the key factor in an effective officer-client relationship. While the mode of communication will change, the content of meetings can remain relatively stable. Without the foresight to predict a return to “normal,” community corrections officers can take comfort in the fact that their relationships with clients will remain integral in maintaining our goal of public safety and productive reintegration.
Interested? Great – Part 2 of “Tools to support remote client contact for community corrections is right around the corner.
This is Where You Come in!
If you, the reader, have a particular passion or interest in any of these topics, we are open for business in helping develop your experiences into content and timely information for the field. Simpler yet, if you know of an agency project that we should write about, go ahead and put us in touch with the right people. Contact Eric Tumperi, chair of the Technology Committee, for more information on how your experiences and findings can be developed and published for the field of probation, parole, community corrections, pretrial and treatment delivery.
About the APPA Technology Committee: We are charged with helping to ensure that APPA provides the field of probation, parole and community corrections with useful and timely information about the uses of technology to enhance and improve community supervision outcomes. We develop position papers, articles, and blogs, as well as conduct field surveys and identify and recruit expert contributors for conferences and webinars. To learn more about how you can be a part of the Technology Committee and contribute to our profession, contact our committee chair, Eric Tumperi.
Barak, A., Hen, L., Boniel-Nissim, M., & Shapira, N. (2008). A comprehensive review and analysis of the effectiveness of internet-based psychotherapeutic interventions. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 26(2/4), 109-160.
King, V. L., Stoller, К. В., Kidorf, M., Kindbom, К., Hursch, S., Brady, T., & Brooner, R. (2009). Assessing the effectiveness of an internet-based videoconferencing platform for delivering intensified substance abuse counseling. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 36, 331-338.
Morgan, R. D., Patrick, A. R., & Magaletta, P. R. (2008). Does the use of telemental health alter the treatment experience? Inmates' perceptions of telemental health versus face-to-face treatment modalities. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76(1), 158-162.
Woodworth, R. J., O'Brien-Malone, A., Diamond, M. R., & Schuz, B. (2017). Web-based positive psychology interventions: A reexamination of effectiveness. Journal of Clinical Psychology
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