Sexual violence is hard for anyone to disclose and discuss, but it may be even more difficult for farmworker victims. There are many factors that may make it challenging for farmworkers to speak about sexual violence. For example, they may be:

  • Afraid of losing their job;
  • Afraid of losing their housing when it, too, is provided by the employer/perpetrator and can be taken away in retaliation for reporting the assault;
  • Blamed for the sexual assault by family, friends, neighbors and co-workers;
  • Feeling shame and/or self-blame about the assault due to social norms and cultural taboos around sexuality.

Make contact and meet in a safe location. Victims’ safety and the case may be compromised if perpetrators learn that victims are working with law enforcement. For that reason, you may need to make contact and meet with victims outside of work or employer-controlled housing.

Practical tips for your interview. The following are practical steps that you can take to help alleviate victims’ fears and concerns. Ultimately, you can help victims feel more comfortable, more likely to share the details of the assault and more likely to continue to work with you by:

  • Scheduling a group interview with the victim’s permission if more than one person from the support team will be assisting the victim rather than conducting multiple interviews;
  • Scheduling interviews after farmworker work hours or on weekends;
  • Explaining the confidentiality, privilege and privacy implications of having a friend or family member present during the interview;
  • Asking whether the victim prefers to be interviewed by a man or a woman, provided that you can accommodate the request;
  • Giving the victim choices about where to conduct the interview;
  • Explaining why you need to take notes during the interview;
  • Explaining how long you anticipate the interview will take;
  • Encouraging the victim to take breaks as needed;
  • Creating a road map for the investigation so that the victim knows what to expect;
  • Asking questions regarding the victim’s concerns about employment, housing, physical safety, privacy, financial stability and education and making appropriate referrals for services;
  • Making referrals to immigration attorneys as necessary;
  • Telling the victim what information you are going to share, with whom and for what
  • purpose;
  • Explaining to the victim that your conversation is not confidential and that all information collected—including your notes—may be used by the prosecution and the defense;
  • Being organized and succinct;
  • Explaining safety planning and creating a safety plan;
  • Being aware of your body language, eye contact, word choice, tone, mannerisms and reactions to victims’ comments so that the victim feels supported rather than judged or hurried; and
  • Explaining next steps to the victim.

Make small talk that has big importance. While time is of the essence, it is more beneficial to begin interviews with a few topics that allow you and the victim to get to know one another,  such as family and children, sports or the town where you grew up. If you begin with the most difficult and intimate questions, victims may become silent and decline to answer. Victims may not disclose anything at the first meeting and will instead wait until trust and rapport is built before sharing information.

Be creative when building the timeline. A victim’s credibility is often questioned during a prosecution; this commonly arises when victims struggle to remember the timeline of events. This is often an issue for all sexual violence victims because of memory loss due to trauma.

Additionally, due to high illiteracy rates, some farmworkers may not be accustomed to keeping  track of the month, date and hour or creating a written record of events. You can work with victims to overcome these challenges by using markers such as type of harvest or holidays, rather than month of the year, to specify timed events.

Be aware of trauma’s impact. Each time victims recount what happened, it may be painful and re-traumatizing. It is not uncommon for victims to walk through and relive the trauma while answering interview questions. Victims may move their bodies in the same way as the perpetrator did, move their hands as the perpetrator did, change their tone of voice and mimic the perpetrator’s voice, among other things. Sexual violence often causes emotional disturbances such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and memory loss. The degrees of trauma experienced will vary for each victim and can greatly impact victims’ ability to relay details of the sexual harassment or sexual assault and to request services. Keep in mind that many victims may have experienced violence previously, which may compound the effects of the most recent trauma. Immigrant victims may have fled violence in their country of origin or may have been assaulted or raped during migration to the U.S. Multiple traumas can dramatically impact memory, cognitive processes and the ability to discuss the incident of violence that has brought them to you.

Provide reassurance. You may be the one person to whom victims disclose the sexual assault. Encouraging words, such as “This is not your fault” and “You are not responsible” and “You deserve respect and safety” may be helpful.

Choose your words carefully. Discussing sexual violence is difficult in all cultures. For this reason, you must tread carefully when you prepare for an interview or meet with someone from a culture other than your own.

It is important to ensure that you do not offend, create discomfort or re-victimize individuals. In some cultures, it is taboo to discuss sex, even if it was consensual. It may be difficult for individuals to share information about the sexual violence due to shame and embarrassment. Direct questions may make victims struggle to answer and feel uncomfortable; they may even shut down and not respond to any additional questions.

Therefore, try to ask indirect questions. Accept the fact that victims may talk around the issue and be less direct. It can be helpful to learn from victims the most appropriate and non-offensive terms they wish you to use. Additionally, be aware that some words used in English to talk about sexual violence do not always exist in other languages; therefore, victims may not use the same words to describe what happened as an English speaker might use.

Be comfortable talking about sexual violence. It can be uncomfortable and awkward for you and victims alike to talk about sexual assault. However, if you are uncomfortable talking about anatomy, sexual acts or sexual violence, you may miss opportunities to assist victims. Victims may not disclose to you or may not follow up post-disclosure because of your response. Ask for staff training from community partners, such as rape crisis centers, on how to talk about sexual violence. Practice mock interviews with co-workers until you are comfortable talking about sexual violence between individuals of the same and opposite gender, adults and children.

Eye contact. In some cultures, avoiding eye contact with a person of authority is a way to show respect. Additionally, eye contact may be difficult for victims, as they may feel ashamed about the sexual assault.

Give victims enough physical space. When interviewing sexual violence victims, give them enough physical space to make them feel comfortable. Try not to invade their personal space by moving closer. Victims may react out of fear if someone gets too close or tries to touch them. Resist the urge to give a reassuring pat on the arm or back as such gestures may be unwanted and feel inappropriate.

Educate law enforcement personnel and fact-finders about rape myths and the power and control dynamics within the agricultural industry. Rape myths affect the way that sexual assault victims’ credibility is assessed. One is that “real rape” is violent and results in profound physical injury to the victim. In truth, most sexual assault victims do not suffer serious physical injuries as a part of the rape. More over, farmworker victims may be less likely to physically resist an assault in cases where they—and their family—are vulnerable to the perpetrator in various ways, including relying on the perpetrator for income, housing, transportation, etc. Another myth is that victims lie—that they claim rape, when it was consensual sex. Outsiders may perceive that rape victims consented for different reasons, such as a continued contact with the perpetrator post-assault. Here again, farmworker victims may be even more vulnerable to attacks on their credibility because of on-going dependence upon the perpetrator for food, transportation and shelter. An additional myth is that victims of real rape report to law enforcement immediately after being assaulted. Few sexual assault victims report immediately to law enforcement, if at all; farmworkers may take even more time to report due to additional barriers such as transportation, language and fear of retaliation. Your role is critically important. You can help debunk these myths—and acknowledge the enormous power imbalance in the rural workplace—with law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and juries, among others. Finally, your fellow law enforcement officials and fact-finders must be constantly reminded about cultural backgrounds and mores and how they might bear on credibility. For example, victims may be reluctant to make eye contact with an interviewer not because they are being untruthful but because they have grown up in a culture in which averting someone’s eyes is a way of showing respect.

Ensure accurate explanation of legal terms. Understanding and interpreting legal concepts is another challenge farmworker victims may face in a criminal case. Just as some words used to discuss sexual violence may not exist in the victim’s native language, it is possible that certain legal concepts or other words do not exist in the victim’s native language. Allow ample time to make certain that farmworker victims understand legal terms and work closely with an interpreter.

Explain the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination (SAFE).10 Refer the victim to an advocate or be prepared to explain the purpose or steps involved in undergoing a SAFE exam including how evidence is collected and how it may be used in civil and/or criminal litigation. Be aware that some farmworkers may have never undergone such an exam and even if they have it can be especially violating and re-traumatizing. Victims must make informed  decisions about whether to undergo the exam, including understanding how medical records may be subpoenaed or used in legal proceedings, which can be discussed with a civil attorney.

Respect victims’ decisions not to pursue criminal charges. Victims may not want to participate in an investigation and/or prosecution because of concerns about safety, retaliation, economic stability, immigration status, migration, time away from work to pursue prosecution or fear of putting their family in jeopardy. These concerns may outweigh their desire to seek justice.

Discuss the importance of staying in contact. The necessity of some farmworkers to migrate for work introduces challenges of remaining in contact with victims as well as their availability to participate in a prosecution. Ask victims to keep you updated with new addresses and phone numbers as they move or migrate. Also, determine whether there is any way to reduce the time between filing the police report and case resolution so that victims are available to testify rather than returning for a trial many months later. For example, fight continuances and work to ensure quickly scheduled trial dates.

Exercise

  • What methods do I use to make a victim witness feel at ease?
  • Of what might a farmworker victim be most afraid when reporting to law enforcement? What can I do to address and reduce those fears?
  • How do I show respect for the victim’s culture?
  • How can I improve my interviewing skills?