How Do I Work With Farmworker Victims of Sexual Violence?

Farmworker victims of sexual violence may have a wide range of needs as a result of the violence that they have suffered. It is extremely important that you think broadly in terms of all of the issues that may need to be addressed for victims to begin to heal. Assisting farmworker victims of sexual violence may entail working in collaboration with many different professionals who offer specialized care.

It is possible that a farmworker victim of sexual violence will not initially seek legal services for the sexual violence itself. Sometimes, victims seek services for a legal problem arising as a result of the sexual assault, such as termination of employment or loss of housing. Legal service intake forms for farmworkers should include questions regarding non-intimate partner sexual violence. Anyone conducting intakes should create a safe environment so that victims of sexual assault feel open to share details of the assault if they choose.

Use a victim-centered approach. Sexual assault may take away a sense of control and dignity from victims’ lives. Empowering victims to make their own decisions about whom to tell, from whom to seek services and which legal remedies to pursue can be a major step in the recovery and healing process. Work with victims so that their needs are central to the services and referrals you provide.

Adopt a holistic model of representation. A holistic model of representation promotes addressing wide-ranging needs. It means identifying the victims’ needs and making referrals to appropriate service providers and agencies. To the extent possible, your office should create broad referral networks to address the items on the list below in order to maximize the opportunity for victims to heal and thrive:

  • Crisis intervention
  • Safety planning
  • Post-assault health care, such as Sexual Assault Forensic Exam (SAFE), Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) testing and pregnancy testing
  • Civil, criminal or immigration legal advice
  • Privacy considerations
  • Housing
  • Food
  • Health care
  • Mental health care
  • Spiritual support
  • Victim advocacy
  • Financial security
  • Public benefits
  • Education
  • Job skills training
  • Employment
  • English language instruction
  • Spanish language instruction
  • Interpretation
  • Transportation

Consider including questions about these issues on your intake form, such as whether victims feel physically safe, need to be relocated, are seeking employment, or need housing, etc. Begin implementing a holistic approach from the moment your office begins to serve victims. Continue to ask victims questions about their needs over time and as circumstances change.

Locate linguistically and culturally appropriate services. Finding linguistically appropriate services is central to reducing a major barrier for farmworkers to access services. The more services you find that are provided in victims’ native languages, the more likely they will be to avail themselves of the services. Additionally, be sensitive and open to cultural preferences. For instance, victims may not believe in or use Western medicine and, therefore, may prefer healers from their own culture. Similarly, victims may not accept or practice counseling and therapy, but may prefer to visit a spiritual leader instead.

Join or create a multidisciplinary referral network. No single provider can meet the vast needs of farmworker sexual violence victims; therefore, it is essential to have a referral network in place. This network should include professionals and organizations that provide emergency and short-term services, transitional services and long-term services. Additionally, support from family and community members may be important; the victim should be encouraged to decide to whom they will disclose information and who they will ask for support. Overall, this multidisciplinary network should strive for shared protocols, uniform intake questions and a quick response. This may appear to be a daunting task if you are new to sexual violence work; however, there are effective networks already in place in many areas that you might locate and join. If you are in an area without an existing network, over time your professional network will grow to include the organizations that can serve victims in ways that you cannot. Having a system and network in place increases your level of service to victims, aids victims’ recovery, and reduces confusion and response time. Ideally, the network should consist of:

  • Rape crisis advocates
  • Criminal, civil and immigration attorneys
  • Medical professionals
  • Mental health care professionals
  • Housing advocates
  • Farmworker advocates
  • U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission representatives
  • State anti-discrimination advocates
  • Victim advocates
  • Law enforcement official(s)
  • Trained interpreters
  • Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners
  • Family members
  • Spiritual leaders to address spiritual needs and, in some cases, the medical needs of individuals.

Refer members of your network to this guidebook and to our other guidebooks specifically written for social service providers and criminal justice professionals at

Building this network will take time and creativity. For example, rural areas may have fewer providers and they may not be bicultural and bilingual. You may need to reach out to resources in larger metropolitan areas in order to expand your referral network while you continue to provide services to farmworker victims of sexual violence.

Be accepting and creative. The farmworker community is culturally, linguistically and educationally diverse. Be prepared to embrace patience, an open mind, sensitivity, and creativity in getting to know victims and advocating for them.

Be aware of trauma’s impact. 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 your client’s ability to relay details of the sexual harassment or sexual assault and to request services. Keep in mind that 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. To better serve your clients, learn more about the impact traumatic experiences have on survivors.10

Be creative when building the timeline. Memory loss due to trauma is common for many sexual violence victims. 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. Therefore, it is possible that a farmworker victim will have difficulty remembering the timeline and sequence of events surrounding the assault; this may cause credibility issues in a criminal prosecution or when pursuing civil remedies. You can work with a victim to overcome these challenges by using markers such as type of harvest or holidays, rather than month of the year, to specify timed events. Educate other service professionals about these issues and strategies to overcome them.

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 your clients. 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. Be aware that some words used in English to talk about sexual violence do not exist in other languages; therefore, victims may not use the same words to describe what happened as an English speaker might use. It can be helpful to learn from victims the most appropriate and non-offensive terms they wish you to use to describe anatomy and sexual acts.

Be comfortable talking about sexual violence. It can be uncomfortable and awkward for service providers 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. Clients 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.

It may be helpful to start an interview saying “tell me what is going on” so that victims can begin the conversation. They may answer by talking about their most urgent needs and eventually circle back to the details of the sexual harassment or assault. When addressing the specific incident of sexual violence, it may be helpful for the interviewer to begin by asking straight-forward questions about the facts, such as when did it occur and what time of day. These are often much easier questions to answer as they have specific answers.

Ask only if necessary. 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 perpetrators’ voice, among other things. Do not force victims to go through this painful process unless you have a good faith belief that you will be able to assist the individual on a longterm basis. For instance, if you do not have the capacity to take on any more cases and intend to make referrals, do not ask victims to disclose more information than is necessary to make the referral.

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.

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 you get too close or try 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.

Practical tips for your interview. Although you may require specific information to assist victims with their legal issues, you can try to make the process easier and more comfortable for vicitms by:

  • Considering whether it is appropriate to offer the victim the option to conduct a joint interview, if more than one person from your legal team will be assisting the victim. For example, where more than one lawyer or paralegal in your office may be working with the victim, it may be appropriate to have more than one member of that team meet with the victim to conduct the interview. Victims should decide if they are comfortable with this approach. While other advocates outside of your office may support your client during the criminal process or civil litigation, it may not be in the victim’s best interest to be interviewed by a group of people that includes victim service providers with whom the victim does not have a privileged relationship. To include those providers in the interview will result in a waiver of the victim’s right to keep confidential information that would otherwise be protected by an evidentiary privilege (such as attorney-client, therapist-patient, etc.).
  • 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;
  • Explaining your mandatory reporting requirements;
  • Asking whether the victim prefers to be interviewed by a man or a woman, if the request can be accommodated;
  • Giving the victim choices about where to conduct the interview;
  • Explaining why you need to take notes during the interview and asking permission to do so;
  • Explaining how long you anticipate the interview will take;
  • Encouraging the victim to take breaks as needed;
  • Creating a road map for the interview so that the victim knows what to expect;
  • Using a holistic interview guide that includes questions regarding the victim’s concerns about privacy, employment, housing, physical safety, financial stability, education and immigration;
  • Telling the victim what information you are going to share, with whom and for what purpose;
  • Being organized and succinct;
  • Explaining safety planning and creating a safety plan;
  • Discussing any fears such as of immigration or law enforcement and any associated risks;
  • Discussing whether the victim would like to make a police report and any related risks to making one;
  • Describing what your role is in helping someone file a police report;
  • 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
  • Strategizing next steps with the victim.


  • In what ways do I employ a holistic approach in my work?
  • Is my referral network updated, comprehensive and linguistically and culturally appropriate?
  • What additional relationships do I need to build to make appropriate referrals?
  • In what ways do the agencies within my referral network also follow a holistic approach?
  • In what ways do I empower clients to make informed decisions?
  • How do I show respect for my client’s culture?
  • Are my organization’s outreach materials linguistically and culturally appropriate?
  • How can I improve my interviewing skills?