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APPA Connect on 8/3/2020 by Michael Delaney
New norms are being established in community corrections amid the rapid changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many agencies have balanced their public safety mandates with the emerging public health threat by decreasing in-person officer-client interactions. Tele-supervision, as we have dubbed it, is the technology-enabled contact between staff and clients, whether during a sustained period of remote work or as a desired part of an agency’s supervision delivery model. A variety of tools that have been commercially available for some time are increasingly being relied upon to meet this new need for remote communications. We explore some of those options here.
In an earlier blog installment, Tools to support remote client contact for community corrections – Part One, we discussed the effectiveness of tele-supervision as well as key considerations for leadership including legal, privacy, and data integrity implications. After reviewing studies on the effects of tele-medicine, including the delivery of cognitive-behavioral interventions, we believe that tele-supervision may be as effective as in-person officer-client visits. Matters of how to communicate protected data, such as Personal Health Information (PHI) and Personally Identifiable Information (PII), need to be considered by agencies before launching a systemic tele-supervision program. Agencies should also consider their expectations of management of government records created in remote communication media.
In this installment, we outline some specific applications of technology and provide solutions to support tele-supervision. Agency-issued smartphones are key to maintaining regular contact with clients. They allow for a variety of remote contact modes including voice calls, video calls, and multimedia messaging. For many agencies, this may also be the first time that smartphone applications have been used to maintain regular contact with clients. Whatever modes your agency chooses to leverage, we have a few suggestions on how to identify which tools may suit your unique needs.
Disclaimer: Bear in mind that use of any remote communication technology should be vetted by individual agencies’ management, particularly given the sensitive personal information community corrections agencies gather and discuss. Let us be perfectly clear, we make no endorsement of products or services that we mention here or in other blogs from our committee.
The telephone is tried and true; you can engage in dialogue, gauge tone, and have limited risk of content being compromised or stored by a third party. Calls generally are not recorded, so officers would need to document a summary of the contact in the client’s record. If a decision is made to record calls, make sure you understand local statutes that govern this and have a policy in-place to handle these instances consistently.
Short Message Service (SMS) came into vogue in Europe long before it did in the United States largely because of mobile device pricing structures in Europe that encouraged text over voice. Later, Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) expanded the type of information that could be communicated via text messaging. Now, text messaging is here to stay and continues to be a good way to communicate quick messages. According to the Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network (ATTC), a program funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, text messaging is an effective tool to communicate direct, factual messages (e.g., reminders for court, office visits, and treatment dates; affirmations; employment verifications). For maximum effect, ATTC recommends using proper grammar and sending first- or second-person messages that are positive, direct, and benefit-oriented. It may be worthwhile for agencies to develop standardized templates for text messaging to ensure consistency in messaging format. Check the reference below for a link to ATTC’s guidebook and webinar on this topic.
Smart-Device Communication Applications
If agencies adopt smart device apps as a communication tool, they should choose an app that is commonly used by or readily accessible to the clients they supervise. Further, the app should feature end-to-end encryption with keys stored on the devices to protect the messaging while in-transit. End-to-end encryption effectively scrambles the message while it is in-transit from the sending device to the receiving device. Soft keys are used to lock the message prior to transmission and to unlock it when it arrives on the recipient’s device. For ideal security, look for apps where the key resides on the device itself rather than on the app provider’s server. While transmission encryption is a key feature, the data at-rest on both devices may be vulnerable without enterprise-class mechanisms assuring message integrity, protection, and retention. For instance, if an officer sends a message to a client containing sensitive information, both the client and officer are responsible to protect that information on his or her device.Several general-use smart-device applications (“apps,” for short) for communications exist. To use these apps, both the sending and receiving users must have the same app installed on their devices. Smart device applications operate independently of telephone lines, usually relying on mobile data packages or Wi-Fi connections to facilitate communications. Making a call on a telephone line, you can expect to be connected to the call recipient regardless of whether or not the user has a smartphone or, if they have a smartphone, regardless of the make, model, and carrier of the device. However, when communicating via a smart device app, both the caller and the recipient must have the same app installed on their device and be in a location where their devices are connected to a data network. The good news is that the applications described here are manufacturer-agnostic, meaning that the manufacturer of the device does not matter.
Neither APPA nor the Technology Committee endorses the apps discussed here, and it bears noting that any communication is only as secure as its weakest link (whether technological or human). That said, we identified two apps (there may be others) that meet the criteria we recommend above. These apps, WhatsApp and Signal, are free, are available in app stores, and are fairly intuitive to set-up after installing them on your device. Each is cited by TechRadar, a British technology news and review publication, as having high-level security. We deliberately excluded discussion of a third app, TechRadar, because that app’s creator has access to encryption keys which creates a vulnerability.
E-mails are generally maintained by an agency on a network server allowing the agency to access the message data even after an employee’s separation, though not tied into the client case file without extra effort.
Where do you store the message history?
One drawback of using most SMS, MMS, and smartphone-based texting apps is that the text strings remain connected to staff devices and not to the agency’s network. This makes case management, record retention and maintenance a challenge when considering how valuable it is to have a record of staff-client communications. To address this issue, new technology is emerging whereby staff-to-client communications are generated from, stored with and entirely managed within a case management system. Ideally, agencies will eventually be able to integrate messaging of all kinds with their case management and records management systems.
Your Experience Matters!
We recommend that before deploying app-based communications or SMS-based communications with your client caseload, a pilot program should be designed, executed, and measured that takes into account client familiarity and technology available, ease of use for staff members and clients, technical difficulties or “end-user” support requirements, record-retention requirements, and security exposures.
Putting it All Together
Having laid-out key considerations for adopting tele-supervision in Tools to support remote client contact for community corrections – Part One and some options to support remote communication here in Part Two, we want to pull it all together with some recommendations for policy development and practical application.
Recommendations for Community Corrections Leaders Post-COVID-19
- Support increased virtual meetings with the supervised population to replace office contacts where appropriate. These meetings could be based on risk level.
- If your agency does not already provide mobile communication devices to officers, now is the time to close that gap – for your officers’ safety and for the integrity of your data (these points are discussed in Tools to support remote client contact for community corrections – Part One).
- Create policies around record retention and integrity for communications to include the media discussed here. Depending on your policies, resources and specific needs, consider evaluation and use of enterprise data systems, separate from staff members’ devices, for managing all client messaging communications.
- Ensure that technology used is secure.
- Create and run a pilot program with remote messaging options to gauge effect and ease of use for staff members and clients.
- Make training available to your staff on how to use new communications tools, and allow officer discretion to implement the technology gradually – this is likely to benefit both officers and clients, many of whom may also be learning these new tools for the first time.
In many instances, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced community corrections to embrace tele-supervision. Although they have been implemented as short-term continuity measures, this experience has presented an opportunity to rethink technology’s role in routine operations, even after the pandemic abates. To this end, we encourage agencies to consider the following:
- Virtual Meetings – A New Norm
Virtual meetings with clients can have positive behavioral impact while avoiding exposure to unnecessary antisocial influences at the probation office. They should be viewed as an acceptable supplement to in-person meetings, home visits, and field contacts. Making community corrections more accessible and remotely available has the potential to mitigate barriers to client reporting, such as cost and time spent traveling to and from the community corrections office.
- VPN and Paperless Systems are Foundational to Remote Work
A secure VPN and an electronic and paperless case file system are necessary for scaling remote work. Agencies that do not utilize VPN to allow for remote work should take immediate measures to identify the resources needed to implement one. After implementing a VPN, information technology departments need to remain vigilant to secure the networks.
- Adapt and Adopt
Communication media are advancing rapidly. Agencies should consider their risk tolerance with social media app communication modes. Policy around these media should have the elasticity to make transitioning to new modes of electronic communication safe without requiring broad or time-consuming policy changes.
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 technology project that we should write about, go ahead and put us in touch with the right people. Contact Eric Tumperi, APPA Technology Chair 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 ChairEric Tumperi.
Walters, S. (2019, August 5). Using text messages to improve substance use treatment outcomes: A practical how-to online training series [Webinar]. Retrieved April 23, 2020, from https://attcnetwork.org/centers/mountain-plains-attc/product/guide-using-text-messages-improve-substance-use-treatment.
Wyciślik-Wilson, M. (2019, July 26). WhatsApp vs Telegram vs Signal. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from https://techradar.com/news/whatsapp-vs-telegram-vs-signal.