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Why privacy matters for charity clients

December 7, 2010

This is written in my private capacity, not as a Riverkids representative!

Okay, so up-front I come at this as the mother of four children who would have been charity cases. When we went public years ago about the abuse and trafficking in their adoptions, one of my biggest concerns was protecting their privacy. It was their story far more than ours as parents. We’d come into the game as the final links in the chain of trafficking.

Plus, it wasn’t just them. While I don’t give a toss about naming the traffickers involved (Hello Harriet Brener-Sam, Mrs Kan and the horrific Nheang foster family), my kids’ family had been involved and things were and are complicated.

So we worked out with the kids what could be said and what we would leave out. We made sure the story we told was truthful, but refused to answer certain questions. We practiced with the kids on how to answer their friends’ questions and – mostly, it’s been okay. They have days where they don’t want to talk about Cambodia, and days when they do. They know that before a media story that might mention them goes up, we’ll ask them for permission each time.

One of my kids has moved to ‘own’ her story in a way that amazes me, thanks to good therapy. I was abused a lot as a kid, and it’s really hard for me to articulate it, let alone to the extent that she can clearly say ‘this happened to me, and it was not my fault. I have bad nightmares and I feel bad sometimes because of it, but I will get better with time.’ I adore her bravery. I hope someday I’ll get there too.

So this December, we’re doing a Twelve Days, Twelve Stories email campaign. We’re sending out twelve stories of children and families we’ve worked with to show the range of issues we work with.

Stories are awesome for fundraising. People love them. I love them. Because of my work with Riverkids, I’ve come to love numbers even more – I am pretty cautious about who I donate to, especially if they don’t have financials or impacts or some kind of monitoring reports.

But people help people, not projects, so you need individuals if you want to get your donors to help. And if I don’t use stories, I can’t raise funds well which means I can’t help more kids.

However, we work with children defined as at-risk, who are particularly in danger of abuse and trafficking. So putting up names and details means we could be doing the legwork for a pedophile. And then there’s the concept of dignity.

Years ago when we were just starting out, I went to another NGO to walk around their project with a guide. She was one of their clients, who had been sent to school and was now at university, sponsored by the NGO. During the short walk, she shared some of her personal history, including some pretty traumatic stuff. At the end, most of the visitors were browsing the shop, so I got coffee for the two of us and chatted with her. I told her about my children, and asked if it wasn’t perhaps a bit hard for her to talk about herself with strangers?

I’ll never forget the look of pain on her face. She said yes, but it was her duty to repay the NGO for what they had done for her.

It’s a great NGO – we still partner with them, and they cancelled those tours shortly after. I don’t for a second think they meant to cause her pain, but it happens.

We’re still struggling with our advocacy walks in the slums, balancing exposure and understanding with privacy. Banning photographs, guiding appropriate questions and insisting on conversation, not interviewing helps, but it’s definitely still a work in progress. We’ve had families take part once, then refuse, and others willingly sign up again and again.

Currently, we remove names of clients in our public documentation. For a story, we’ll use a non-identifiable photograph (quarter-face or digitized out, though we’re moving away from those because they look like crime photos) or we’ll use a replacement photograph, of a child of similar age and gender. A story without photographs has a much weaker impact.

I’m also removing unique details, e.g. her mother came from Bantay Province three years ago and was arrested for stealing a bicycle would become her mother came from the countryside and was arrested for theft.

But yesterday, writing Heng’s story, the full impact came home for me. I’ve written about Heng several times before, under different names. Those stories have been routine updates, nothing particularly exciting. But if I had written them under his real name, it would be so easy to put the dots together and figure out who Heng is.

It’s not just the difficult stories that need privacy. It’s all of them – because we don’t know when something terrible will happen to one of our kids. The girl I write about who’s just come in top of her class, might get sold a year later and that’s when privacy will matter for her.

Because privacy does matter. A lot of the time, if you’re poor, people think privacy is a luxury. But it’s a basic right. Just because you’re poor, I should not be able to use your name and your face and your life story as I please. I should have to ask you for permission, and listen when you want to reframe your story.

The only exception I can think of is if there’s a genuinely newsworthy event – but even then, with children, the media still has a pretty standard set of ethics. And they should be the same for a child in the slums of Phnom Penh as a child in New York or Singapore.

I look at my kids, and I imagine if they were in Riverkids, what would I want written about them? And the answer is nothing. I don’t want my kids’ pain exposed, I don’t want the awful things that have happened to them written about for other people to read out of curiosity or pity.

But recently, we had to include a bit on them for a media article. I asked if I should remove it, but one of them said no, if you don’t write about it, then people won’t know and they won’t help. It’s true after all. And that’s just as true as the sad stuff. Not talking about poverty and trafficking and child abuse doesn’t help either.

It boils down, for me, to agency and truth.

Are the people being photographed and written about represented truthfully? In the whole truth, not what’s convenient or hits the right marketing points.I struggle with this, because our kids have complicated families and fitting it all into a short piece can be hard.

It also matters to me about tone. Almost all our kids have sad lives on paper. But there’s also a lot of joy and love – they play games, they do their homework, they celebrate festivals – there are good things in the slums too.

Are they given privacy through pseudonyms and careful photographs, or given an informed choice over their story? We had a documentary filmed recently, and some families were willing to appear on camera, others weren’t. We had a media release form translated into Khmer, explaining who would watch and that they could choose what to answer, etc. The families were given time ahead of the filming to decide on participating. I remember one mum saying yes, she’d be filmed but only if she could change shirts to her prettier top, thanks!

And this rambling post is brought to you by my sleep deprivation and sudden awareness that our privacy policy isn’t just lip service. It matters.

Here are some good thoughtful posts on ‘poverty porn’ to read.

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