Rosenblum: Safe At Home protects those who can't shake fear of crime

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 12, 2014 - 11:02 PM

With Crime Victims’ Rights Week wrapping up, let’s remember that, for many among us, there is no tidy wrap-up.

No comforting resolution, no end to the fear of being revictimized.

That’s why the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office wants to get the word out about a potentially lifesaving program called Safe at Home.

Safe at Home, administered by the secretary’s office, gives people in need of long-term protection a free substitute post-office box for all their mail, public and private. Keeping one’s real address off employment, school, utility, doctor’s, insurance and other accessible records, such as a driver’s license, makes it far more difficult for abusers or stalkers to locate them.

The program has seen a huge increase in membership since beginning 6½ years ago. In 2008, about 111 people enrolled. In 2013, more than 1,600 did. Around 4 percent of enrollees are men. More than half are children, enrolled with a single parent.

One enrollee was a woman who had been attacked and strangled by her ex-husband, who attempted to burn down her house while she lay unconscious. She was rescued by emergency responders. Several families enrolled because their children were victims of sex offenders.

One of the fastest-growing groups is women in their 40s to 60s, said program administrator Dianna Umidon. She guesses that the growth is due, in part, to recent high-profile domestic abuse cases in the media.

“That attention made others think, ‘I don’t want to be another statistic,’ ” she said.

About 30 states have similar safety programs. Umidon acknowledges that Minnesota’s is not perfect. First-class mail is forwarded by Safe at Home to the participant’s real address, but the service cannot forward packages or magazines, because of financial and logistical constraints.

Even when enrolled, participants must remain vigilant. Land line phones are discouraged. Cellphones are OK, but participants are reminded to keep them in 911 mode, with Google Maps shut off.

And they should be very wary of joining social networks like Facebook.

“Maria,” who asked that her real name not be used, enrolled in Safe at Home in 2009. Since then, she has become skilled at the mental gymnastics required of her new life. Now in her 30s, she was stalked by an acquaintance for years, before a 25-year restraining order was placed on him.

The experience, she said, “has really changed the way I move in the world, changed the way I interact with people. I used to believe that everyone is good at heart, while my mom was always saying the world is crazy.

“Now I kind of agree with her.”

Her stalker, who lives in another state, first contacted Maria in 2008 through social media. He visited Minnesota several times, including at her mother’s home, and has sent Maria dozens of “crazy” letters asking her to contact him.

“I thought that, if I just did the right thing and ignored him, he would go away,” Maria said. But he tracked her down every time she moved.

In 2009, Maria sought help from an advocate at the Battered Women’s Legal Advocacy Project, who sent her to Safe at Home. Maria hasn’t heard from the man since, but she wonders, “Is he going to show up 10 years from now?”

Several times a week, Maria receives a welcome dark manila envelope from Safe at Home with her personal mail. Her checkbook is printed with her P.O. box address, as is her license. She pays most bills online and preferred to connect with me via e-mail, as well, where she uses a pseudonym.

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