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.

Every year before her birthday and Christmas, Maria has to retrain her family members: “Don’t send me any packages. They’ll just get returned to you.”

Even furniture delivery is a pain. Maria bought a new bed recently and couldn’t give out her home address to have it delivered. Instead, she carted it home in her truck.

Maria would love to have a housewarming party for work colleagues, but she can’t post an invitation with her address in the lunchroom. She said that people understand.

She’s getting married in May and her partner has joined the program to protect her.

Despite the challenges, Maria is grateful. “This is kind of trite, but I feel safe at home,” she said. “I probably will not want to move from this state because it’s a great program.”

People enroll in Safe at Home with the help of trained advocates who talk with them about safety issues and develop a plan. Sometimes, advocates deem Safe at Home insufficient, Umidon said.

“A better move might be to relocate to another state with other family members and better support,” Umidon said. “Or maybe she goes into a shelter for a while.”

Other times, advocates do not see pressing danger, so they’ll work with the applicant to find more appropriate resources elsewhere.

Most applicants, though, are quickly enrolled and given a P.O. box and “lot” number, moving them one step closer to a life of precious, simple normalcy and stability.

“One mom a few years ago finally settled into transitional housing,” Umidon said. “She had a little apartment and she said, ‘My son slept for the first time through the night. We sat in the kitchen and ate chicken and had the curtains open.’ Another mom told me that her kids played in the yard and weren’t afraid.”

Participants can stay in the program for four years, then must choose whether or not to re-enroll. While most do re-up, Umidon is happy when some don’t for a good reason.

“It’s really cool when a participant calls and says, ‘I think I can withdraw. Is that OK?’ I tell them, Don’t apologize. It’s great to have the service, but it’s even better when they move on.”

 

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

612-673-7350

Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum

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