Minnesota Democratic lawmakers are leading a push to ensure the federal government does its part to shield the home addresses of domestic abuse survivors.
Legislation introduced Tuesday by Minnesota U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum would align federal law with state-run confidentiality programs meant to protect women and men who fear for their safety because of stalking, sexual abuse or other forms of intimate-partner violence.
Thirty-eight states, including Minnesota, allow residents facing danger to request a post office box to use as their legal address, keeping their home location confidential and out of reach to potential threats. More than 3,000 people were enrolled in Minnesota’s “Safe at Home” program as of last month.
Public agencies and businesses in Minnesota must accept the alternate address for official purposes. But under current law, federal agencies don’t have to do the same. Sponsors say that has caused problems for survivors seeking government services such as filing for Social Security benefits, filling out employment authorization forms and enrolling in federal early-childhood programs.
McCollum said the inconsistency between state and federal treatment “creates serious risks that victims could have their physical address exposed, potentially putting them in harm’s way.”
“No one in this country should fear for their safety,” the St. Paul Democrat said.
Minnesota U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips and Secretary of State Steve Simon on Tuesday joined McCollum for a news conference announcing the bill’s rollout. U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, a freshman Democrat, also has signed on as a cosponsor.
Phillips, another first-term Democrat, said he hopes closing the loophole in federal law will protect victims’ security and encourage participation in elections.
“Nobody who has to register to vote and share their address should ever be fearful,” he said.
The Minnesota lawmakers worked on the legislation with three Republicans from Missouri, another state that provides address confidentiality in such cases. Republican U.S. Rep. Jason Smith said the change will ensure that agencies “safeguard the privacy” of families.
“Your personal information belongs to you, not the government,” he said in a statement. “Victims of domestic violence deserve to have their sensitive information protected.”
An extra level of safety
An estimated 10 million women and men in the United States each year experience physical violence at the hands of a current or former partner, according to government surveys. One in three women and one in seven men will face intimate-partner violence at some point in their lives. Surveys suggest transgender and nonbinary people also report high rates of abuse.
Enrollment in address confidentiality programs is relatively rare and, advocates say, often used as a last resort for survivors facing persistent and serious threats. It’s unknown how many participants have encountered issues with federal agencies.
But Simon, who administers Minnesota’s program, said uneven treatment by the federal government here and in other states has been a consistent problem since he assumed office in 2015.
“It feels to them like they are choosing between their security and the government service that they are seeking,” Simon said of participants who run into issues. “And that is not a position we want to put anyone anywhere in, particularly when they’re at the worst period of their lives.”
Advocates for survivors and victims in Minnesota welcomed the push. Liz Richards, executive director of Violence Free Minnesota, echoed Simon’s concerns about the vulnerability of participants. The decision to enter the program is not taken lightly, she said. Mail processing and forwarding can lead to delays for bills or other important documents; making sure that your home address remains off the radar can take vigilance.
“To go through all that work to try and create a buffer and some safety at your own home, and to have that compromised because there is an agency out there that doesn’t have a system in place to recognize that address confidentiality program, that’s really devastating,” Richards said. “It’s not just the work you put in. There are real safety concerns for people using this program.”
Minnesota was one of the first states to pass a Safe at Home law, establishing the initiative in 2007 at the urging of former Republican Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer. Simon is now playing a key role in broadening the protections nationwide.
McCollum said Simon brought the issue to her attention and then “worked with us every step of the way, writing this legislation to make sure we got it just right.”
A similar proposal was introduced in the last Congress but failed to advance. Supporters say the latest version, which addresses concerns about complying with the federal census and public-information laws while protecting confidentiality, is stronger and better suited for passage.
McCollum said the bill’s bipartisan support reflects a growing recognition of the need to protect survivors.
“That extra level of safety is something that I think our federal government and our state government and our communities would want people to have,” she said.