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Domestic violence victims get hand with address confidentiality

MANATEE — A rarely used state program could mean the difference in life and death for victims of domestic violence.

Address confidentiality is designed to protect survivors of domestic violence who are at high risk of being murdered. The state program provides a domestic violence victim with an anonymous mailing address and helps ensure that public records can’t be used by a stalker.

To qualify, a person must apply through a domestic violence center, complete a questionnaire from the Florida Attorney General’s Office and be willing to move.

The program is one of the most powerful tools available to help victims of domestic violence, said Laurel Lynch, executive director of Hope Family Services in Manatee County, which provides shelter and counseling for survivors of domestic violence.

But fewer than 700 people are enrolled statewide in the well-established program, begun by a legislative act in 1998.

“One of the things we know about domestic violence is that there are clues when someone is not just a bully but homicidal,” Lynch said. “Ninety-five percent of domestic violence homicide victims never sought help at a domestic violence shelter.”

One of those who did seek help from a domestic violence center says address confidentiality has allowed her to lead a near-normal life, without having to constantly look over her shoulder in fear.

Once accepted into the program, a person receives the confidential mailing address in Tallahassee, and the Attorney General’s Office staff handles forwarding of mail from the state capitol to the client’s local address.

The client also receives a card from the state showing they are enrolled in the address confidentiality program.

When applying for governmental services, such as driver’s licenses, voter registration or utility service, the client can present the card to keep their name off the public record.

Lynch calls address confidentiality one of the “tools in the tool belt” of options counselors explain to each of the 2,000 clients who seek help at Hope.

The counseling session can last an hour or two, depending on the clients, their questions and situation.

If the client seems to be in a potentially lethal situation, and wants to seek address confidentiality, the Hope staff will help with the application and submit it to the Florida Attorney General’s Office.

“Our staff has been trained by the attorney general’s staff on the program, how to apply and what’s necessary,” Lynch said. Once the application is submitted, the conversation opens up between the state and the client.

The Attorney General’s office does not require background checks, but applicants are required to review and sign a series of questions.

Sex offenders, sexual predators and convicted felons are not allowed to participate in the address confidentiality program.

“The purpose of the statement is that Florida statutes require individuals convicted of certain crimes to register with the Department of Law Enforcement their actual permanent residence address, therefore making it public, thus eliminating our ability to enter them into the ACP program and protecting their address,” according to the Florida Attorney General’s Office.

The address confidentiality program requires that all public entities in the state accept the substitute address, allowing victims an alternative to having their whereabouts made public and potentially made known to their attackers, according to Sandi Copes, communications director for the Office of the Attorney General.

“This program is one of several offered by the Attorney General’s Office to better protect and serve the community of victims in our state, and we will continue our efforts on behalf of those who have been victimized,” Copes said in an e-mail.

Asked why enrollment is so small, the Attorney General’s Office issued a statement: “Office of the AG and all Florida Domestic Violence Shelters provide information regarding the program to victims, but participation is voluntary. The availability of the program is also well-known to all shelter directors.”

Lynch believes several factors explain the relative small number of participants.

“When people come to us they are very much in crisis,” Lynch said. “Typically something big has happened. She’s really afraid for her life.”

In trying to grapple with the life-changing and life-threatening situation that confronts them, victims may want time to think about all their options. And they may decide they do not want to move, one of the confidentiality program’s key requirements.

For those who choose address confidentiality, the state may provide funding to assist with their move, Lynch said. According to state administrative rules, a claimant may receive a one-time payment of up to $1,500.

In 2009, Manatee County recorded five domestic violence homicides, the most Lynch can recall in her 13 years at Hope Family Services. She urged people living in fear to seek help.

Not all governmental agencies have educated their staff about the program, warns one woman enrolled in the program.

Upon presenting the state-issued card identifying her as a participant in address confidentiality, she often receives a look of bewilderment from the staff member at the front desk. Few outside the domestic violence survivor arena have even heard of the program, she said, much less know anything about it.

That was her experience recently at the Manatee County Utility Department, when she sought to have the water turned on for a home she was planning to rent. After some initial uncertainty, the utility staff members looked into the program and helped her set up an account that protected her identity. She gave the utility staff high marks for their response to her request.

“Customer service is our No. 1 area, especially when it comes to an individual’s safety. We are going to look into it and verify it, whether it’s that program or another,” said Amy Merrill, spokeswoman for the utility department. “We want to look into it, rather just sending them on their way because we never heard of it.”