After filing a restraining order against her abusive ex-husband and buying a house to live in with her children, a Montgomery County woman who goes by the name of Leah struggled to keep her address secret from her abuser.
Even with the restraining order, he continued to harass her, making threatening phone calls and blocking her car from leaving a parking lot.
In 2008, the Motor Vehicle Administration asked her for her new address while she was re-registering a car she still owned with her ex-spouse. She realized that if she provided it, her abuser, who was in and out of jail, could find her and her children again.
Today, Montgomery County has 72 people enrolled in a state-run program to help domestic violence victims hide from their abusive partners. After the incident at the Motor Vehicle Administration, Leah became one of them.
Up to that point, she says, “I felt like I was strong. I thought I could handle stuff on my own.” But when someone with the MVA told her about Maryland’s Safe at Home Address Confidentiality Program, she decided to enroll.
The program, she says, “was really a security blanket for us.”
When she had trouble getting her driver’s license renewed because of the discrepancy between her proxy address and her actual address, someone from the Annapolis-based Address Confidentiality Program office met her at an MVA office in Montgomery County.
“She took me by the hand and led me up there and explained to them what the situation was,” Leah recalled. “They do a heroic job with the funding they have.”
About 800 Maryland women are enrolled in the program that provides participants with a substitute address and free mail-forwarding services. This makes it more difficult for an abuser to find a victim who has moved away.
“It’s very hands-on and close-knit,” said Peter Fosselman, the Kensington mayor who also is deputy secretary of state. His office administers the program, which has a budget of $65,391. “There are only two people who can access the [participants’] information, and it’s kept locked up and secured.”
To qualify, applicants must demonstrate evidence of domestic violence, such as records from the police, a domestic violence program or a religious, medical or other professional.
In Montgomery County, police reported 1,054 domestic violence crimes in 2011. Nationwide, about one in four women experience domestic violence during her lifetime, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Maryland started the Safe at Home Address Confidentiality Program in 2006 and has served 1,200 people. Thirty-five states have similar programs in place.
Beth Volk, the director of Maryland’s program, recalls one participant who credited the services with helping her live a normal life again. The woman said she finally felt safe enough to walk around the neighborhood and watch TV at a normal volume because she wasn’t always listening for the sounds of an intruder.
Participants stay enrolled for up to four years and may re-enroll as many times as necessary. According to Volk, at least half re-enroll.
But Leah was not one of them. While she says the program is an essential tool for people like her, it could also be “cumbersome.”
A few times, she missed events at her children’s school because she received the invitations too late. She also couldn’t vote in Montgomery County because her driver’s license showed an Annapolis address and she was technically registered to vote in Anne Arundel County.
“I had to vote by absentee ballot in the presidential election, and I’ve had trouble getting my voter registration changed back to Montgomery County” since leaving the program, she said.
Another issue she had was her actual address still appearing on the Internet, which she recognizes the Address Confidentiality Program had no control over.
“I did find my [actual] address on the Internet all the time on pages like Intelius and White Pages. I constantly had to contact these organizations to tell them to take my address down,” she said.
She contacted White Pages, who told her that even if they did remove her information, they couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t appear somewhere else.
“Things so far had been OK. My children had grown up a bit, and I felt like when they were younger I needed to protect them more,” she says of not re-enrolling in the Address Confidentiality Program. “And we talked about how the whole thing had started to offer us a false sense of security. We knew that anyone could find our address on the Internet, so it was like, ‘Who are we kidding?’”
Despite some setbacks, Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin said the Address Confidentiality Program is a necessary part of a larger network of resources available to domestic violence victims in the county. These include the Betty Ann Krahnke women’s shelter, the Abused Persons Program and the Family Justice Center.
“Just getting a protective order is a great step, but it’s part of a larger plan to protect [domestic violence victims’] safety,” Popkin said.
For more information on the Safe at Home Address Confidentiality Program, visit http://www.sos.state.md.us/ACP/SafeAtHome.aspx.