Protecting Domestic Abuse Survivors’ Privacy Online

Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa via AP Images

The Clothesline Project, pictured during the Week Without Violence at Washington State University, is a visual display of shirts bearing witness to sexual violence, child abuse, bigotry, family violence, and racism, with each shirt representing the personal experience of a survivor or someone who cares for a survivor. 

Three years ago, Jessica Tunon realized that her home address in Washington, D.C., was available online for anyone to see. While this is the case for all registered voters and business owners, Tunon, a survivor of stalking and sexual assault, was terrified. “In order to feel safe, I obviously don’t want people to know where I live,” Tunon says. 

Tunon is not the only one facing this problem. In the United States, one in four women and one in seven men experience domestic violence during their lifetime. Survivors worry about their abusers finding their new place of residence when getting a driver’s license, registering to vote, obtaining Social Security cards, and receiving public school and court records, which all publicize a home address online. And at least 40 states think they have the answer to this problem: the address confidentiality program. Such legislation, however, only begins to address the concerns of survivors and is not even a viable solution for residents of rural areas.

Tunon fought for her privacy through legislation. In 2017, she began to advocate for an address confidentiality program, which creates a dummy address, generally a P.O. box, to receive the survivor’s mail. Depending on the state, the offices for the secretary of state or the attorney general manage this information, with programs lasting three to four years. Some states offer the opportunity to renew. In 1991, Washington was the first state to implement such a program, which other states, as well as the District of Columbia, have used as a model.

To apply for this program, survivors must meet with an application assistant, who helps them build a case. Most states do not require documentation of the abuse the survivor has experienced. “We have pushed very hard to ensure that just a statement was enough,” says Andrea Gleaves, the strategic partnerships manager for the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

But in rural areas, an address confidentiality program isn’t nearly as effective. “Everybody knows everybody, which can be a huge strength but can also be a detriment when trying to escape,” says Katie Hughes, the rural program capacity specialist at the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. Moreover, in areas where public transportation is lacking, abusers can easily track a survivor’s car to find that person’s new place of residence.

In response, organizations that support survivors have cultivated allies within neighborhoods, whether that be training hairstylists to recognize the signs of domestic trauma or creating exhibits at the local library that highlight intimate-partner violence. “In rural communities, you have to think outside of the box on how to get information to the [survivor] without the perpetrator knowing it,” Linda Hawkins, associate director of Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, says.

Even in urban areas, not everyone believes that address confidentiality programs are effective. Alexis Moore, an attorney and survivor of domestic violence based in California, says they are a waste of money. “I want to give people powerful tools, and the ACP is not a powerful tool,” Moore says. Creating a new address, even a dummy one, will not solve the problem.

“Literally with a click of the mouse, [abusers] are able to find them. It’s all there in cyberspace,” Moore says. “Those in witness protection are even being located.” Abusers have found survivors’ information through their credit cards or by knowing their Social Security numbers. That’s what happened to her; Moore’s abuser knew everything about her. “If I was going to rely on [an address confidentiality program], I would’ve died,” Moore says.

Instead of devoting resources to a half measure, states should provide specific training to police officers and hospital staff that outline the signs of trauma and employ more lawyers that are qualified to handle cases of domestic violence. Moore offers a bold idea for funding such work: Decrease the salaries of the directors of state coalitions against domestic violence, some of whom have been reported to make over $760,000 a year. “The money is there,” Moore says. “That’s the good news. We don’t need additional funds.”

Yet for people like Jessica Tunon, the D.C.-based advocate, address confidentiality gave her the opportunity to follow her dreams. She went on to establish Netwalking as a way for women to exercise and network at the same time. Because of the address confidentiality program, Tunon feels safe enough to provide support for other survivors of abuse. Defeating domestic violence requires more than legislation; it is a community effort.

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