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Michigan launches address confidentiality program to protect violence survivors

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Michigan launches address confidentiality program to protect violence survivors

Sep 13, 2023 | 12:01 am ET
By Anna Liz Nichols
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Michigan launches address confidentiality program to protect violence survivors
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Susan J. Demas

After Nicole Beverly left her abusive ex-husband in 2009 after a particularly brutal attack where she said he beat her and held a gun to her head, she moved four times — each in the hopes that her abuser wouldn’t be able to find her. However, she says he found her new addresses in unexpected ways.

“The first time he knew enough information… to get [the energy company] to give him my new address because he’s very manipulative. …He had my maiden name and my Social Security number and pretended we were moving,” Beverly said. “The second time … I ended up purchasing a home under my mom’s name in an effort to try to hide my address and still he was able to find me through voter registration. … It is so easy to just look up some of that information.”

Michigan launches address confidentiality program to protect violence survivors
Nicole Beverly (Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Beverly)

Her ex-husband, currently serving multiple prison sentences for charges including aggravated stalking and threats, reveled in bragging to her about how he could find her and hurt her again, Beverly said. She said she’s been alerted by authorities several times to let her know her ex-husband has made attempts from prison to hire hitmen to murder her.

But Beverly said she’s hopeful a new program launched by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office will help her and other survivors in the state keep their addresses safe.

The Address Confidentiality Program (ACP) is active as of Wednesday, with the goal of preventing survivors of different forms of violence from being found by their abusers using public records.

How it works

Participants will be provided a designated legal mailing address to be used in lieu of their actual address when an address is needed by government agencies, like public schools and the Secretary of State office.

Michigan is the 41st state to implement an address confidentiality program, Program Coordinator for the ACP Karen Hall said.

About 150 victim advocates at different organizations across the state have already been trained by the Attorney General’s Office to help with applications.

When a person gets a driver license or state ID, that recorded address can get used and shared among government agencies, Hall said. This is where that address could potentially become accessible.

Mail sent to the designated address is then rerouted by the Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB) to a participant’s actual address. The ACP can’t forward packages, but there are other options outside of the ACP to receive packages, like having packages delivered to loved ones’ addresses.

A person can expect to find out if they’ve been approved to participate in the program in five to seven days, Hall said. Delays in receiving mail are estimated at three to five days.

Participants with valid driver licenses or state IDs will automatically receive updated identification listing the designated address. A participant who is already registered to vote will have their actual address protected on the qualified voter file and will automatically be issued a new registration card.

Hall said participants are encouraged to vote, and a person doesn’t need a license or state ID to vote. Participants need to register to vote using the Address Confidentiality Voter Registration form, which can be submitted to the ACP or to a person’s local clerk’s office.

Participants can request an absentee ballot online and will need a driver license or state ID number and participant ID. They can also mail in the Address Confidentiality Absentee Voter Ballot application.

Here I am a law-abiding citizen my whole life, except maybe a speeding ticket here and there, and I have to decide, ‘Am I going to be a person who knowingly breaks the law or am I going to remain safe?’

– Jane O'Shea

To qualify for the program, survivors have to be somewhere in the process of moving; that is the biggest requirement.

Survivors in Michigan do not need to have a personal protection order against abusers to qualify. They don’t even need to have filed a police report.

The ACP is open to survivors of domestic and sexual violence, as well as those who have experienced stalking or human trafficking. Ultimately, the program allows for anyone who faces the threat of harm to apply, as long as they meet the requirements.

An adult or emancipated minor can apply for themselves and adults can apply on behalf of a minor within their household.

There are circumstances that bar some applicants from qualifying for the program, like if they are on the sex offender registry or if their confidential address has already been provided to the Secretary of State.

Although municipality-owned utility companies are barred from releasing a participant’s confidential address, utility companies ultimately need a person’s address to provide services. It is suggested that participants alert companies to their ACP status and set up security measures.

Participants should use the designated address whenever possible, Hall said. Companies share data, so it’s best to use the designated address consistently to best protect a person’s private address.

“We’re going to always start by believing; we’re not going to discount anybody’s story,” Hall said. “Our job is to make sure that they understand that they are going to be heard. They’re going to be supported through this process, and they’re going to be believed.”

Michigan launches address confidentiality program to protect violence survivors
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel visits Turning Point to talk about the state’s new Address Confidentiality program in the summer of 2023. (Photo: Courtesy of the Attorney General’s Office)

The newest tool in the state’s toolbox

Helping survivors of gender-based violence and the other crimes included in the ACP is personal for Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who talked with the Advance ahead of the launch. She has crisscrossed the state in recent weeks, talking to stakeholders from Flint to Holland to the Upper Peninsula.

Nessel, who began her legal career prosecuting sexual violence criminal cases, among other crimes, for the Wayne Prosecutor’s Office in the 1990s, said her heart would break at that time for the lack of protections and resources for survivors.

“Even if we could get a person charged and get a person convicted … in most of the cases, that individual was going to be released at some point,” Nessel said. “Over the course of time, I’ve been thrilled to see that there are more and more tools that are available, but on the other hand, there are more and more ways to find people now than there’s ever been before.”

As people learn of the ACP, Nessel said she expects “thousands” of people to be enrolled in the program. So much of a person’s life is intertwined with the government, from participating in state assistance programs to enrolling a child in school. Nessel said she hopes this program will be one tool in the state’s toolbox to protect survivors.

“We don’t want it to be a situation where you can’t participate in essential functions of our state government,” Nessel said. “We don’t want the state government to be the reason why you’re unsafe. We want state government to protect you, not to put you at risk.” 

The Michigan Department of State is proud to partner with the Attorney General for this lifesaving program and worked hard for the last two years to enhance systems to protect survivors’ privacy, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in a statement to the Advance,

“Millions of Michiganders entrust our Department with their personal information connected to their state ID, driver’s license, and voter registration so we are well prepared to maintain the necessary security and confidentiality for this new program,” Benson said. “We stand ready to help keep participants safe from harm.”

Taking power back

Voting and getting a new driver license without abusers being able to locate survivors are challenging tasks, domestic violence survivor Jane O’Shea said after leaving her ex-husband who she says began threatening her life when he was arrested for kidnapping another woman.

Michigan launches address confidentiality program to protect violence survivors
Jane O’Shea testifying before the Michigan House Judiciary Committee on September 5, 2019 (Photo: Courtesy of Jane O’Shea)

“I always voted. I thought it was important and a responsibility,” O’Shea said. “My ex had taken so much from me and my son already, that the notion that he took that from me, too, just really, really pissed me off.”

O’Shea said in 2002 she was attacked in her ex-in laws’ house, by a man who had intended on strangling her, but for whatever reason, let her go. She said it is believed her husband hired the man to kill her.

In 2003, after fleeing her ex-husband, she said she found a UPS store that gave her a physical address for mailing so she decided to apply for a driver license with the address, as well as registering to vote. She said she got a note from the state of Michigan letting her know it was illegal to use a non-residential address for a driver license.

“Here I am a law-abiding citizen my whole life, except maybe a speeding ticket here and there, and I have to decide, ‘Am I going to be a person who knowingly breaks the law or am I going to remain safe?’” O’Shea said. 

Instead, O’Shea said she decided to move every time she wanted to vote, which is unsustainable for survivors.

Building the ACP

Both O’Shea and Beverly offered testimony to lawmakers throughout the legislative process.For four legislative sessions, starting in 2014, bills to create an ACP were introduced in the Legislature without much movement until 2019.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer eventually signed legislation to create the program in 2020.

The ACP, once it cleared the legislative process, shows what can happen when different areas of government collaborate on common sense solutions, said Libby Pollard Hines, chair of the Michigan Domestic & Sexual Violence Prevention & Treatment Board (MDSVPTB). The program, housed with the Attorney General’s office, was created with the Department of State, as well as DTMB.

The program will save lives, Hines said, adding that the ACP will have a major impact on how some survivors get to live their lives moving forward after abuse.

“I just think that often we don’t realize how determined and how dangerous some abusers can be. Survivors know. Some of them have to work so hard to keep themselves and their children safe,” Hines said. “Moving, changing jobs, even name changes, that might not be enough. … So this program, to me, is just so important to help them lead more safe, secure and normal lives.”

Nessel has been traveling around the state leading up to the launch of the ACP to talk with groups that serve survivors about the program. Over in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, members of staff are ready to help people enroll, Director of Victim Services Mechelle Donahoo said.

Although Michigan has one of broadest address confidentiality programs in the U.S., where many different types of survivors qualify and there is no requirement that survivors file a police report, there are criteria and steps survivors need to abide by to get enrolled in the program. One of the requirements is that survivors provide a notarized document outlining the threat to their safety.

 

The impact

And Donahoo said she already knows the program will have a huge impact in Wayne County.

“We have many victims who change their phone number [and] constantly move around in fear of the defendant, the perpetrator, finding them. This will give them a sense of security,” Donahoo said. “Some victims don’t have their own documents, so [they] can get a driver’s license now that [they] can keep that [they’re] in charge of. It is a sense of freedom. [They] now have charge over some things that [they] didn’t have control over before.”

All 73 member groups of the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence (MCEDSV) will be at the forefront of helping survivors through the application process, MCEDSV Executive Director Sarah Prout Rennie said. 

Participants in the ACP will be able to breathe a little deeper and not have to look over their shoulder as often or think about exit routes from all the places they enter in their day to day lives, Beverly said. Stalking and the threat of violence hangs heavily over many survivors.

We don't want it to be a situation where you can't participate in essential functions of our state government. We don't want the state government to be the reason why you're unsafe. We want state government to protect you, not to put you at risk.

– Attorney General Dana Nessel

“You can never rest; you can never really just relax and have fun because there’s always that looming shadow or looming cloud and it takes a huge toll on people,” Beverly said.

And anyone can find themselves in a situation where they are made to be unsafe in their own home, Beverly said. Abuse can start in small ways, non-physical ways, and Beverly said she wants anyone considering applying to the program to know, whatever their story is, they deserve to feel safe and they should apply to the ACP if they think it could help.

It’s hard to put into words what the program could mean for someone in terms of taking back their power after abuse has stripped them of so much, O’Shea said. Although she expects many people to become enrolled, her metric for success for the program is based on the knowledge that abuse presents a life or death scenario.

“To me, it’s one,” O’Shea said. “If one child is saved because of this — one woman, one man, one person — if it’s just one, I feel like it’s worth it.“