A growing but still limited list of states in every section of the country is offering victims of domestic abuse and stalking one means to hide from potential attackers.
The latest to act is Nebraska, whose new Address Confidentiality Program (ACP) will help victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking keep their addresses secret by setting up a state-sponsored P.O. box address. Mail goes to that P.O. box, administered by the secretary of state's office, and is forwarded to the victim's confidential address by means of a free mail-forwarding service.
Twelve other states have set up similar ACP programs since Washington began the trend twelve years ago, including California, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Vermont. Illinois, Maine and Connecticut have passed laws establishing ACPs but have not provided funding for the programs.
Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale is among the many who believe these address confidentiality programs will help domestic violence survivors get on with their lives.
"We're trying to help victims protect themselves from being found by their attackers," Gale said in a telephone interview. "We want to provide (them) a springboard to a new life in society."
He said he expects the Nebraska program, which opened in September, to get off to a slow but steady start with perhaps only a dozen or two dozen participants in its first year.
The first address confidentiality program was created in Washington in 1991, according to Margaret McKinney, Washington's ACP manager. Today, 2,525 Washingtonians are enrolled in the program, which is now budgeted at $200,000 annually and costs about $78 per participant per year.
"[ACP] gives the victim a chance at working honestly with the state government instead of lying to cover up (their addresses)," McKinney said. "It's important for government agencies to not put people in danger, because we do have a lot of these peoples' personal information."
McKinney and her staff run the program from a secret office that resembles a small postal operation. She touted the program as extremely cost-effective, saying that over the past five years the number of participants has doubled while the budget has remained the same.
Even so, in the wake of state-wide budget cuts, the state secretary's office, which oversees the program, is considering cutting back the number of days mail is forwarded from five days to four, McKinney said.
Women are not the only victims that use ACPs. In Oklahoma, more than half of those who use the program to elude a repeat attack are children, said ACP director Brenda Coffman.
Victims' advocates say law enforcement too often fails to protect victims from repeat attacks. A study on stalking published in 1998 by the National Center for Victims of Crime reported that stalkers violated restraining orders in 69 percent of the cases involving female victims and 81 percent of those involving male victims.
Many critics say address confidentiality programs alone will not end domestic violence.
This is just one additional tool for safety," said Sarah O'Shea, executive director for Nebraska's Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition, which provides information about the confidentiality program to victims of domestic violence.
"This program is not the ultimate solution," added Washington's McKinney. "This is just one small piece of a victim's safety strategy."
Victims can find information about existing programs by contacting their local domestic violence shelter. The Arkansas Secretary of State's Web site also has contact information for state ACP programs.