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Safe at Home: Confidential state program grows as victims seek protection

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MADISON (WKOW) -- A state program providing confidential addresses to survivors of domestic abuse, stalking and other sensitive crimes, and receiving their mail grows, as state officials project the need to fund it additionally.

Safe At Home launched this spring.  It allows victims to use a state-issued card with a fictitious address to obtain driver's licenses, register to vote, include on property records, and for other legal purposes.  The program accepts the mail of these survivors at an undisclosed state justice department location, and then routes it to participants.

An inspiration for the program was a woman in western Wisconsin who contacted Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) and shared a years-long run from a childhood cult.

"This woman...talked to me about her life on the run, moving twenty-nine different times,"  Shilling says.  "And she didn't want to be on the run anymore and I wanted to help her realize her dream."

Shilling says she could also empathize with this woman's sense of the past still intruding on her.  "I have experienced a fear of looking over my shoulder, knowing someone in the past that I feared, just for my public safety, and seeing a car that may be driving past,"  Shilling says.  "And I worry about it, and I think about it."

Shilling was joined by both democratic and republican colleagues in passing legislation to create Safe At Home.  Several other states have similar programs.

DOJ officials say there are two hundred sixteen people signed up for the program.  Republican Attorney General General Brad Schimel is a former prosecutor who handled many cases involving victims with the collateral damage of the risk of being pursued by abusers.  "It does happen a lot, that's why we've ended up with more participation in the program than we really anticipated this quickly,"  Schimel says.

Safe At Home is funded by a federal grant through the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA).  Schimel says demand for the program is already causing an assessment of its financial support.  "We're going to have to look at staffing levels at some point,"  he says.

Schimel's worry is the consequence of the impact of any funding compromise, when it comes to keeping confidential the whereabouts of victims and handling their mail.

"If we don't have adequate staff doing it, a mistake could happen,"  Schimel says.  "And a mistake under these circumstances could be deadly."

27 News asked to see the mail room operation for the program, with the understanding strict confidentiality for program participants would be maintained, but DOJ officials said a visit even under those conditions could be considered a breach of trust by the people depending so heavily on maintaining this level of anonymity.

"This was about safety," Shilling emphasizes in reinforcing how the program won legislative support.

Schimel says participants in Safe At Home receive safety planning training to try to ensure their confidential addresses are not compromised, or negated because of another vulnerability.

Those eligible for the program also include people who've been threatened with the possibility of domestic abuse, stalking, or other similar acts.  Some family members of victims and those facing threats are also eligible.

For more on the Safe At Home program, visit this web site:

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