DALLAS MORNING NEWS: Don’t mess with Texas moms: How one woman set out to protect her daughter and change the law
AUSTIN — One woman fled across state lines, tired of the fractured ribs and broken leases, of pulling her kids out of school — four times in one year — sick of how her husband, whose job it was to protect people, used his hands instead to harm her.
Another received a card from the man who raped her every year on her birthday, the handwritten message mocking her from the mailbox outside her home.
Then there was the mother, afraid for her daughter and son-in-law, who were trying to start their new life while their stalker walked free, impeded only by an ankle monitor and a restraining order.
It was this mother’s story that got state Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, interested in the Texas Address Confidentiality Program. The free service — a kind of witness protection program for Texans who’ve experienced family violence, sexual abuse, stalking or human trafficking — has helped keep private the personal information of hundreds of survivors in the last decade.
But there was one glaring problem, the mother told Taylor. Abusers could still find the home addresses of victims like her daughter through voter registration rolls and property appraisal websites.
This loophole kept unknown numbers of people from participating in the program, and, even worse, could have put those already in it at risk.
Women who were raped shied away from voting, losing a right they’d never thought would be affected by their victimization, advocates said. Others were told by property appraisal districts that their addresses would remain public, even with active protective orders against attackers who lived in their own community.
“You basically learn to protect yourself,” said the mother who turned to Taylor for help; she requested anonymity to protect her family. “It’s nothing but misery.”
“I just figured, if we’re going to change laws, we got to start talking to somebody.”
‘A clarion call’
Taylor, who represents parts of Collin and Dallas counties, spent more than a year working on a fix. He met with district attorneys and police departments, as well as victims’ rights groups such as the Texas Council on Family Violence, and learned that closing the Address Confidentiality Program’s loophole was a top priority.
“You could take advantage of the program, but if you happen to have property, that was an issue,” said Karen Miller, an Austin lawyer who helps run a free hotline for assault victims. Public ballot records were another problem, she said, and were “a deterrent to sign up and vote.
“It’s disenfranchising people”
The information was “a clarion call to action,” Taylor told The News.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” he said. “Their life has been affected forever, and something that we take for granted — which is the ability to vote, the ability to buy a home, to go about your life — they’re afraid.”
Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, sponsored Taylor’s legislation in the House. In a year marked by infighting between this chamber and the Senate — and within the Republican party itself — the two men managed to pass a bill that received unanimous consent every step of the way.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law on May 19. The legislation, which Abbott said he was “proud to sign,” will close the loophole while also expanding the program to additional Texans.
Five million Texans
The Texas Address Confidentiality Program is run through the office of Attorney General Ken Paxton. It provides participants with a substitute P.O. Box address where they can receive mail that is then forwarded to their homes.
Since the program was created 10 years ago, the attorney general’s office has received more than 1,500 applications to participate. About 60 percent are still signed up, demonstrating the program’s longevity, with more than 2,000 victims and their family members covered.
But this number is low considering that nearly 70,000 domestic violence victims are served in Texas every year, according to the Texas Council on Family Violence. This doesn’t include Texans who were stalked or trafficked.
Until Taylor got involved, the program was open only to Texas residents who’d experienced family violence, sexual assault, stalking and trafficking and met with a state-approved “victim’s assistance counselor.”
Now, victims and family members who’ve received or applied for a protective order or emergency protection, or who “possess documentation” of family violence, sexual assault or stalking such as a doctor’s statement or police report, are eligible. Family members, including children, can attest to the alleged abuse, providing enough evidence for the state to allow participation in the program.
Finally, Taylor’s law makes rather substantial changes to the Texas election and tax code to shield the home addresses of participants and any other abuse victims who receive protective orders or emergency protection, or who can prove they were the victim of sexual assault, stalking or human trafficking.
Law enforcement agencies also won’t be able to get this confidential information unless they prove it’s needed for an investigation. This change was made specifically to protect victims whose attackers work in law enforcement, such as the woman who crossed state lines to avoid her abusive husband, who was an officer.
Olivia Rivers, the advocacy director for the Houston-based Bridge Over Troubled Waters, one of the largest family crisis centers in Texas, said she’s more likely to recommend the program now.
“It just gives us a little more confidence,” Rivers said. “They’re not going to come back in a couple of months, a couple of years, and say, ‘It didn’t work.'”
Jim Malatich, CEO at Plano-based family violence service provider Hope’s Door New Beginning Center, applauded Taylor’s work.
“He reached out here locally, and that was impressive, politics aside,” Malatich said. “He called me and said, ‘Jim, is this a loophole? Or is it not a big deal? I said, ‘It’s a big deal.’
“He said, ‘I want to write a bill.’ I said, ‘Go for it, man.’ ”
As for the mother who sparked this whole conversation, she hopes not only her family, but others, will be better off thanks to these changes.
“I have felt the care and concern from Senator Taylor in his commitment to strengthen the process designed to protect us,” she said. “I pray others in the future will be safer as a result.”
For more information
To learn more about the Texas Address Confidentiality Program, visit the Office of the Attorney General’s website, email email@example.com or call 512-936-1750.