Fix sought for loopholes in ‘Safe at Home’ program

When Dede Alpert was in the state Senate, one of the San Diego Democrat’s signature accomplishments was SB 489, a 1998 bill that created the Safe At Home program.

This law acts as a kind of witness protection program for people who have suffered spousal abuse, stalking or sexual assault. It allows them to keep their addresses and contact information private, even while going through court proceedings.

But about a year ago, she got a call from a woman in the program who said a judge in a child custody case had forced her to give up her address to her abusive ex-husband.

“The judge said she didn’t have any idea what she was talking about and hadn’t heard of any of these rules,” Alpert said.

Since then, more cases have appeared. Alpert, who was termed out in 2004 and is now a public policy advisor with the Nielsen Merksamer law firm in Sacramento, started making phone calls. Now she’s lent her voice to efforts to fix loopholes in the program.

Hoping to protect and reform the program, Sen. Jenny Oropeza, D-Los Angeles, introduced SB 1233 on Feb. 19. The bill would remove the sunset provision from the law; barring an extension, the program currently is scheduled to expire on Jan. 1, 2013.

It also would require participants who had changed their names while in the program to have their records permanently sealed, even after they had officially exited the program, and it would also require that permanent records be kept on all participants.

The bill will be heard Tuesday in the Senate Elections Committee and on April 13 in Senate Judiciary Committee. Oropeza has also been talking to other senators about putting more Safe At Home reforms into the bill or carrying additional legislation — including changes that could make the law easier to enforce.

The bill is sponsored by Secretary of State Debra Bowen, whose department oversees the program. According to figures from her office, there are 2,491 current participants in the program — mostly women, though there are a few men enrolled. More than 5,000 people have participated in the Safe At Home program since 1999.

The problem, advocates say, comes only with a few of the 700 or so current participants who share children with the abuser they’re trying to escape. Laws relating to family courts state, among other provisions, that a parent sharing custody has the right to know where a child is when he or she is with the other parent.

One Safe At Home participant who spoke with the Capitol Weekly said this is what happened to her. Her estranged husband spent several months in jail for assaulting her, this woman said, leading her to enter the program.

But when she went to court last year, she said a judge told her she would award sole custody to father if she didn’t give up her address. The judge repeated this demand at a subsequent hearing, she said, dismissing testimony from a county official who vouched for the program’s existence and rules. This left her in a Catch 22, she said — leading her to give up her address, though her former husband has not harassed her since.

Bowen’s office lacks the enforcement powers needed to make sure judges honor the law, some advocates say.

“Safe At Home is working beautifully,” said Connie Valentine, director of the California Protective Parents Association. “But because the law has no teeth, the family courts have now completely subverted the program.”

As things stand now, Bowen’s office can merely advise participants on ways they can increase their chances of getting through court proceedings with their confidential information intact. The office maintains a Sacramento P.O. box they can legally use as their address. If a participant requests it, they will send a letter to the judge describing the program and confirming their status.

But the Government Code section relating to the law (6209.7) also states that it doesn’t affect “custody or visitation orders in effect prior to or during program participation.” It also notes “Participation in the program does not constitute evidence of domestic violence or stalking.”

In other words, even when judges are fully aware of the law, they may find themselves in what appears to be a legal gray area.

Some of the problems may have happened because the idea for the law was so new when she introduced it, Alpert said. Safe At Home was based on a similar program in Washington State, which also charged their Secretary of State’s office with administering it. Since 1999, though, several other states have introduced similar laws — and many have placed responsibility for running it with the Attorney General or some other agency with law enforcement powers.

Center for Judicial Excellence (CJE) will appear on the nationally syndicated Dr. Phil show. The CJE is a Marin-based watchdog group that has long pushed for family court reforms and was a key backer of Leno’s audit request.

“Part of the conditions for being in the program is the batterer not knowing your address,” she said. “Once you’ve disclosed it, you’re technically supposed to exit the program.”

The effort comes amidst a wider reform drive aimed at California family courts. State Auditor Elaine Howell is conducting an audit of the family courts in two counties where advocates claim there have been many cases of conflict of interest and other abuses, Marin and Sacramento. That audit comes at the request of Sen. Mark Le
no, D-San Francisco, who represents much of Marin County. The audit was approved last year by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee.

Late last week, attorneys for the Auditor’s office told the family courts in those counties and the state Judicial Council that they would file subpoenas if they did not get quicker action on demands for numerous documents. The Auditor is seeking information relating to custody battles and the relationships between judges, attorneys and court-mandated specialists in those counties.

On April 14, Kathleen Russell of he Center for Judicial Excellence (CJE) will appear on the nationally syndicated Dr. Phil show. The CJE is a Marin-based watchdog group that has long pushed for family court reforms and was a key backer of Leno’s audit request.

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