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New Bills Proposed To Protect Domestic Violence Survivors

State Rep. Vanessa Guerra (D - Saginaw) on the left; State Sen. Margaret O'Brien (R-Portage) on the right

Michigan legislators to propose new laws designed to better protect domestic violence survivors. Bills introduced this past week would create an address confidentiality program, which supporters say exists in 37 states. Editor's note: the AP article was filed in November 2017. The audio interview happened December 19, 2017.

Eight years after leaving her physically abusive husband, Nicole Beverly still fears for her life but also considers herself lucky. When she was being stalked and fled to Canada for two weeks, she did not lose her job. She was allowed to take time off for court hearings. Family and friends helped house her and her two sons. And when her husband located their new address through a utility, a landlord let her out of the lease early.

Many survivors of domestic violence do not have such support, according to advocates, which is leading Michigan legislators to propose new laws designed to better protect them. Bills introduced this past week would create an address confidentiality program, which supporters say exists in 37 states. Those subject to personal protection orders would have to relinquish their guns. Other measures are aimed at addressing housing- or job-related factors that keep victims with their abusers.

"Without an address confidentiality program, I do not feel safe staying in our state," said Beverly, a 44-year-old social worker from Ypsilanti whose ex-husband last month finished a five-year prison term for aggravated stalking. Kevin Beverly, who Nicole said once held a gun to her head, remains incarcerated because the state attorney general has filed new charges related to death threats he allegedly made against her.

The bills were in the works before the recent mass shooting at a Texas church. But proponents say the massacre, which appeared to stem from a domestic dispute and was perpetrated by a man with a history of domestic violence, is a reminder of the severe consequences of not stopping abuse and holding abusers accountable.

Nearly three in 10 women and one in 10 men in the U.S. have experienced physical violence, sexual violence or stalking by a partner resulting in injury, fear, concern for their safety or a need for services, according to the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Under the proposed address program , victims could ask the state to classify their residential address as confidential. They could have a state mailing address, from which an agency would forward mail to their residence. Their voter registration would be shielded from public-records requests. And participants in the program could avoid jury duty.

"For many women and children, this is actually a matter of life and death," said the bill sponsor, Republican Sen. Margaret O'Brien of Portage.

Address confidentiality legislation was introduced in 2014 and 2015. But its backers are more hopeful this session because a committee chairman in the GOP-led Senate is co-sponsoring the bill. Democratic women, who hope to participate in talks about the confidentiality program, unveiled their own anti-domestic violence bills in recent days.

Employers that provide sick leave would be required to let employees use it to provide or receive assistance because of domestic violence, assault or stalking. Victims could receive unemployment benefits if they leave their job due to domestic violence. Municipalities that penalize landlords and tenants with fines and evictions if they call the police too much could not issue the sanctions if it is a case of abuse, a crime or an emergency.

"Survivors typically have to miss work in order to receive legal assistance, medical assistance and counseling. Survivors do not choose to have this happen to them, and they certainly should not be punished by losing a day's pay from their job while they're working through the consequences of this abuse," said a bill sponsor, Democratic Rep. Vanessa Guerra of Saginaw.

The most contentious proposal is likely the one related to protection orders. Under the law, someone seeking protection can ask that the order include a prohibition on buying or possessing guns. The bill would require the relinquishment or sale of guns within 24 hours of an order being served. While the Republican-controlled Legislature opposes gun-control efforts, Democrats said GOP members should back the measure to ensure only "good guys" have guns.

"This is a clear case where the person ... with a gun who is contributing to domestic violence is really not one of the good guys," Guerra said.

The National Rifle Association has said there are common instances of orders being granted when there has been no threat of violence.

Despite the potential stalemate on the gun issue, victim advocates hope the Legislature will embrace other facets of the plan.

Barbara Niess-May, executive director of the SafeHouse Center in Ann Arbor, said address confidentiality is a "great idea," but it is challenging to devise a program.

"What is the mandate? What is the consequence if you don't do it?" she said in reference to an employer or government not adequately shielding an address. The overall package of bills, she said, is "bold."

"We are in a time where it's been challenging to move these types of issues forward," said Niess-May, who said sexual assault and domestic violence issues have been pigeonholed to a liberal or Democratic perspective when they should be law-and-order and safety issues. "For legislators to stand up and stand with survivors ... it's huge."

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