Missouri's secretary of state and top legislative leaders said Wednesday that they will try to strengthen confidentiality protections for alleged abuse victims after a St. Louis County judge recently ordered a woman participating in a state-sponsored secrecy program to nonetheless reveal her home address.
The officials pledged quick action before the legislative session ends May 12. They vowed to attach an amendment to an unspecified bill that would establish specific criteria before judges could issue such orders in the future and grant the secretary of state's office the right to interview in those court cases.
Missouri's Safe at Home program, which is overseen by Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, allows victims of sexual assault, rape, domestic abuse, stalking or human trafficking to route their mail through a state-run post office box in order to keep their actual addresses private.
The program came under scrutiny when a St. Louis County circuit judge required a woman who alleged that her husband had abused her to disclose her address during a divorce proceeding. The judge said the Safe at Home application didn't have a sworn statement from the woman about her alleged abuse, and such a statement is required by state law.
Ashcroft has since updated the application forms to include a sworn statement. About 1,500 victims are being asked to reapply with the new application.
The St. Louis County judge recently denied a request by Attorney General Josh Hawley's office to intervene in the case on behalf of the secretary of state's office. But Hawley has asked the judge to reconsider that decision and said Wednesday in a written statement that he will "continue to litigate vigorously to defend the Safe at Home program."
At Wednesday's news conference, Ashcroft was joined by House Speaker Todd Richardson and Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard. Each pledged to attach the newly proposed amendment strengthening the program's confidentiality provisions to pending legislation.
Their proposal sets out stricter guidelines for releasing participants' addresses. For example, a court would have to find that it is necessary for the address to be released for an investigation or prosecution, and would have to find that there is no other way to obtain the necessary information.
The proposal also would allow the secretary of state to intervene if a court is considering an order to disclose an address, and would give the program participant an opportunity to argue why the information shouldn't be released.
Current law states that participants in the Safe at Home program must release their addresses if ordered to by a court, but there are no specific circumstances outlined for when the information must be released or how the judge should arrive at that decision.