WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate has passed a bipartisan bill, championed by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, that would help survivors of domestic violence separate from wireless service plans shared with their abusers.
The legislation is seen as a significant step in helping survivors separate from their abusers and cut off services that can be used to monitor, stalk, or control them.
“Giving domestic violence abusers control over their victims’ cell phones is a terrifying reality for many survivors,” said Schatz, who co-authored the bill with Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb. “Right now there is no easy way out for these victims — they’re trapped in by contracts and hefty fees. Our bill, which is now set to become law, will help survivors get out of these shared plans and help victims stay connected with their families and support networks.”
When establishing independence from an abuser, survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, sexual assault often find maintaining connections with family, social safety networks, employers and support services compromised by financial insecurity and limited access to shared phone lines or other communications tools, the senators noted.
If approved by the president, the Safe Connections Act will allow survivors and dependents in their care to separate a mobile phone line from any shared plan involving an abuser without penalty or other requirements.
It would also require the Federal Communications Commission to hold a rule-making proceeding to seek comment on how to help survivors who separate from a shared plan enroll in the Lifeline Program, which offers emergency communications support, for up to six months as they become financially stable.
The FCC would further be required to establish rules to ensure that calls or texts to hotlines do not appear on call logs.
The legislation received support from the National Domestic Violence Hotline and other agencies and organizations that support survivors seeking to separate themselves from their abusers.
“Survivors reaching out to the Hotline often share the devastating effects of abusive partners using phones and other devices to monitor, control, harass and stalk them,” said CEO Katie Ray-Jones. “The ability to leave a shared phone contract while maintaining confidentiality will be an incredible and possibly lifesaving tool in a survivor’s journey to safety.”
The alleged abuser does not have to be convicted of a crime for the measure to be acted upon. In applying for separation, a survivor may submit, as verification, a signed affidavit from a medical or mental health provider, social worker, counselor or employee of a court involved in related proceedings. The survivor may also submit a copy of a police report, police statements, charging documents, protective or restraining orders and other official records that document the alleged abuse.
Once a service provider receives a separation request from a survivor, it has two business days to separate the line of the survivor from the shared mobile service contract or separate the line of the abuser from the contract without penalty or fee.
“Our work reveals how phones play an essential but complicated role in survivors’ lives,” said Thomas Kadri, assistant professor at the University of Georgia School of Law and an affiliated researcher at of the Cornell University’s Clinic to End Tech Abuse. “Survivors rely on communications technologies as a lifeline, but those same technologies can expose them to abuse. The Safe Connections Act carefully responds to this tension through important new protections for survivors.”
Michael Tsai covers local and state politics for Spectrum News Hawaii.