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Missouri lawmakers get involved in fight to protect whereabouts of abuse victims

vinwim | Flickr
The Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City

Lawmakers have been recruited to help in the battle over a St. Louis County judge’s order for a woman to reveal where she lives.

At issue is the state’s Safe at Home program, which is operated by the Missouri Secretary of State’s office and allows victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and human trafficking to route mail through a post office box.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley filed an emergency motion last week, which was unveiled Wednesday, on behalf of Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft to block Circuit Judge Sandra Farragut-Hemphill’s order, which in January said a woman in a divorce case had not properly enrolled in the program and thus must  reveal her address.

“We disagree with the court’s ruling and will continue to litigate vigorously to defend the Safe at Home program,” Hawley said in a statement. “Every victim of domestic abuse should be able to keep her identity safe, and we will fight to ensure she can.”

Credit File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft

Ashcroft and fellow Republicans House Speaker Todd Richardson and Senate President Pro-tem Ron Richard unveiled a proposal Wednesday that would bar judges from requiring a person to reveal a confidential address unless it is necessary to gather evidence for a criminal or civil case.

“We are working through the process of identifying what we believe are multiple (bills) that this language will fit on as an amendment,” Richardson said, noting that there are a few bills that could be amended. “We’re going to do everything we can to get this across the finish line and into law.”

Lawmakers will have to move fast, as there are only about two weeks left in this year’s legislative session. Richardson said they’ll also try to add an emergency clause, which would allow the measure to take effect immediately after being signed by the governor.

Ashcroft criticized Farragut-Hemphill’s ruling.

“We have had other judges historically that have ordered or pushed participants to divulge their address,” he said. “What made this so onerous is that the individual in question here was required to divulge her address to the very individual that she says is the reason she’s in the program.”

Sheila Rilenge, whose daughter is at the center of the case, spoke with St. Louis Public Radio on Friday. STLPR doesn’t generally identify victims of domestic violence, but Rilenge had permission to speak publicly on her daughter’s behalf.

She said the judge’s decision was the result of a “glaring error” at the attorney general’s office.

“What it came down to was a lack of oversight on their part,” she said. Rilenge also noted that the “situation has gotten so much attention and people have been so appalled when they learn about what went on without anyone’s knowledge that there are legislators who have taken interest … so that something like this can’t happen again.”

Last week, the Missouri Secretary of State's office said Safe at Home participants had been sent new forms that include a sworn statement.

Erica Hunzinger and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter: @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.