COVID-19 brought with it many new challenges, including furloughs, unemployment, and hospitals struggling to keep up with surges of new patients. We all hear about those things every day. But you may not have heard about how the pandemic has made it much harder for victims of domestic violence to seek help.
When you’re stuck in the same house as your abusive partner for months on end, technology can be your only lifeline to the outside world. Yet many of these victims share a cell phone plan with their abusers, who see a shared phone bill, where they can often see every call and text that comes in or goes out, as just one more way to control their partners.
This is why I helped lead the introduction of the Safe Connections Act with Senator Brian Schatz. Our bipartisan bill would help survivors of domestic violence fully separate from their abusers.
Senator Schatz and I used feedback from a wide range of anti-violence, technology, and telecommunications groups to draft this bill. Many of these organizations have already endorsed it, including International Justice Mission, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
The Safe Connections Act is common sense. It would allow survivors of domestic violence to separate their mobile phone line from a group plan without incurring any penalties. Importantly, this includes the lines of their children or other dependents, such as elderly family members.
The bill would also require the Federal Communications Commission to create rules to aid this separation, as well as rules to help survivors get back on their feet with temporary enrollment in Lifeline, an FCC program that offers low-income and other qualified Americans a discount on their phone and internet bills. The Safe Connections Act would also ensure that calls or texts to domestic violence support hotlines no longer appear on call logs, since abusers can use that information to track calls for help.
In reviewing the bill with the Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, an organization doing critical work to support survivors in our state, they told me of the importance of this provision. The Coalition’s Legal Director stated, “A few days ago, I talked with an advocate who told me of an individual who was abusing his spouse calling the hotline to see who she was communicating with. The Safe Connections Act would be a great tool for survivors who are trying to leave an abusive relationship.”
According to the Nebraska Coalition, during the 12-month period ending on September 30, 2020, the 20 local domestic violence programs they assist across Nebraska received nearly 40,000 calls to their hotlines. These programs also provided over 10,000 Nebraskans with services like essential supplies and legal advice, as well as a combined 60,000 nights in their shelters.
For many victims, these services are just a phone call away. But we have to make sure that phone call is accessible to all survivors. The Safe Connections Act would make it possible for them to separate their mobile phone lines from those of their abusers and help give them the power to take their lives back.