ANNAPOLIS – Domestic violence advocacy groups are objecting to new federal rules they say threaten the safety and lives of battered women.
The new rules, which went into effect last month, require agencies that serve the homeless and receive funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide information about their clients, many of whom are domestic violence victims, in a centralized information system.
“Shelters are looking at turning away money that they desperately need,” said Stephanie Dalpra, executive director of the Sexual Assault/Spouse Abuse Resource Center in Harford County.
“Do we keep people safe or do we turn down money? There’s just no choice, you keep people safe, end of story.”
HUD’s Homeless Management Information System was created in 2001 to provide an unduplicated count of homeless persons on a local and national level, as well as information about why they are homeless.
Though domestic violence service providers and individual victims were previously exempt from providing identifying information, the exemption was removed from the final standards released this summer.
But officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development say everything is being done to ensure the safety of battered women, and that data in the information system is secure.
“We share the concern of those who work to protect the safety of women and children,” said Brian Sullivan, a HUD spokesman. “We believe they can develop at the local level their HMIS systems where they can collect important data without reporting personal identifying information.”
According to Sullivan there are a minimum of eight levels of security in the system.
“We believe that the system is safe,” Sullivan said.
Not so, advocates say.
“There are batterers who work for law enforcement or for housing developments,” said Jill Morris, public policy director for the National Coalition against Domestic Violence.
“The technology and encryption they’re claiming is a joke. People have been hacking into the FBI Web site for years so they can certainly get into HUD’s database by illegal means, as well as legitimate ones.”
HUD issued a clarification to the new rules on Oct. 15, exempting domestic violence shelters from providing identifying information about their clients, such as names and Social Security numbers, but advocates say it’s still not enough to ensure the safety of battered women seeking services.
“The clarification is helpful, but the clarification only protects them in the domestic violence shelters,” said Dalpra. “You still have to worry about what happens out in the rest of the continuum of care, especially in the small rural counties.”
Advocates at the national level agree, saying the clarification does nothing to protect victims using various community services such as food banks or transitional housing.
“Though wrapped in high-tech dressing, HUD is still requiring that every victim of domestic violence be entered into a human tracking system . . . allowing her to be tracked across the city and state for up to seven years,” said Cindy Southworth, director of technology at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, in an e-mail interview.
There are 20 comprehensive domestic violence programs in Maryland, and about 15 have shelter buildings, according to the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.
At least five programs have responded to a survey sent out by the network saying they receive HUD funding.
In Maryland, advocates are advising local domestic violence programs not to comply with HUD’s new rules.
“Let’s see if we can get HUD to reinstate the exemption,” said Michaele Cohen, executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. “We need to be very clear that we’re not going to compromise the safety of victims whose lives are in danger.”
And victims won’t seek services if they think their information is recorded in a database and being shared with someone else, Cohen said.
“Databases are not secure, no matter what they want to tell you,” said Cohen. “At the state coalition we are supporting national efforts to change this.”