As family law practitioners, we frequently find ourselves handling cases involving domestic abuse.
While issues of domestic abuse typically find relevance in determining custody and placement, Wisconsin’s address confidentiality program, Safe at Home,1 serves to protect victims’ privacy and safety.
About the Confidential Address Program: Safe at Home
Created by legislation in 2016 and administered by the Wisconsin Department of Justice, Safe at Home provides a “free mail-forwarding service that provides victims of actual or threatened abuse, stalking, trafficking, and/or those who fear for their physical safety with a legal substitute address to be used for public and private purposes.”
While this program serves as a helpful tool for practitioners representing victims of domestic abuse, all attorneys must be aware of the implications associated with a party’s enrollment in the Safe at Home program.
Safe at Home offers clients who are victims of actual or threatened abuse privacy from an alleged abuser. While the program is not a substitute for a domestic abuse restraining order, it offers a layer of privacy protection that did not exist prior to the program’s enactment in 2016.
According to the website, to be eligible to participate in the Safe at Home program, a person must attest to the following:
that he or she is a resident of this state;
that at least one of the following applies:
he or she is a victim of abuse, a parent or guardian of a person who is a victim of abuse, or a resident of a household in which a victim of abuse also resides.
he or she fears for his or her physical safety or for the physical safety of his or her child or ward;
that he or she resides or will reside at a location in this state that is not known by the person who committed the abuse against, or who threatens, the applicant or his or her child or ward; and
that he or she will not disclose his or her actual address to the person who committed the abuse against, or who threatens, the applicant or his or her child or ward.2
Importantly, a person is eligible for enrollment regardless of whether any criminal charges have been brought against the alleged abuser, whether any restraining order or injunction relating to the alleged abuse has been sought, or whether the person applying for enrollment has reported any act or threat against him or her to a law enforcement officer or agency.3
This creates a low barrier for enrollment into the Safe at Home program, and can often be an appropriate measure even when the facts of a case do not arise to meet the requirements of a domestic abuse restraining order.
Conducting Personal Service on a Safe at Home Enrollee
While the implications for a party’s enrollment in the Safe at Home Program may seem straightforward, any practitioner who has been given notice of an opposing parties enrollment must be careful not to run afoul of the program’s mandates.
Most notably, attorneys should never attempt personal service to a Safe at Home participant at their actual home, work, or school address. The simple act of providing the actual home address of a Safe at Home participant to a process server could technically result in a criminal misdemeanor against the attorney.4
However, as a condition of enrollment, Safe at Home participants certify the Department of Justice to be the program participants’ designated agent for service of process.5 Accordingly, any motions or other pleadings requiring personal service can be served to the Department of Justice.
To further ensure that proper service does not become a contested issue, practitioners should file affidavits attesting to properly completing service of pleadings to the Department of Justice and flagging Wis. Stat. section 165.68’s service of process requirements.
Conclusion: Protecting the Victim, Protecting the Attorney
Wisconsin family law practitioners need to keep Safe at Home in the back of their minds in cases involving domestic abuse – both to better protect victims and to properly serve pleadings without getting into hot water.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Family Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Family Law Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.
1 Codified in Wis. Stat. § 165.68.
2 Wis. Stat. § 165.68(2)(a).
3 Wis. Stat. § 165.68(2)(b).
4 See Wis. Stat. § 165.68(7).
5 Wis. Stat. § 165.68(3)(g).