Escaping domestic violence in Missouri might have gotten a little easier, under legislation that became law August 28.
One of the greatest obstacles facing victims of domestic violence involves possession of the documents they need to start their lives over. A provision in Senate Bill 28 will provide free copies of birth certificates when those are requested by victims.
The idea came out of the Southeast Missouri Family Violence Council, who brought it to Representative Chris Dinkins (R-Lesterville), and she immediately saw its importance.
“When the SEMO Family Violence Council brought this to my attention, [I could see that This was a real-life issue that people were facing on a daily basis and it was a good thing to get done for the people,” said Dinkins. “We want to do everything we can, everything in our power, to help them move on and get out of these situations.”
Tracy Carroll is the Assistant Director and Case Manager for the Council. As a case manager she has seen, countless times, people trying to get out of abusive situations but struggling to do so because they needed documentation.
“About 90 percent of them didn’t have a birth certificate or a driver’s license because part of the abuser’s M.O. is to keep those important documents from them so that they can’t leave … and every time we needed to get one, of course they don’t have any money – they come to us with very little – so we would either have to take it out of general funds or we would scrounge up in our purses $15 for the birth certificate.”
Often, victims escape from an abusive home in the middle of the night and even perhaps during a violent incident. They leave with little more than the clothes on their back and the backs of their children, only to later realize that they need documentation to do things like get a job or enroll children in school.
“A lot of these women have four and five kids and we have to get birth certificates for them so that they can go to school and different things like that, so it’s not just the mother, it’s all their children we get birth certificates for. That was really important to us, that we could help them in that first step,” said Carroll.
The $15 apiece fee to get a copy of a birth certificate often presents a huge obstacle for someone in a crisis situation. Shelters, then, have typically covered that fee, but Carroll said that adds up quickly and takes away from other things shelters aim to provide.
“I don’t think people realize those kinds of things are not in our grants. We have to come up with that money out of our general revenue or … we have been in here counting [one dollar bills] and stuff trying to get a birth certificate for somebody,” said Carroll. She said in one case, “A lady, she had seven children … and needed to all get enrolled in school. Well at $15 a pop times seven children plus herself, and then to top it off they came in at Christmas … that family, we just shelled out a large chunk of money that could be used for other resources for them, had we not had to purchase all those.”
The Council’s Executive Director, Stephanie Bennett, said after they met with Rep. Dinkins at an event in the capital city and brought up the issue, she recognized its importance and asked them to bring her some legislation.
Later, the Missouri Coalition for Domestic and Sexual Violence, the membership of which includes the Council and other shelters around the state, picked up the issue and advocated for it. Dinkins said that helped get the proposal the traction it needed.
“Missouri wants to be a helping hand and that’s exactly what we’re doing in this situation. We don’t want to be a stumbling block keeping people from being able to move forward, especially when they’re coming out of these domestic or sexual violence situations,” said Dinkins.
While this could make an immeasurable difference for many victims, Bennett hopes the passage of this language in SB 28 is only the beginning.
“The end goal would be for this to be a federal law, because we often get clients who aren’t even born in the state, so you might pay $25 to Oklahoma for one but then you might pay $110 to New Jersey, so every state’s amount differs.”
Carroll said cost isn’t the only issue regarding certificates from other states. She said different lengths of delays in getting documents mean victims can be forced to sit idle, sometimes for months, before they can begin rebuilding their lives and the lives of their children.
The language in SB 28 authorizes a waiver of the fee for a Missouri birth certificate when a victim of domestic violence or abuse requests it, documentation signed by a victim advocate; attorney; or health or mental health care provider who has assisted that person accompanies that request.