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Column: Protecting domestic violence victims with their phones

Our phones play a major role in our lives. They keep us in touch with friends and family, connect us to the happenings of the world while on the go, and are oftentimes necessary for our jobs. For survivors of domestic abuse, however, phones also represent something else — a terrifying way to be monitored, stalked or controlled.

One in three women and one in four men in the United States will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, and the frequency of these terrible acts has increased during the pandemic. Right now, lock-in contracts or hefty early-termination fees prevent survivors from breaking away from wireless plans shared by their abusers, who can use them to monitor the whereabouts and call or text history of their victims.

Some states, including Hawaii, have laws designed to help. But many don’t. That’s why I authored the Safe Connections Act. This bipartisan legislation (introduced by myself, Deb Fischer, R-Neb., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Rick Scott, R-Fla. and Jacky Rosen, D-Nev.), would help domestic violence survivors leave these shared plans while keeping their phone number to create safer options for them to stay connected with their family and support networks.

The bill would allow survivors to separate a mobile phone line from any shared plan involving an abuser without penalty. More than 90% of those who experience domestic abuse also experience economic abuse, and limited financial resources can leave them trapped in an unsafe environment. It would require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to begin to come up with new standards to best help survivors access free or low-cost phone service through a federal program known as Lifeline.

The Safe Connections Act also would ensure that any calls or texts to domestic violence hotlines don’t appear on call logs. Parental control features allow abusers to track communications, serving as both a potential source of abuse and a roadblock to seeking help. Changing this represents a common-sense, important shift to empower survivors.

With the support of the Hawai‘i State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and many other groups. we’ve made progress on advancing this bill in the Senate, and I’m confident we can get this passed by Congress and signed into law. In the meantime, we have more work to do to support survivors.

Last Congress, I helped introduce legislation to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. For more than 25 years, VAWA has provided support, shelter and a new chance at life for women and children in Hawaii and across the country. This version strengthens vital programs like housing protections and financial assistance for survivors while protecting employees from being fired because they are survivors of domestic violence, and will be reintroduced shortly.

In March, we worked to include $14.2 million for Hawaii in the American Rescue Plan to help people in need of housing, including those fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence.

And we’re working to fund a Native Hawaiian resource center on domestic violence. Native Hawaiians experience disproportionate rates of domestic violence, and a dedicated Native Hawaiian resource center would provide culturally relevant support, training and technical assistance to address this.

Domestic violence affects all of us, and it’s on all of us to stop it. I commend the Domestic Violence Action Center for 30 years of this important work. And I pledge that as long as I have the privilege of serving in the Senate, I’ll do everything I can to fight for survivors.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz represents Hawaii in the U.S. Senate.