Pending law helps domestic violence survivors with phone plans

Safe Connections Act News Graphic

A bill headed to President Joe Biden’s desk addresses a long-standing problem for domestic violence survivors, ending their ties to their abusers’ cellphone plans.

A North Dakota coalition predicts the changes will be helpful. The Safe Connections Act recently cleared its final Congressional hurdle. It removes financial penalties for survivors who are trying to separate their phone lines and their dependents’ lines from an abuser.

Dana Mees, administrative director of the North Dakota Council on Abused Women’s Services, said unresolved phone plans can be a major obstacle for someone from trying to move on from an abusive situation. “They do give abusers access to call logs, text messages, voice mails, or family tracking features that can be used to monitor, stalk and harass survivors,” Mees explained.

She added survivors are forced to pay a lot of money in termination fees, often making it difficult to transition to a safer environment. The bill had bipartisan support, but other advocates say they would have preferred policymakers not include a provision requiring the survivor to provide documentation they were abused, arguing it added to their trauma.

A separate aspect of the bill calls on the Federal Communications Commission to create rules requiring cellphone providers to expunge any calls or texts to hotlines, such as those operated by crisis centers. Mees noted it is another important tool. “If they’re calling a crisis line, and that shows up in their call log, that can tip an abuser off that they’re thinking of leaving,” Mees pointed out. “It can put them in a more dangerous situation.”

Key elements of the act:

  1. Survivors and their dependents will now have a way to leave an existing mobile phone plan that is shared with their abuser without any penalties or burdensome requirements.
  2. Through rulemaking proceedings, the Federal Communications Commission will determine how best to assist survivors leaving existing wireless contracts in accessing its discounted communications services plan – the Lifeline Program – for up to six months.
  3. The FCC will also put in place rules ensuring that any calls or texts to hotlines for assistance do not show up on any telecommunication logs.

As for financial barriers, the bill expands eligibility for the FCC’s Lifeline Program, which provides monthly cellphone plan subsidies.

Collectively, Mees believes the actions should help survivors move forward with their lives without having to change a number or get another phone. President Biden is expected to sign the measure.