Victims of domestic violence and stalking are often forced to flee their own homes in order to insure the safety of themselves or their children. Sometimes safe havens, shelters, and orders of protection are insufficient safeguards against tenacious and determined abusers. After all other safety measures have been exhausted, some victims have no alternative but to relocate and, in more dangerous cases, establish a new, safe identity. Even then, abusers may persist in trying to track down their victims – often by using the victims’ social security numbers to locate them through medical and welfare records, court documents, school and employment records or any of the ever-increasing ways that social security numbers are used for identification. For this reason, identity changes are often coupled with Social Security number changes as a helpful or even necessary part of a safety plan in these drastic situations.
Although the Social Security Administration (SSA) does not routinely assign new numbers, in 1997 it established special procedures for victims of domestic violence and stalking or other victims who can show that they are being harassed or abused or that their lives are in danger. SSA Publication (No. 05-10093) lays out the requirements for applying for a new number. (See http://www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/10093.html).
In addition to documenting one’s current name and Social Security number (SSN), SSA requires evidence of citizenship status. If the client has changed his or her identity, it also requires one or more documents identifying the applicant by both old and new names. For a victim on the run, obtaining some of these documents may prove difficult, or even dangerous. According to SSA, it will provide help in getting additional evidence.
The applicant must also provide a statement explaining why a new number is needed, along with corroborative evidence documenting the harassment or abuse. Third party evidence from an unbiased or impartial source is preferred. Evidence of greater probative value may include police records and reports, photographs or other imagery, official court documents and court orders of protection. Evidence such as letters from district attorneys, social workers, domestic violence or homeless shelters, government agencies or others with knowledge of the abuse will also be accepted. Evidence of lesser probative value, such as letters or statements from the victim’s family and friends may be accepted if those friends and family have some direct knowledge about the events.
Because resourceful abusers may attempt to track the family using the children’s social security information, a victim may also need to change the numbers of minor children in order to protect the family. If such a request is made at the time of her application and the abuser is the children’s other parent, the applicant must also provide proof of legal custody and visitation. However, if the applicant parent meets the requirements for a new SSN, the children’s SSNs can be changed without submission of additional evidence. New SSNs can be assigned only in cases where the applicant parent has sole legal custody. If the child’s number is ultimately changed and the other parent later requests information from the child’s record, SSA is not supposed to disclose this information without formally determining whether such information can be disclosed.
Interestingly, there are very few POMS governing these situations. Although there are cross-references in the on-line POMS to RM 00205.058 & 059 and RM 00205.045, those sections are no longer available on SSA’s web site. Nor are any of the POMS in the RM 00205.000 section pertaining to requests for a different social security number. They were presumably removed for the protection of those seeking new numbers.
RM 00205.045 contained a number of scenarios outlining situations where requests for new numbers were warranted. Most involve allegations of serious abuse, with evidence such as police and hospital and third party evidence, along with proof of drastic steps taken to evade the abuser, including moving to other states, changing names, etc. The only two examples where the requests were denied involved allegations of threats by a non-family member that could not be sufficiently verified, and a situation where no evidence of current harassment was provided. The scenarios are replete with examples of the extent to which SSA will provide assistance to the applicants.
On the other hand, one of the only POMS available to the public specifically dealing with these situations is NL 00703.853. It is an example of the form notice that SSA issues in cases where a determination has been made that sufficient evidence of endangerment has not been submitted. It emphasizes that the claim was rejected because of insufficient proof that the applicant’s Social Security number is connected to allegations of harassment/abuse or endangerment.
Clients who in fact change their identities and their SSNs should be advised that these dramatic measures may not adequately protect them from a determined abuser. Although SSA does try to protect the confidentiality of these records, they may still be inadvertently disclosed to a manipulative and resourceful abuser. Further, the old and new SSNs are cross-referenced on SSA’s system.
Clients should also be forewarned that the number change process is slow, so applicants should not look to it as a quick fix. Further, it really should be done after a legal name change, so there are a number of hoops to jump through before one should even apply. Some legal services offices and domestic violence (DV) programs that have a legal program/staff attorney can assist with the name change process.
Remember, however, that this is a really drastic step. An applicant should have a great deal of counseling and safety planning beforehand, as there might be less drastic alternatives. Also, this is a relatively rare procedure, so despite the promises in the POMS that SSA will do much to help develop evidence and support the applicants in these cases, in reality SSA offices might not have much experience in this area, and may or may not have had any particular DV training.