By Hon. Marianne L. Vorhees | Judge, Delaware Circuit Court 1 | Guest Author
An Indiana trial court is presiding over a custody case. Father believes Mother and the children are living in the domestic violence shelter in that county. Father’s attorney asks the judge to sign an order directing Mother to appear at an emergency custody hearing.
The judge signs the order. Father’s attorney takes the order to the Sheriff’s process server to deliver to Mother at the shelter. Shelter employees refuse to open the door to the process server, refuse to give the order to Mother, and refuse to acknowledge whether Mother and the children are even in the shelter.
How can this happen? Can the shelter really refuse to accept and acknowledge a signed court order?
Before the judge pulls out the “contempt of court” checklist, the judge should know that both federal statutes and the Indiana Code may control what happens next. The shelter may properly be protecting its clients’ interests. Let me explain why.
First, federal law protects the confidentiality and privacy of adult, youth, and child victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking, as well as their families.
The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, 42 U.S.C. 10406(c)(5), and the Violence Against Women Act, 34 U.S.C. § 12291(b)(2)(B), require shelters, rape crisis centers, domestic violence programs, or similar services, who receive federal funding, to maintain their clients’ strict confidentiality.
Second, the Indiana Code has a statute in place, § 35-37-6-1 through § 35-37-6-17, protecting domestic violence and sexual assault victims’ confidentiality.
Section 9 precludes a victim advocate or victim service provider from disclosing information in a judicial proceeding identifying where a victim received temporary emergency shelter, unless the facility is a party to the proceeding. The statute also does not allow a court to compel a victim, victim advocate, or victim service provider to disclose confidential communications. (See the statute for all the applicable definitions.)
The Indiana Supreme Court has recognized the victim advocate privilege provides extensive protection from disclosure and described this privilege as broader than both the counselor-client privilege and the psychologist-patient privilege.
In re Crisis Connection, Inc., 949 N.E.2d 789 (Ind. 2011). The Court noted the statute “does not authorize any balancing of interests or in camera review in criminal prosecutions,” and “it makes no exception for the disclosure of confidential communications or information by court order.” Id. at p. 799.
Don’t let these statutes take you by surprise. Be alert and aware whenever a litigant seeks information about a victim who has taken residence in a shelter. Be careful whenever a litigant seeks information from a shelter or victim advocate. Consult the statutes before making any ruling.