Bill proposes sealing name changes for abuse victims

By Reneé Diaz, Washington State Journal

People who change their names to hide from their abusers should be afforded more privacy.

That, at least, is the conclusion Maia Xiao came to after a transgender friend committed suicide after being harassed online despite a name change. Her friend’s “deadname,” the name used before transitioning, was discovered since it was a public record under Washington state law.

“Even if she knew she was in a dangerous situation, she could not have changed her name privately because of our law,” Xiao said.

Under consideration now is Senate Bill 5028, which revises the process of changing names to protect transgender people, people escaping violence and juveniles under guardianship from others wishing to harm them.

On Jan. 12, the bipartisan bill had its first public hearing in the Senate Committee of Law and Justice. While many people testified both online and in person in support of the bill, there are complications that come with hiding the identity of people who change their names.

“One fear we have that we’re still working through is whether or not this process could be abused or manipulated by somebody to try to escape accountability later on,” policy director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC), James McMahan, said.

Background checks of criminal history are routinely used to keep sex offenders from working in schools and DUI offenders from driving buses for cities or schools. A name change that hides a person’s former name could derail those precautions.

“We know that certainly is not the intent, that by far will be the very rare instance, but we wouldn’t want to inadvertently allow that to happen,” McMahan said.

The bill’s supporters say the bill’s language will prohibit granting sealed name changes to those who do not deserve the protection.

“It’s really hard sometimes for transgender people who have gone through a transition to be in a position where the world can easily find out…their deadname or their former identity,” said Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, who introduced the bill. “It would be great if Washington had a similar procedure similar to what is available in other states,” Pedersen said.

According to the U.S. Office for Victims of Crime, 50% of transgender individuals are sexually abused or assaulted. Republican Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley, is co-sponsoring the bill with Pedersen.

“The reason I have agreed to co-sponsor this bill is because I believe in people’s fundamental right to privacy,” Wagoner said. “It is really hard to maintain your privacy when someone is actively trying to seek you out, and for that reason, I believe this is a good legislation.”

Rebekah Gardea, a representative from the QLaw Foundation of Washington, testified about a client who fled her home due to transphobic abuse by her family. Her client was afraid of being found again because records of her name change could easily be found online.

“Because she had not experienced domestic violence under our statutory definition. She had no way of protecting herself. This law would allow people in her position the ability to find actual safety,” Gardea said.

On Jan. 20, SB 5028 was passed to the Rules Committee for a second hearing.

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