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Abused Mother Seeks Redress After Government Breaches Her Altered Identity

Posted: 08/15/11 03:47 PM ET

"Jane Doe" thought she could breathe easy, having finally escaped the fear that came from years of domestic abuse. She had severed all ties to her past and secured new identities for her and her daughter through a secretive federal program that had given them a chance to start a new life.

To her horror, however, the Alberta government inadvertently published her and her daughter's old and new names, putting that new life in jeopardy. The mistake has touched off a legal wrangle with the province and raised questions about the shadowy federal program.

She is now seeking compensation from the government after the Alberta Gazette, the government's "official newspaper," published the names together, allowing anyone with Internet access the ability to track the pair down.

The federal program, which appears nowhere on a government website, was then called New Identities for Victims of Abuse (NIVA), and required that "Jane Doe" cut off her past ties. She could leave no trail for her perpetrator to follow, and she had ample cause for fear: Restraining orders had not kept her safe, and the courts failed to put her abuser in prison. Plus, as Ms. Doe points out, incarceration would provide security only if permanent and only if the perpetrator had no dangerous associates at large. So she left without a trace.

"You have what's called a paper shredding party," Ms. Doe said.

She left with no identification, credit cards, credit rating, bank account or record of employment. She said no goodbyes. All she took, other than a few family photos she couldn't bear to shred, was her young daughter "Janet."

"We're going on a little trip," she told her daughter, masking the fear in her voice. "Think of it as an adventure."

No one in the Does' new life could know of the past one. "You have to make up a new past," Ms. Doe said. "It's basically living a lie." The Does have had no contact with anyone from their previous life since.

For eight years, Ms. Doe and her daughter lived in limbo, "left to flounder," she said, in a NIVA quagmire. "The process failed us drastically." Instructions she received were inconsistent, staff were sometimes unsympathetic, delays were routine, and federal-provincial co-operation was weak.

Then, after the Does were finally resettled with new identities, the Alberta government published their new and old names. Ms. Doe discovered the error some years after it occurred, coming across it by chance while searching the Internet. She stared at the screen. The fear returned.

Two attempted break-ins had taken place at the Doe home between the time of the error and Ms. Doe's discovery of it. A man also called their unlisted number at night, saying he was in the yard. The Does worried that the breach had allowed their perpetrator, or someone linked to him, to find them. They were forced underground again.

Ms. Doe said they now live at an "undisclosed location." She cannot divulge any details that might help someone track her.

In March, 2010, more than six months after Ms. Doe informed provincial authorities of the breach, Heather Klimchuk, minister responsible for Vital Statistics, which committed the error, wrote a letter to the Does expressing her "sincere apologies for the error." But the Does have yet to see any compensation, and their lives are still in limbo.

"It was a very regrettable error," said Mike Berezowsky, spokesperson for Service Alberta.

Ms. Doe said she met with government officials in March, 2010, to discuss compensation and rectification of her renewed identity issues. She also proposed a mediation process, something she said Alberta Conservative MP Rob Anders agreed to facilitate. But Service Alberta did not participate, Ms. Doe alleged. Mr. Berezowsky said he cannot discuss the proposed mediation with the media.

This article first appeared in the August 15, 2011 Globe and Mail.