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Abused Mother Seeks Redress After Government Breaches Her Altered Identity

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GLAMOUR TELL SOMEBODY

"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.

According to Ms. Doe, staff in Mr. Anders's office later learned that Service Alberta intended to make a compensation offer, but it never happened.

When asked whether the Alberta government is prepared to pay restitution to Ms. Doe, Mr. Berezowsky said Service Alberta sent correspondence to the Does "late last year" and has not heard back. "We've been informed that she has obtained legal representation and we're waiting for a response from her lawyer."

But Ms. Doe insisted that by refusing a mediated approach, Alberta officials forced a legal battle they knew she was ill-equipped to fight. She alleged the government is "trying to drag this out," waiting for the two-year statute of limitations to run out on her option to pursue compensation via the courts. Mr. Berezowsky said he does not know when the statute of limitations expires.

The arrangement with her lawyer fell through, so she filed court papers herself. Her hope is not only for compensation but that the program be changed.

Little information is available about NIVA, which was renamed Confidential Services for Victims of Abuse in 2008. The department responsible, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, would provide no information about program costs or the number of participants, saying in an unsigned e-mail that this was necessary "to protect the safety of clients."

As part of a consultation process on the program, undertaken by the government in 2007, the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime (CRCVC) submitted a report that echoed Jane Doe's story. "Some women believe they have been forgotten by the government entirely," it said of the cumbersome process.

The report called for a revamped, well-funded program that would provide participants with full legal, logistical, emotional and financial support. It recommended that participants be provided with all necessary documents within a 12-month period.

The HRSDC media office said only that recommendations from many sources, including CRCVC, "were considered and implemented."

In July, Heidi Illingworth, who heads CRCVC, sent a letter in support of the Does to Human Resources Minister Diane Finley.

Ms. Doe is also seeking the support of Sue O'Sullivan, the federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime. Although Ms. O'Sullivan reviews only systemic matters, not individual cases, she has met twice with Ms. Doe via teleconference since July.

Ms. Doe will likely need a new identity again and she wants her case, along with others like it, to be handled according to the 2007 CRCVC recommendations. She hopes she won't need to change careers this time and that her daughter will not need to give up the "life dreams and passions" she has begun to pursue.

"My frustration is through the roof," Ms. Doe said, her voice faltering. "We fell through the cracks in everything."

She is now fighting to ensure the same doesn't happen with her attempt to resolve the Alberta government's breach of her identity. Her goal is simple, she repeats it like a mantra: "We want our lives back."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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