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Wednesday, March 01, 2000

Ottawa considers extending witness protection to abuse victims
Two levels of government wrangle over jurisdiction
Janice Tibbetts
Southam News

OTTAWA - The federal government is considering bringing battered spouses and their children into the RCMP's Witness Protection Program to give new identities and police protection to victims fleeing abusive partners.

Five federal departments recently joined with the provinces to consider a variety of options that would better protect victims by setting them up with everything from new social insurance numbers to new communities and even different names or cosmetically altered faces.

The federal departments of Human Resources, Justice, Health, Solicitor-General and Revenue first met with the provinces late last year to discuss expansion of Ottawa's New Identities Program, which has supplied new social insurance numbers to victims on an ad-hoc basis for years.

But talks between Ottawa and the provinces are hampered by jurisdictional wrangling between the two levels of government and cost.

"It's all a question of where the resources are coming from and the RCMP is not in a position to fund it," said Sergeant Hugues Joanis, a program administrator.

The Witness Protection Program is strained by snowballing costs that reached almost $4-million last year providing varying degrees of protection to 92 people, mainly witnesses who testified at criminal trials. In the most serious cases, the Mounties erase all traces of a witness' former identity, move the person to a new province, pay for job retraining, and provide money for re-establishment. A handful of abuse victims already have been admitted to the program, but mainly those who have testified against their partners.

The little-known New Identities Program, on the other hand, has no funding and lacks co-ordination with the provinces, which are responsible for overseeing such services as welfare and driver's licences. The program has informally assisted 200 people over the last seven years, primarily by changing their social insurance numbers so they can't be tracked down through various government departments.

The Human Resources Department, which oversees the fledgling program, worries that it falls so far short of its aim that the government could face legal liability if victims are lulled into a false sense of security and then tracked down by their spouse or partner.

The Witness Protection Program, which is able to provide the added measure of police protection, has settled several lawsuits from disgruntled protectees.

Another obstacle in bringing victims into the Witness Protection Program is that representatives for women's shelters want the government to come up with a new program instead of leaving it up to the RMCP to decide which victims need protection. They are concerned the Mounties will likely limit their choices to victims of abusers who have been criminally convicted.

"I think we have to have police involved in this but they shouldn't be the gatekeepers," said Eileen Morrow, co-ordinator of Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, an umbrella group for 63 shelters. "If you have a new program you need a new process where you have professionals working with women or children making those assessments."

Reformer Jay Hill currently has a private member's bill before the House of Commons proposing to expand the Witness Protection Program to include victims.

The B.C. MP from Prince George-Peace River says he was inspired by Mary-Lynne Miller, a woman in his constituency who has been reduced to a vegetative state for the rest of her life after a beating from her husband.

But Mr. Hill has encountered resistance from Liberal MPs, who have said that the government is trying to determine whether expansion of the Witness Protection Program is the best answer.

"Women are being murdered as parliamentarians sit and argue over who is best to do this," said Mr. Hill, whose bill has little chance of being passed.

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