No warning of rapist's release for victim because she didn't fill out a form

Tell Me About It goes behind the scenes of stories on gender issues, to the real lives at the centres of them.

By law, victims of serious crimes are entitled to updates on their attackers. But our system is clunky, and antiquated, and for many survivors it’s only adding to their trauma. Kirsty Johnston reports.

When the man who raped Sara* was released from jail, she only found out by chance. The detective who investigated her case called out of courtesy to say he’d been paroled and would be let out in a few days time. It was two weeks before Christmas. Sara felt sick.

“I’d just got in control, just got happy and then, boom,” she says. “I was terrified. It was like, am I looking at that again? Is that my reality?”

Sara called the Parole Board straight away, to find out more information, and whether she could do anything about the conditions of the man’s release.

“There was nothing in place for my safety. I was saying ... do I need a protection order, what do I do to look after myself? I felt like I was starting a life sentence of my own,” she says.

“But the problem was I hadn’t signed a form to go on a register, so they said they couldn’t tell me.”

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The document Sara had failed to fill out was a Victims Notification Register form. She’d been emailed one to complete after the trial was over, but at the time she hadn’t known what it was for.

“When I looked at it, it just said ‘I am the victim of a rape’. Like, yeah, I’ve just been through a trial. So I mucked up, I didn’t do it.”

Without filling in the form, Sara wasn’t registered formally as a victim, meaning she wasn’t entitled to any information about her attacker – and she wasn’t contacted to give input about his release.

The only way to fix it, the Parole Board said, was to immediately complete the document and send it back. But Sara didn’t have a printer.

“So I actually went to Warehouse Stationery,” she says. “There was no easy way to do it, it was like ‘hey bro, can you just print this?

“Little things like that … it shouldn’t be so hard. It should be if you don’t want to be informed, opt out, but otherwise you should just automatically be part of the register.”

Sara told her story on ‘Tell Me About It’, a new podcast about gender issues, by Bird of Paradise and Stuff.
Ella Bates-Hermans/Stuff
Sara told her story on ‘Tell Me About It’, a new podcast about gender issues, by Bird of Paradise and Stuff.

Sara isn’t the first survivor of sexual violence to make this complaint. For years, in fact, ever since the Victims Notification Register was introduced in 1987, those it is supposed to help have been saying the system doesn’t work for them.

The provisions – brought in amid a raft of changes aimed to improve victim’s rights – required that victims of serious offences had to be asked by police whether they wished to be put on the register, so they could be notified of events such as the offender's release from prison. It was expanded in 1997 and 2002, and now also mandates providing information about parole hearings and temporary release. It is overseen by Corrections, and it has its own staff.

But the system doesn’t always work. In 2009, the Office of the Auditor General found that Corrections had released offenders without checking the proximity of their parole address to their victims’ homes, one of the required steps. They also failed to tell victims – or told them outside the mandated timeframe – when offenders breached parole.

And just last year, the Independent Police Conduct Authority upheld a complaint that a Victim Notification Register form was not completed for a sexual assault victim in Tasman.

“This came to light when the convicted offender was seen on the street after being released from prison,” the report said. The officer in charge had overlooked asking the victim about the form. They apologised, and police worked to change their case management at a national level as a result.

Most recently, the register was described in a report from the office of the Chief Victims Advisor about the Implementation of the Victims Rights Act 2002 as “disjointed and antiquated.”

Chief Victims Advisor to the Government, Dr Kim McGregor.
Chief Victims Advisor to the Government, Dr Kim McGregor.

“[It has] an inconsistent level of information available for victims depending on who is responsible for the [register] at any particular stage of the criminal justice process,” the report said. Because victims had to register, many were missing out on their right to information about their cases.

“Victims who are eligible should be registered by default and have to request that they be taken off the register if they do not wish to receive notifications,” the report said.

Those concerns, and others, have been raised repeatedly with agencies, including Corrections, the Ministry of Justice, and the police.

“Police acknowledge concerns around access to the Victim Notification Register and recognise the need to improve the process,” it said in a statement. “Police are looking to work alongside other justice sector colleagues on options to improve the process and ensure it best serves the needs of all victims.”

Chief Victims Advisor Kim McGregor said there was work underway to improve the system, including an app being piloted by Corrections that survivors could access themselves, or have a support person access, which she was hopeful about.

However, she acknowledged it had been a long time waiting for change.

“Every report says victims need more information, it’s a complex system, they need more support, they need help to navigate systems,” she said. “It is a really big complex system to fix but they must get started.”

In the meantime, survivors like Sara are stuck in a clunky, manual system that requires yet another step in a long process.

In her case, Sara was eventually able to give feedback to the Parole Board, and got a small result - her rapist isn’t allowed anywhere near her home.

But she feels if she’d known earlier, she might have been able to have more of an impact, and a better result.

“Everyone has a right to parole,” she says. “But the situation might have been different if I’d been able to put that in before.”

*Sara is a pseudonym. Survivors of sexual violence have automatic name suppression.