Week in Review

Victim of abuse compromised by privacy leak

A victim of domestic violence has had to find alternative accommodation after Oranga Tamariki breached her privacy for the second time in three years. Bonnie Sumner reports.

An Auckland woman was forced to look for alternative accommodation after Oranga Tamariki shared her confidential address with her abusive ex-husband. This is the second time they have breached the privacy of her family. In 2017, Oranga Tamariki (then Child, Youth and Family) sent the woman an apology letter after they accidentally shared the contact details of their children’s caregivers with her ex-husband. 

She was informed of the most recent breach in a phone call the day after it happened on June 21. Her ex-husband, who was released from prison earlier this year after being convicted of assaulting her, was erroneously sent a document with her address and the address of their children’s caregivers by an Oranga Tamariki employee. The woman’s three youngest children have lived with caregivers under the legal guardianship of Oranga Tamariki since 2016. She wants her children to be in care as she is scared for their safety if they live with her due to concerns about her ex-husband's behaviour and its impact on her mental health. 

She was so terrified her ex-husband would find her after the breach that she called Oranga Tamariki to ask for help to urgently find a new place to live. They suggested she get in touch with domestic violence charity Shine, which suggested she try the Ministry for Social Development, who then passed her back to Oranga Tamariki. 

Five days after the breach occurred, Oranga Tamariki finally moved her into emergency housing, telling her she had little more than two weeks to find new accommodation. This was extended to four weeks and then to August 18, almost eight weeks after she was moved into the emergency housing. Because she works full-time she has been looking for a new home outside of work hours. She tried calling letting agents to find a rental but says when they learned about her history, she says she was told her she wouldn’t be able to secure a property. 

Oranga Tamariki suggested an accommodation provider that houses recently-released prisoners. When the woman turned up to view the property at night, she says she was told by a resident the manager had locked himself in the office and had requested the resident show her around the complex. The woman told Oranga Tamariki she felt unsafe in the environment. She has been saving to have her car fixed so she can escape if she needs to.

The woman was contemplating leaving Auckland to live in her car when Newsroom contacted Oranga Tamariki to ask about the breach. The following day it offered to assist the woman into a new home by paying for her moving costs and visiting any suitable properties with her. 

Ruth Herbert, co-founder of The Backbone Collective, a charity that helps victims of abuse, says victims should not have to go public to get help. 

“Inherently a woman shouldn’t have to go to the media to get that sort of response and that sort of financial assistance to rectify the problem it created. I think that it should be her right.”

Herbert says situations like the woman’s are common.

“We must say we have had other cases like this. This is not a surprise to me. We have heard from a number of our members about exactly this sort of giving out of their confidential address. So this is not an isolated case. Failures of the system like this might seem very small individually to whichever staff member shared the address, for example, but the implications to the individual woman’s safety are huge.”

The woman’s ex-husband has been jailed three times in relation to the woman – twice for breaching a protection order and most recently for charges of breaching a protection order and assault with intent to injure, when he strangled, punched and beat her with the leg of a coffee table.

The woman told Newsroom she thought he would kill her, and fears for her life now he is out of jail. 

For some time after his release, the man was living with their adult daughter. Threatening text messages sent from their daughter’s phone to the woman’s new husband are not considered a breach of the protection order because they were not sent directly to the woman.

Dee Mcmanus-Emery, Oranga Tamariki’s regional manager for South Auckland, sent Newsroom a statement which says: “We are taking this situation very seriously, and our focus is on ensuring the right steps are being taken to keep the woman, children and caregivers safe.

"As soon as the privacy breach was confirmed, we took immediate action to find temporary accommodation for the mum, and we are now working on longer term options. Staff have been [in] regular contact with her to offer more support.

"We have apologised, and are addressing what happened with the staff member concerned. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner has been advised. We are looking at how the breach happened, and what we can do to stop it happening again.

"We have also advised the ex-husband, through his lawyer, that he needs to act responsibly after receiving the information in error. We are deeply concerned by what happened, and are taking all steps necessary to do what we can to put things right."

The letter says Oranga Tamariki contacted the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and is looking at how the breach happened.

This is a similar letter to the one sent to the woman after the first breach in 2017.

The woman and her ex-husband were together for 23 years, in which time she says he was abusive towards her and their children. 

Victim Notification, a service that alerts victims of domestic violence if the perpetrator is living or working nearby, contacted the woman in May to say he has been living within five kilometres of her home and/or work. However, Oranga Tamariki told the woman it had assurance from a lawyer that wasn't true. 

“I don’t know who to believe,” the woman says.

The woman is also worried for the safety of her employer if the man was to show up at her work.

She is still traumatised when describing the assault she suffered last year. 

“He’s beaten me badly over the years but he’s never strangled me. My neck was black from what he did to me. And it was long and it was ongoing. I didn’t know if I was going to get out of there. I’ve been concerned for my life since that assault. He is really angry. He had never said I will kill you but he did that night, he said ‘I will kill you'.”

His previous conviction for breach of protection order happened after the first time Oranga Tamariki shared the contact information of the children’s caregivers with him. He then used this information to contact the children’s caregivers and obtain a landline phone number for his ex-wife by professing concern at her mental health state. He proceeded to call her repeatedly before using the phone number to find the area she lived in.

After contacting all of the car mechanics within that zone, he eventually found the one who had serviced her car and convinced this mechanic to share the woman’s address. He turned up at her home. She hid inside while her flatmate repeatedly asked him to leave, before police showed up and arrested him.

She says she uses different techniques to avoid him finding her.

“Every time he’s breached the protection order, I’ve changed how I lived. I’ve moved into flatting situations, lived in a caravan for a while, got an apartment, so every time I move I do something different just so I have that anonymity, a change from where he knew I was previously.

“The court did a report on him in 2016 and in it they said he’s highly likely to [commit] murder suicide. But nobody takes that seriously.

"My biggest fear is that he’s going to know that I’m still scared and that’s going to give him power. I’ve just moved so often because of this. I’m tired. I’m just so tired.”

Backbone Collective's Herbert says this breach of confidentiality is a clear example of why women often don’t leave abusive relationships, and is calling for a robust complaints system to be set up to help those in abusive situations.

“There is nowhere for women to go when the system fails them. There's no process to actually make sure that doesn't happen again to another woman."

The woman’s ex-husband is attempting to gain custody of their two youngest children through the courts. She sees her children once every two months, and says they are thriving in care.

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