Police have ruined my life, says woman living in witness protection
Rare testimony raises questions over secretive system's standard of care for innocent people'Rachel' says she exists in an 'alien wilderness', unable to form friendships because she cannot be honest about her life.Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian
A single mother who has lived under witness protection for nearly 20 years after giving evidence about a gang-related murder has accused the police of ruining her life and leaving her feeling "degraded and dehumanised". The woman lives under a false identity after being warned she was in danger because her family were witnesses in the killing. But she claims the police wrenched her from her life without her consent and left her without treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder caused by her experience.
The UK Protected Persons Service has handled several thousand protected people in the time Rachel - neither her real name nor her assumed name - has been living in multiple locations, hundreds of miles from home. It claims it helps "rebuild lives in the new area". But her testimony, given to the Guardian for the first time, will raise questions over the standards of care for people who have committed no crime in a system that is necessarily secretive and lacks transparency.
Rachel said she was speaking out because she feared other people in witness protection may be suffering a similar ordeal in silence and the government should urgently reform the way the system operates. Like many people in witness protection she was not involved in crime herself but was caught up because of where she was living. She claims the information she gave the court over the killing was "meagre" and did not justify what she described as "a total annihilation of my life".
"Criminals went down for this and they served their time and they are now walking around," she said. "I am still in prison. I would like the police and witness protection service to take some responsibility for their actions. Over the years I have tried to obtain the truth but I have been obstructed and stonewalled.
I have felt bullied, intimidated and shamed." She said she now exists in "an alien wilderness", unable to form friendships because she cannot be honest about her life. She has told her GP but said he had no idea what to do.
She cannot even tell organisations such as the Samaritans or Victim Support that she is in witness protection because she still feels her life and that of her son are in danger if she is identified. The UK Protected Persons Service says it is "committed to treating people fairly, honestly and professionally" and operates "only with the full cooperation of those for whom we have responsibility". "This is one of the most discreet aspects of work done by the NCA and wider law enforcement," a spokesperson said. "The success of the programme depends upon it.
While there is no getting away from the fact that being subject to protection arrangements does have an impact, there are many people who are now quietly getting on with their lives and have been protected and supported by the police and NCA."
'We had 30 minutes to gather our possessions'
Rachel claims her alleged mistreatment has been enabled by the secrecy and lack of transparency that surrounds the witness protection programme. When the crime that started her ordeal took place, she was leading a busy life. She had an infant son and had been planning to train as a midwife.
She had worked at the city council and at the BBC and, while she lived in a tough area, she had a wide group of friends in other parts of the city. They went to concerts and staged their own theatrical pieces in local venues. When a close relative became a key police witness after a killing, her life was changed forever.
She went with her son and mother to the police station to inquire about her relative who had been arrested. "An officer took us to a tiny room and then dropped the bombshell that we were in danger," she said. "There had been no prior warning of what was about to happen. Me and my mother went into shock.
My son was in his pushchair and we just had the clothes on our backs." They were taken to a bed and breakfast somewhere unidentifiable on the edge of the city for a few nights and then placed in a budget hotel, under the surveillance of plain-clothes police. "There was no defining moment when we went into witness protection.
We slid into it. They are supposed to offer you options, but they didn't spell anything out." One day, the police officers escorted her back to her home and gave her 30 minutes to gather some possessions.
It was the last time she would see the house. We were cut off from our lives from there on in," she said. "It was like being thrown into a war-zone situation. You didn't know what to do and there was no way to challenge it as I was in a state of shock."
She broke down repeatedly and in the months to come she and the other members of her family started drinking heavily as a coping mechanism. "We were driven in a white minivan around what felt like the whole of England," she said. "We had three safe houses in strange parts of the country." The first was an isolated detached house along a country lane in Shropshire.
It was not clear whose house it was. "They put me with the cows and the sheep and where the pheasants were," she said. "The cows were mooing at night and sounded like they were in pain."
They were given a daily allowance to pay for essentials as their old identities vanished. "For a while we didn't exist.
They get rid of your paperwork. They get rid of everything. At that point you could die and nobody would know.
We were completely overtaken by the fear and isolation." Back at home, her friends were intensely worried. "All of a sudden she disappeared," recalled one of only two people from her previous life with whom she maintained sporadic contact. They watched as Rachel's house was taken over by new tenants within months.
She managed to call a friend and say "she had to go", but was unable to explain more.
'When your life is dead, where do you go for help?'
Three months into the ordeal, the family were in a safe house in the Welsh borders when their witness protection officers threw a tatty map at them and said "choose a place to live". "I remember the map was from Lidl; they were so flippant," said Rachel. "How do you choose a place to live? There was no advice.
The officers are formal and don't see you as a human being." When they could not decide, they were taken 100 miles away and placed in two neighbouring terraced houses. "I shut the door and crumpled on the floor," Rachel said. "We had started drinking wine as a coping mechanism, first in the evenings and then in the daytime.
My child slept in my bed because I was afraid someone would come in and kill him to get at me. To this day I worry about him." It was here that she was given her new name - chosen by her mother and the relative who was the key witness.
She did not like it much but accepted it as she felt overwhelmed by events. Her mother, who was just as isolated, struggled with mental health problems that pre-dated the crime. Rachel found herself the only person her mother could rely on, which was doubly hard because they had a strained and difficult relationship.
Attempts to behave normally again in society proved impossible. "I went to have drinks and see live bands and meet normal human beings. But I would come home and collapse," Rachel said. After two years and feeling very low, she requested they move, which she said officers made her justify in a "stressful and formal" meeting at a hotel.
The problems remained as her son started school in their new location. "They were supposed to give us a back story and they gave us nothing," she said. "I am talking to mothers and parents superficially but I can't tell them anything about my life." The advice she was getting to help her through her mental health problems was to talk more, but at the same time she was told to reveal nothing about her status.
In 2005, she got a job, but struggled. She was assigned counsellors at work, but could not tell them that the root of her problem was being in witness protection. She took voluntary redundancy and in 2011, after multiple breakdowns, asked the witness protection service to help.
"I was unable to articulate it but I was suffering grief and loss," she said. "But when it is not somebody who is dead, but your own life that is dead, where do you go for help?" Nothing was forthcoming and now she is so angry at the way her life has been changed that she is speaking out. She said everything was made much worse when she was exposed to multiple dangerous defendants in a harrowing court case.
This, she believes, has cemented her fate. "I feel like a fraud every day," she said. "My name is not my name. I cannot tell anybody.
I have nothing to fall back on.
I live in shock."