Sex Offenders Register – a story from the Romanian Parliament

Somewhere in Romania, in a small town, a sports teacher raped three children. He was convicted, served his sentence. Four years later he was hired again as a sports teacher, halfway across Romania. There, he raped seven other children.

I had been in the Romanian Parliament for a year when I heard about this case. I was both shocked and outraged. At first, I thought it was a case of not implementing the law. Later on, I found out that such “notes” in the criminal record are erased quite quickly and that our country did not have proper instruments to monitor these cases. After a year in Parliament, I did not know all the laws. Nevertheless, I was convinced that, at a reoffending rate of 70%, Romania understood the seriousness of the problem and, at the very least, had a Sex Offenders Register. The conclusion was simple and appalling: we are blind to such cases. Blind and part of the problem.

I was faced with a truly hurtful reality: every day, our children are endangered. A convicted paedophile can walk around the country, after serving his sentence, he can be hired in schools and he can reoffend with ease. Seven out of ten cases reoffend. There are no psychological support programs in prisons. There are no support programs to facilitate reintegration into society. We were not tackling this issue in any way. We did not protect victims; we did not monitor criminals.

When I started looking into the problem, I discovered that the reality was even worse than I imagined it to be. At my official MP address, I was receiving emails from mothers who knew they had a convicted paedophile in their area and did not know what measures to take to better protect their children. I felt like screaming every time I read such a story. I knew it was my duty to solve this problem and I knew that if I could protect at least one child, I would have accomplished my mission. I was looking for solutions – can we intervene on an existing law or do we have to make a new one? I compared legislative solutions with those in other countries, EU members or not. I saw systems that had been implemented for years now, systems with higher minimum penalties, with automated national registers that monitored the situation. I had reluctantly come to the conclusion that we had to make a new law to create such a register. I say reluctantly, because a new law undergoes a more strenuous road through the parliamentary process than an amendment to an existing law.

However, I told myself: “A new law also means we can do something which works well from the start – it’s an opportunity”. I worked with my team to find the best option. Of course, in theory, we wanted it to be something public, transparent, something like the US system. In practice, however, it wasn’t only about what we wanted, but also about what we could do within our legislative and judiciary system. We are not the US. But we are EU citizens and we are moving towards a system that values and respects human rights. If France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Ireland could do it, so could we.

Our aim was to propose something functional as soon as possible. We faced resistance to change – the more we proposed a solution which challenged our administrative context, the more opposition we came across: “It can’t be done”; “We have no choice”; “The law doesn’t allow it, Mrs!”. We finally settled on a solution derived from the form of the criminal record system, which was already implemented in the Romanian Police. We wrote the proposal and collected over 120 signatures from my colleagues in Parliament. The situation was easy to explain: it was about so many lives being destroyed and what we could do to prevent such cases from happening again. The solution was harder to accept: there were reluctant voices saying that we could not do anything public, not even a database for the police, because it would violate the right to privacy and data protection. Fortunately, I found a solution that complied with the requirements of the European Union and did not violate these rights.

When submitting a proposal, I must identify the decisive moments, where the “actors” that can influence the adoption of a new law enter the “stage”. The first step was to obtain the Government`s point of view, represented by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. I had signals they would not support this proposal, that the people who had looked at my proposal were sceptical. Without their support, the project could go wrong. Many – too many – aspects of our daily lives depend on how well issues of importance are discussed and resolved between the Legislature and the Executive. And my mission was to find a solution that can be implemented as soon as possible. With each day that passed and each discussion that I had, the emails of the mothers who wrote to me weighed even heavier on my heart and mind. I wanted to get to that point where I would say, “Okay, I’ve taken a step forward, we have this register.” But there was plenty of fighting still to do.

Five hours, eight male leaders and experts from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and The General Inspectorate of Romanian Police, another parliamentary colleague and I, Oana Bizgan, the “independent who wants to make laws”. That’s what the decisive discussion looked like. Of course, it was neither the first nor the last, but it was the one that made all the difference. From the beginning, I realized that we are from different worlds: I was wondering where all the women were hiding, they were wondering what I was doing there. I learned a lot from those five hours. Fierce negotiations, ups and downs. Now, when I relive the memory, I liken it to a tennis match in which you fight for each point with every single drop of energy that you have. One moment I was convinced that the discussion had finished, that I had won, 15 minutes later, I was five steps behind where I had started. I was one, they were eight, with a lot of know-how and the desire not to make a wrong move. Five hours of negotiations, arguments and trying to find solutions. Throughout that meeting, I kept saying to myself: “Come on, Oana, get up, you can do it, you know what you’re fighting for.” I was getting used to being seen as the odd one out. In most discussions, people try to put me in a box. I think it’s easier for them to think in boxes. After realizing that I don’t fit in any of their boxes, two options remain: either they are with me or they are against me. Of course, for many of them the desire to put me in a box persists. What is certain is that after the five hours of negotiations, they were with me, not against me. From my perspective, things were crystal clear: I will pass this law, even if it means giving it all the energy I have.

I was glad to see that they were willing to work on the project over the summer. But the battle was not won and it was not the time for me to let my guard down. Throughout the entire summer of 2018, I worked on this project with an expert from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Side by side, we began to work in the same direction. It was during a parliamentary recess for me, and she was on holiday, but it mattered more to us to see the project finalised. We managed to introduce all the know-how of our colleagues from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and to lay the groundwork for a functional register, one which could be quickly implemented. A register containing the bio-genetic data of criminals, their home address, recent photos and so on. It was not the public record of the United States that I had dreamt of at the beginning of this journey. However, I was experiencing a new feeling, one which I can hardly describe – I had broken the wall. That wall we face every day – the “state”, the wall we always talk about in the “us versus them” discourse, now had a breach. It is a wall that has seen a lot so far – wars, communism, crises, different governments. Until then, I was under the impression that I could only work to go around it, but this time I had managed to get through it. If you manage to do this, in return you receive the information and experiences lived or seen by this wall. You don’t just take one step forward, you take ten at once.

We resubmitted all the changes we had worked on with the Ministry of Internal Affairs. That meant resuming discussions with my colleagues and explaining every change made to them. When I am on such “expeditions”, I don’t realise how much I am going through – mentally and physically. I don’t eat, I don’t breathe. But I know what I’m fighting for and that keeps me going. I knew inside that if I helped at least one child, nothing would be in vain. It was worth the work: I ran from the General Assembly to the Senate every day, from one colleague to another. I felt hopeless most of the time. Battles take place in commissions. And at the final vote. In fact, only when you see the promulgation decree can you breathe a sigh of relief.

In the Senate I had a positive report from the specialized commissions and an almost unanimous vote (one abstention). I protect my laws. I know it sounds possessive, but I always go to the commissions that give a report on the law I am proposing at that time. I go there with strong arguments and all the energy I have. I look at what other institutions or NGOs are invited and prepare answers for any view that might go against my proposal. I do this because I know that, by doing so, a positive report can more easily translate into a positive final vote. I don’t eat anything all day. I can only focus on one thing. When it comes to such an important law and when you know why you are fighting for it, you can’t afford to be multitasking. I can feel the stress in every part of my body, I sweat every drop of fear, and my stomach has to suffer. I only take a break when I see the final vote in the plenary. Not because I want to, but because I get to feel the feeling of exhaustion that I didn’t let myself feel when I was in the trenches.

I manage to motivate myself because I know why I do what I do. I manage to show courage in the face of adversity because I know the “Why?” and the “For whom?”. These battles can place a huge amount of pressure on my team. I have to motivate them when I’m in the trenches, sometimes without a trace of hope, but also show them that I’m human, that I’m not a robot. When I wait for a vote or a report, my team shields me. The sky could be falling, but at that moment I’m only focusing on the vote or report. When I go through hard times, the team goes through them too. But I’m grateful for the people I’m going into battle with. Sometimes the pressure is overwhelming, and I know we do everything humanly possible. It’s important to be my true self in front of the team – real and honest.

After the vote in the Senate, the law went to the General Assembly, where we resumed the process – commissions, notices and reports and then the final vote. Here we had the opportunity to make some changes related to the legislative procedures and correlations with other laws. As a new law, the process is much more rigorous than it is for an amendment, and you need other skills and know-how. We also resumed negotiations in the General Assembly. In general, I have several commissions that I encounter throughout my activity: Legal, Labour, Human Rights and Equal Opportunities, as well as Finance and Health from time to time. Here I also needed a notice from the IT Commission. When you think about the whole process, a notice seems a “piece of cake”, but it is anything but. I also had colleagues here who were opposed to the law, arguing against adding “an extra piece of paper”. It is difficult to convince a world that is tired of bureaucracy that an “extra paper” can save the lives of thousands of children. However, eventually I obtained a notice and arrived with the proposal at the commission that had to give it a positive report so that it would go to the final vote – Legal. At a time when the laws of justice were being slaughtered, any change in the judiciary system represented a danger, for several reasons: the reluctance of members of Parliament, the coverage of the media, the perception of people who were fed up with this subject.

One month after receiving that positive report, I managed to put the draft law on the General Assembly`s agenda. After more than a year and a half of effort, the new law had a chance to be voted on. When it comes to an organic law, the emotions felt are even greater – such laws are voted with a parliamentary majority, not the majority of those present, so I needed presence as well as support. I succeeded in getting the required number in the hall. We had a debate, then a final vote. In such moments it is all the more important to know that I can rely on my team. With all the emotions involved, everything has to go smoothly. I called on the last drop of energy I had to be able to go talk in the stands and then with the press. But the rest must go smoothly without my intervention – the press releases, statements, information everywhere. Misinformation can mean revolt on social media and more – I can lose the trust I have built with my colleagues in Parliament, with institutions, NGOs, people. I can’t afford to give the remaining energy for momentary checks. That’s why my team is behind me, so that I can perform well and so that they can ensure the message reaches everyone correctly.

The law passed with 216 votes in favour and one abstention. After one and a half years it was over! I knew that my team was watching the meeting online, and that afterwards they would communicate the news through all channels. Messages started to come in from journalists, NGOs, mothers, colleagues, everyone. I couldn’t focus on that, though. I knew that as soon as I finished my speech to the press in the Parliament, I would collapse, but I still had work to do. I took a deep breath and paused for a moment. I wanted to scream with happiness, and I knew that I had a big smile on my face, but with my last drop of energy I had one more thing to do: to say thank you. I went to the stands and gave my thanks, because I knew that behind this project there were specialists who made this happen. There were politicians whose trust I won. There were people who tried to put me in a box and failed. It had never been more important for me to thank these people. They made a difference. Both for the project, and for the change they made in me. This is how I understood that, for me, politics is not a self-interest driven repulsive game. You can be honest with yourself and others in politics, you can love what you do. But you need resilience. You need energy to knock on the wall whenever it is needed. It is normal to be vulnerable, to put your heart and soul into these projects. But I always knew that this was how I would expose myself to attacks, jokes, tricks, rumours and gossip. It is important for me to stay upright in any storm. That’s why I trust that you can only succeed if you work with both your mind and your heart.

Passed. We all thought we could relax and take a well-deserved break. The parliamentary recess for me and my team is rarely a holiday – we often work remotely to ensure my parliamentary office stays open. The last months of the parliamentary session had been a continuous struggle filled with pressure and emotions, so we allowed ourselves to let our guard down for a few moments. However, the press and some NGOs had other ideas. Shock horror: “MP Bîzgan and her creative mind”, “Parliamentarians demand a rapist certificate at employment”, “If you watched porn, you can no longer work”. The law had been enacted, and an article from the mainstream media was causing a stir among the people because an “extra paper” was needed. The law specifies an extremely important aspect, in addition to the register itself: those who work or want to work in areas where they might interact with vulnerable people – for instance, schools, kindergartens, educational centres – must present an extract from this register. As long as the register is functional and automated, this means that any citizen can go to any police station and can get a free extract from this register. This is because the register is not public for companies, but the person in question decides to take out an extract and present it for employment. The issue of confidentiality was solved by a simple principle: individual responsibility.

The contempt for bureaucracy was placed above the lives of some children. My team and I abandoned our holiday and regrouped. I dismantled all the myths and untruths in the article. I talked to all the organizations that were afraid that they had to deal with this “extra paper”. We insisted that institutions communicate that requests can be made, with the agreement of the parties, for all the extracts to be sent at the same time to all employees. In all the fuss since then, I have received hundreds of messages of hatred, but also of encouragement. I was contacted by NGOs who congratulated me for bringing a useful system to fruition, which was already successfully implemented in other countries. I gave interviews and explained the way the system worked as many times it was necessary for me to do so.

It’s frustrating to see that, after so many fights with the wall, distrust comes from places where you least expect it. But my main weapons all this time were confidence and lack of prejudice. I don’t want to be put in any box and refuse to put others into one either. I knew that the NGOs and specialists who were against this law had good intentions, but they lived, like me, in a country where the bureaucracy is exhausting. However, in the same country there are over 50,000 sexual offenders. Seven out of ten re-offend. It was important for me to build trust bridges with these people. It is normal to be reluctant and not agree on certain issues. But my mission here is to save these lives, and to build something that can be improved upon in the future. For me, the lives of these children cannot wait for the digitization of Romania.

When everything is clear in your mind, there could be a storm outside, and it makes no difference. When you know why you do what you do, no one can stop you. When you show that you are human and not a robot, your team is by your side. When your mind and heart show you the right way, the wall breaks. I love what I do. And I will not give up, no matter how tall the wall might be.