SOMEWHERE in Britain is a woman and her five-year-old child who have committed no crime but whose isolation is nearly complete. They are healthy; they are not living in poverty. And yet the constriction of their life together is almost unimaginable. They see no family or friends. If the mother glimpses a known face on the street, she must duck away. No action can be undertaken casually - not a phone call, not the drawing of the curtains in the morning. Inside her home her fears are wakened by each knock on the door, each wrong number on the line. Outside, nothing - not a parked van, a policeman in uniform, a stranger leaning on a railing - can be taken at face value. The strain of such an existence never slackens.

Earlier this year the father of the child was released from prison after serving 18 months of his four-year sentence for the child's abduction and the mother's false imprisonment. His new address was within a mile of their home. The mother received no warning. The first she knew of it was when a journalist who had come across the fact phoned her solicitor. 'That moment when he was let out of prison,' she says, 'was when I became a prisoner instead.' Within hours the mother - we will call her Elizabeth, which is not her name, since neither she nor her child can be legally identified - had given up her job, left her home and gone into hiding with her child.

Elizabeth's situation is not unique. Organisations that deal with the victims of crimes in which the criminal has a specific, rather than a random, victim - in abduction, assaults on partners, some rapes, some child sex-abuse cases - say it is not even unusual. 'The criminal justice system doesn't seem to have regard for the rights of a victim,' says Elizabeth, a well-spoken polytechnic graduate who has worked as a researcher. 'Why was I not warned of his release? Why was there no indication that the Parole Board was about to consider releasing him?'

Though she can go out at will, her life now is in some ways more lonely than a prisoner's. At least in a jail friends and family can visit. 'I have said goodbye to all my friends and family,' she says, just holding back her tears. 'The minute I heard he had been released, I had to phone them and say: 'He's out. I can't see you again'.' She is afraid he might follow them and find her.

It may be that her former lover, having served time, will not try to abduct his child or imprison Elizabeth again. She is too terrified to take that risk, for herself or her child. What happened was too serious for her to take any chances.

Two years ago Elizabeth was living in London with her child, who was then three. Her relationship with the child's father had broken up. Fears for her child's safety led Elizabeth voluntarily to make the child a ward of court. 'That was the only decision I made about my child,' she says. 'Every other one was made by judges.' The proceedings of the various wardship cases and the evidence given in them cannot, by law, be reported.

By 1991 Elizabeth was already living in fear. Her fear was increased by the fact that he was a highly intelligent, plausible man with a doctorate. And he could hardly have been better placed either to win the confidence of contacts who could lead him to secret information, or to seek it out himself. One of the few pieces of bitter comedy in Elizabeth's story is that, at the time of the abduction, the father was in social work.

Elizabeth moved house, moved jobs, changed her car, went ex-directory. It was a routine that was to become over-familiar: she has relocated her life four times in three years. But after that first time, she began to relax. It was the first day of summer: a woman friend came over with a bottle of champagne to celebrate. 'We'd had a lovely evening,' says Elizabeth. As she began to fall asleep, at around 12.30pm, the doorbell rang. On her doorstep stood a uniformed policewoman. 'We have a warrant to search the premises for drugs,' she said. Elizabeth was not particularly surprised. Since she had left her lover a string of allegations had been made to a variety of authorities, accusing her of sexual and physical abuse, of drug possession, of being in every way an unfit mother. They had all been investigated and dismissed.

'I said search the flat, no problem,' she says. She went to put some day clothes on. The policewoman followed her to her bedroom. In the background she was dimly aware of another officer. 'And then she pulled my hands behind my back and handcuffed me.' Elizabeth wondered whether she should wake her child, sleeping in another room. 'Then,' she says, 'she pushed me on to the bed. And I clocked what was going on. This is it, I thought.'

Terrified for herself, and even more for her child, Elizabeth found her feet handcuffed and tied to her hands, so that her back was painfully arched. Three gags were placed on and in her mouth, one of them covering her nose. Rope was tied around her. As she lay helpless, she heard a voice she recognised. It was the child's father. He sat down, and began to talk at her. 'He said, 'Do you mind if I take one of your cigarettes?' as if it was a normal social situation.' He sat there for two or three hours, talking. At one point he asked if she loved him. 'I was convinced he was going to kill me,' she says. 'I was worried for my child, too.' But she knew she had to keep calm. Eventually he retied the gags he had loosened so that she could reply. He left all the bonds tightly in place. She heard the front door slam and a car drive off.

Elizabeth fought to stay calm. 'I couldn't breathe properly,' she says. 'I knew if I panicked I might suffocate.' She managed, by moving her jaw, eventually to shift the gags down, not completely, but so that she could make some sort of noise. The handcuff on one foot was tightening as she struggled so that the foot was turning blue. She managed to get one foot free, then moved the curtain at the window, hoping someone might see. How long would it last? She knew it could be 24 hours before someone realised she was missing. But Elizabeth was lucky. At 7.30, when the street was quiet, a neighbour heard her muffled cries, and shouted through the letter box. She managed to reply. The police came. She was free. Her child was gone. How had he tracked her down? She is still not sure. But both the careful planning and the intelligence of the operation are not unusual.

Sandra Horley, of Women's Aid Ltd in Chiswick, west London, says that there are repeated calls on her organisation's lines, plausible liars trying to track down ex-partners. 'They sometimes manage to get hold of social security information to find addresses,' she says. Patricia Newton was tracked to a hidden refuge in Doncaster by her husband, Alan, in 1991. A friend of a friend, a British Telecom engineer, gave him the ex-directory listing. Newton broke into the refuge, found her in an attic and stabbed her to death. In 1985 Balwant Kaur's husband is thought to have followed his children from their school to a secret refuge in west London. He returned later and killed her. Not all violent men, says Women's Aid, are so persistent. Many are deterred by police action. But some women are forced to live secret lives, moving around the refuge network. A spokesman for Reunite National Council for Abducted Children says it knows of families forced to change identities.

Elizabeth is afraid that in her case her friends may have been followed till they led him to her. But at the time, how he found her was less important than it is now. She was busy searching for her child.

In the end Elizabeth was lucky. Six weeks later the FBI found her child with the father in America, after a school officer became suspicious of him. From then on he was in custody. For the first time for many months Elizabeth was able to relax a little. She needed that reassurance. Her child was traumatised, particularly at night, waking with nightmares, screaming for the mother who had once vanished. But it was a short break. The four-year sentence the father was given when he pleaded guilty to false imprisonment and abduction seemed short to her. 'At the trial I felt as though I didn't have any representation,' she says. 'The Crown Prosecution Service works for the Crown, not the victim.'

The woman who had impersonated a police officer in the abduction was found and later sentenced but the man believed to have helped the father has never been traced.

The charity Victims Support says lack of notice about an early parole hearing or a prisoner's release is quite usual. In its experience, in most cases of serious crime, victims are given no warning of imminent release although sometimes informal warnings are made. 'Where a woman has been the object of violence there is rarely a long sentence,' says Alex McDonnell, co-ordinator for Gateshead Victims Support. 'There is no obligation to inform her that her aggressor is coming out of prison.'

Victims Support has successfully campaigned so that victims or their families are now told of a prisoner's release in cases where a life sentence has been given. In practice, life sentences are rare except for murder, some cases of manslaughter and, very occasionally, rape.

Elizabeth's case shows how frighteningly the system can fail. John Major's 'Victim's Charter' advises that victims who fear that a released offender will be a threat should contact the police. But Elizabeth's case was well known to the police and even the unit dealing with it was unaware that the abductor had been released. Victims Support believes that in cases such as hers, a specific right to due warning is needed.

'A lot of people feel very frightened,' said a spokeswoman for the charity, 'particularly in cases of manslaughter, rape and child abuse. Some may have given witness in court. We would like the victims of all violent and serious crimes to be asked at the end of a trial if they wish to be notified in advance of a prisoner's eventual release.'

Elizabeth was fortunate her former lover was not given bail. A spokeswoman for Women Against Rape detailed a case in which a rapist who was later convicted was released on bail. His victim was not warned. It was only by luck she was not in the house when he broke in. Nor are victims warned of weekend release. The lack of information is widespread, says the spokeswoman. 'Sometimes the first time a woman knows her rapist has been released is when she sees him on the street.' It is not unusual for rapists to threaten victims that they will come back and kill them if they tell.

A spokesman for the prison department told the Independent that victims can write direct to the Home Office parole unit if they have fears relating to a prisoner's release, or to the chair of the Parole Board, and that letters would be considered when the prisoners come up for release. Victims Support says this is the first time its policy officer had been told this: it is not mentioned in the 'Victim's Charter'.

Elizabeth has nothing but praise for the police, who have, she says, done all they can. She believes it is the system that has failed her. There are a host of worries ahead: will it be safe to send her child to school? Can she take the risk of being found if she takes another job? How can she support herself otherwise? 'My isolation,' she says, her hand shaking as she lights another cigarette, 'may be a life sentence.'