The Women Who Don't Want To Know About Their Partner's Violent Past

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell
Since 2014, anyone who believes they may be at risk of domestic violence can request access to their partner's criminal history by visiting a police station. Clare's Law, or the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (DVDS), was introduced in England and Wales after the death of 36-year-old Clare Wood, who was murdered in 2009 by a violent and obsessive ex-boyfriend with a history of violence against women. Wood's father said his daughter "didn't get the protection she needed" and that he would have stepped in if he'd known about her killer's past.
Despite this information being freely available to every adult in the UK, thousands of initial applications are never followed up. One reason for this, a former police officer told the BBC recently, is that women don't want to hear it.
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Steve Wouldhave said many women think it's no one else's business and accuse police of interfering. He said it annoyed him when people assume the police don't take potential victims seriously. Others, reportedly, don't want to engage with police or already know about their partner's violent past "but think it will be different for them," the BBC reported.
How Clare's Law works
There are two ways in which the information can be passed on: via a "right to ask" (whereby a partner, friend or family member can request information), and a "right to know" (through which the police have the option to proactively share the information with people they believe to be at risk).
The most recent official figures, compiled from police forces, show that no information was disclosed in more than 56% of "right to ask" cases and 43% of "right to know" cases. Hertfordshire Police revealed that in 63 of the 64 cases where they attempted to share information with a woman, they failed because "[she] would not engage or make contact with police, or they were already aware of the subject's previous history".
Wouldhave's claim that women don't want to hear it – implying that many are actively choosing to remain ignorant of crucial information affecting their safety – angered some on Twitter, who accused him of victim blaming and placing the onus disproportionately on the victim's actions rather than the perpetrator.
It's not as simple as saying women are purposely refusing to take in information that could save their lives – there are many reasons why they may decide not to engage with police, according to the specialists we spoke to. And it often depends on whether the woman herself has asked for the details of her partner's past or whether an interested party, a family member or friend, has done so.
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They are being 'lovebombed'
In the early phase of a dangerous or abusive relationship, there may be 'lovebombing'.
Professor Jane Callaghan, a psychologist and specialist in domestic violence from the University of Stirling, explains that lovebombing is "a form of grooming, creating dependency and building a sense of intense connection, that can later make it harder for the victim to leave the abusive relationship."
They're scared
Women may fear what would happen if their partner found out that they've been checking their history through the police. "Many women will be being closely monitored by their partners and some abusers even threaten to kill them if they speak to the police as part of a pattern of abuse," says Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid.
"When you are being controlled, isolated and intimidated by your partner and are living in constant fear of what they will do next, it’s no wonder that some survivors do not want to risk attending a meeting with police officers to discuss their partner’s history of abuse," adds Ghose. They may be particularly scared of being found out if there's nowhere for them to seek refuge in their area, as many vital support services have been decimated by huge government cuts.
Along with a fear of being caught "snooping", many fear that "going to the police for information will trigger suspicion and may result in police investigations," Callaghan explains. "This might seem risky to the relationship, and women might also worry about an escalation of violence if the abusive partner knows she has seen the police."
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Clare's Law is not without its flaws
Some believe Clare's Law is flawed and places too much culpability on women. "Relationships are complicated and the chances that one intervention will make major changes are debatable," says Professor Sandra Walklate from the University of Liverpool, who is an expert on domestic violence. "In my view, this law can potentially add to blaming the victim if they choose not to act on the information given, and as a consequence is hugely problematic."
The route to access the information is "certainly off-putting" for many women, Callaghan says. "Women often do not want to involve the police. Finding a way of making this data safely available without having to go through the police – for example, through a domestic abuse charity – would make it more likely that women would use the service."
Walklate also says she's not aware of any research into whether or not women wanted Clare's Law from the outset, or its effectiveness. "As far as I know no one asked women when this law was proposed if it was something that would work for them, and no one is currently asking those who get such information whether or not it is making any difference."
It's important that the mechanism remains in place, argues Callaghan. The ability to check if your partner has a history of abuse, "signals strongly that such records don’t disappear and that perpetrators can be traced."
Establishing a track record of abusive behaviour can also be useful in contact disputes involving children, or in managing other separation-related issues, she argues, so using Clare's Law "can lend credibility to women’s accounts – especially if they haven’t previously laid charges."
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.
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