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the right to know: can knowledge of past violence be lifesaving?

Image: Concha García Hernández

Image: Concha García Hernández

In the United Kingdom, an innovative pilot program giving women the “right to know” about their partner’s past history of violence has been operational for over six months now. The Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (so far limited to only four pilot locations) enables men and women to ask police if their partner has a history of violence. If the search shows that a person could be at risk, the police can disclose information to better inform women (crime statistics consistently demonstrate family violence is overwhelming committed by men, against women) about the risk. Even friends or family members worried about their loved ones can apply for information if they have a reasonable fear that their loved one may be at risk.

The introduction of the pilot scheme (also known as “Clare’s Law”) followed a tragic intimate partner homicide in the UK and a subsequent Coroner’s report recommendation that ‘subject to appropriate risk assessment and safeguard…consideration should be given to the disclosure of [relevant] convictions and their circumstances to potential victims in order that they can make informed choices.’

Clare Wood, a 36-year-old mother from Greater Manchester, met her boyfriend on the internet. She was later strangled and set on fire after they split. Clare knew very little about her partner’s past and was unaware that her partner had three previous convictions under the UK’s Protection from Harassment Act 1997, an Act dealing with harassment or stalking-type behaviours. Stalking by current and ex-partners (tracking your phone calls/SMSs/emails, contacting you repeatedly) is one of the first indicators of violent tendencies, with Victoria’s Domestic Violence Resource Centre rating stalking as one of the primary risk factors for domestic violence that can lead to homicide.

Some victims and victims’ advocates are already hailing the scheme a success and are calling for the pilot to be extended across all UK areas. Some women who have utilised the scheme have explained that early signs or instances of violence – and even behaviour that just made them nervous and unsure – prompted them to contact police and enquire about their partner’s past. For some women, learning about past cases of violence empowered them to leave the relationship then and there, rather than allowing them to think they were ‘paranoid’, that the violence was a ‘one-off’ or otherwise excusing the actions of their partner. It was clear that for some women, knowledge of a predisposition to violence enabled them to cut ties with a partner in the early stages of the relationship, possibly before lives become further intertwined and relationships more intense and complex.

In Australia, one in three Australian women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15 and this violence is overwhelmingly experienced in the home: only one in five incidents are perpetrated by a stranger. What if women in Australia also had the right to know about their partners’ past? Could family violence dramatically decline?

Writer Clementine Ford has recently highlighted the cruel absurdity of a world “shocked” by Ariel Castro’s kidnapping and torture of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight in Cleveland, Ohio, despite the fact that these incidents were not an anomaly in Castro’s life. Prior to the shocking abuse perpetrated against these three women, Castro executed a similar campaign of violence against his wife, Grimilda Figueroa, who was often trapped inside her own home, placed in a wooden box for punishment, suffered horrific injuries as a result of violent assaults inflicted by Castro (including dislocation of shoulders and a fractured skull) and even after escaping the violence, continued to be harassed, stalked and threatened by Castro.

Ariel Castro is a violent man and his history of violence was illustrative of the power he sought to have over women in his life. If we slightly altered history a little and imagined that Berry, DeJesus and Knight weren’t kidnapped by Castro, but instead were older women who had been approached by Castro in a bar, on the internet, at a BBQ, or in a café – what would a right to know law mean for Castro’s potential partners? Because as Clementine Ford has so eloquently explained, although the way in which Berry, DeJesus and Knight came to be held against their will by Castro differed to many victims of family violence, the violence and entrapment inflicted is not dissimilar to the physical, financial or psychological entrapment experienced by victims of family violence every day. It too is frighteningly hidden from view.

Despite its apparent success, even at such an early stage, critics of Clare’s Law remain. There are concerns the scheme is based on a flawed assumption that women will “just leave” if they discover a past history of violence. It can also be argued that the scheme focuses too heavily on placing the onus on women to proactively seek information. Taken further, could it become commonplace for women to be blamed for not undertaking background checks on their prospective partners, just like women are told not “contribute” to violent street attacks by staying behind closed doors after dark and sipping hot chocolate?  And what about the fact that the risk of experiencing family violence can be exacerbated by separation – a separation that may be founded on the disclosure of past violence?

Perhaps it’s too early to judge Clare’s Law a success. But when we consider that violent relationships are characterised by a perpetrator looking to control, dominate and exert power, I can’t think of a more appropriate time to whip out the old cliché: knowledge is power.

What are your thoughts on Clare’s Law?

One thought on “the right to know: can knowledge of past violence be lifesaving?

  1. Excellent Law, still needs some fleshing out to explore all risk and consequences .
    I have been in the counselling and trauma business over 35 years and we have very similar stories here in Australia.
    While we worked at The Royal Adelaide Hospital for 24 years, we found Gavin De Becker’s book “”GIFT OF FEAR, very helpful in encouraging women to trust their ”INTUITION” We also ran groups and educational programs for women as identified as at risk.

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