Getting info on a partner's criminal history still too hard in Alberta, women's advocates say
‘The system is broken. This is why women die,’ says domestic violence survivor who tried to use Clare's Law
WARNING: This article contains details of abuse.
Last year, Alberta was the second province to enact a law meant to curb domestic abuse by allowing people to file applications for information about their intimate partner.
But a number of hurdles — including waiting weeks for information, relying on police as gatekeepers and having to sign confidentiality agreements — are discouraging many Albertans from doing so.
Clare's Law, which allows people worried for their safety to discreetly ask for information about their partners' history, was enacted on April 1, 2021. Since enacting the law, the Alberta government has received on average more than one request per day.
Alberta Council of Women's Shelters (ACWS) executive director Jan Reimer says it is still too difficult for people at risk of domestic violence to get access to their partners' criminal records — even though it's supposed to be public information.
"It's always up to the woman to keep herself safe," Reimer said. "And we really have not had large success in systems keeping women safe. [The systems] seem to be more often siding with the perpetrator, in protecting his privacy."
Advocates who helped craft Clare's Law in Alberta insist it is helping, as it connects more women with counsellors, shelters and other supports they wouldn't have sought on their own.
Clare's Law originated in the U.K. in 2014 and is named for Clare Wood, a woman killed by her ex-boyfriend. She was unaware of his violent past.
Alberta and Saskatchewan were the first places to introduce it in Canada, and other provinces and territories are watching how it develops.
Newfoundland and Labrador passed a similar law in 2019, but has not yet enacted it. Manitoba's government has promised to introduce one, while legislators in Ontario and B.C. tried, and failed, to introduce iterations of Clare's Law through private members' bills.
- Albertans can check intimate partners' domestic violence records starting Thursday under Clare's Law
At least four out of every 10 Canadian women say they've been abused by an intimate partner, according to the federal government. Although anyone can experience domestic violence, nearly 80 per cent of people who reported it to police in 2019 were women.
Woman abandons application after hitting hurdles
Alberta government leaders have said they believe Clare's Law will save lives and reduce rates of domestic violence in the province.
But one Edmonton woman who survived two horrific attacks from her former partner says politicians have oversold its usefulness.
Her experience last year in trying to get information about her assailant's past exemplifies the limitations of the law that some advocates had warned would be problematic.
Sarah met a man in April 2021 who came to her housewarming event in Edmonton. (CBC is using a pseudonym because her identity is subject to a court-ordered publication ban.)
Sarah says her partner evolved from being sweet to controlling, becoming enraged over misunderstandings, confining her to her room and taking away her phone and her clothes.
In June 2021, he became angry over an old text message he found on her phone, and attacked her, hauling her out of bed by her hair and whipping her with an electrical cable. She ended up with a skull fracture, two broken ribs and a tear in her genitals.
"My whole body was just a bruise," she said.
Sarah was able to get help when a census taker later knocked on the door, saw her injuries and called an ambulance.
CBC obtained documents detailing her ex-boyfriend's court history. In relation to the June attack, Sarah's partner was charged with unlawful confinement, theft under $500, assault causing bodily harm, intimidation and assault with a weapon.
About a month after the assault, Sarah decided to file an application for information through Clare's Law.
In Alberta, most Clare's Law applications go through an online form on the provincial government website. But because her devices were damaged, Sarah couldn't make the online form work, so she got a printed copy and took it to an Edmonton police information centre.
When Sarah arrived at the office in northwest Edmonton, she says the clerk told her she'd have to pay a $25 fee. That was an error — applications are supposed to be free. Sarah didn't have much money.
The clerk said it would take at least four weeks to get the information. When she asked what information she would get, the clerk said she would have to meet a police officer in a private room. They would provide a verbal risk assessment — nothing on paper.
"So what is the point of this?" Sarah said. "I walked out because… I was just so frigging stunned by all of this."
The court documents CBC obtained show her ex-boyfriend has an extensive list of convictions for theft, weapons possession, assault, threats and breaching probation.
It includes incidents in 2015, 2018, and 2019 when he assaulted, confined, threatened and intimidated women.
Limited information available through law
In making a Clare's Law application, a person must prove they are in an intimate relationship with the individual in question, and not simply trying to dig up dirt for other purposes.
There is no guarantee of receiving information through an application.
Between April 1, 2021 and Jan. 18, 2022, Alberta received 372 Clare's Law information applications, according to Justin Marshall, press secretary to the minister of Community and Social Services. Of those applications, information was given to 159 people, or 42 per cent.
Four days after CBC News requested the information, the Saskatchewan government said on Friday it didn't know how many people had made Clare's Law applications and referred questions to the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police.
On Monday, the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police said it didn't have that information, and directed questions to individual police services.
The Alberta Integrated Threat and Risk Assessment Centre (ITRAC) examines police and court records when someone applies for information in that province. ITRAC decides if the person is at high, medium or low risk of perpetrating domestic violence — or if they lack enough information to determine the risk.
A local police service receives the information and is tasked with relaying it, verbally, to the applicant. If ITRAC says the partner is a medium or high risk, the applicant must meet an officer in person. They must sign a confidentiality agreement to hear it.
Justice minister press secretary Marshall says they don't hand over the specifics of criminal records.
"Disclosure information varies on a case-by-case basis, but can include and not be limited to information with respect to recentness, frequency and severity of previous acts of domestic violence or related acts by the person of disclosure," Marshall said in an email.
He says the four-week average timeline for applicants to receive the information is consistent with other places that have such a law.
He said "efficiencies are always being considered" to reduce the turnaround time.
Marshall also said that while the government recognizes not everyone has internet access, putting the form online allows people to apply more discreetly, and removes the need to go in person to a police station, as applicants must do in Saskatchewan.
'This is why women die,' survivor says
In the summer of 2021, Sarah's ex-boyfriend was released on bail, charged in connection with the armed robbery of a grocery store, and released on bail again.
No one told her he was out.
She said on Sept. 23, he showed up at her door, unannounced. He attacked her again, smashing her skull with a metal water bottle, and sending her to hospital.
Court records show he was charged with housebreaking to commit assault, assault with a weapon, two counts of choking, sexual assault and assault causing bodily harm. He took a plea bargain, admitting guilt to housebreaking to commit assault and is awaiting sentencing.
Sarah says she is pregnant with his child.
She is unconvinced that if she had gone through with a Clare's Law application, she would have received the information in time. Sarah is worried her ex will find another victim.
"This system is broken. This is why women die," she said.
Reimer, with the council of women's shelters, raised concerns about the Alberta process before the law took effect.
Meeting with police to get the information is of particular concern for people in marginalized groups, including Black and Indigenous people and newcomers, she said.
Getting the information doesn't necessarily make people safer, Reimer says. What potential victims need is help making a safety plan.
Where Clare's Law works
The power of Clare's Law lies in its ability to get more people help, says Carrie McManus, director of innovation and programs at an Alberta agency called Sagesse, which works to eradicate domestic abuse.
The Clare's Law application form asks if the person would like a referral for help. If they say yes, those referrals go to Sagesse, which will contact the person within 72 hours, McManus said.
Offers of help continue as a person goes through the process, according to the government. Nearly 60 per cent of applicants accept the offer.
McManus says many people accept offers of help once they get troubling information about their partner's past.
"Clients are saying things like, 'I didn't know this existed. I didn't know you were here. I never would have called you myself,'" she said.
Although the wait for information can be long, McManus said applicants can get help right away, before they learn about the potential risk to their safety.
Acknowledging law's shortcomings
Lisa Watson, director of Odyssey House in Grande Prairie, says her organization remains optimistic about the potential of Clare's Law to get people to safety.
Odyssey House runs an emergency shelter for women and children, an apartment building for people fleeing violence, two child care centres and outreach services.
Since last April, staff have helped a handful of women complete Clare's Law applications and others looking for options after they received troubling information through the law.
"Clare's Law isn't meant to be the be-all and end-all of ending the current relationship," Watson said.
"It provides one more avenue or one more resource for individuals in intimate-partner relationships to be able to identify potentially abusive situations ... or maybe give them one more bit of reasoning to be able to leave an abusive relationship."
Support is available for anyone who has been assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you're in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.