When Cassie asked the police if her menacing husband had been violent to other women, they said no… in fact he had SEVEN convictions – and too many other potential victims of dangerous men are being let down just like her

Late last year, Cassie, 42, decided to do something she now realises she should have done years ago. She ­submitted a Clare’s Law request to Thames Valley Police, asking whether her husband, David, 48, had any previous convictions, or complaints against him, for domestic violence.

Next month marks ten years since Clare’s Law was rolled out across police forces in England and Wales. Named after Clare Wood — who was brutally murdered in 2009 by her ex-boyfriend George Appleton, a man who, unbeknown to her, had served three prison ­sentences for ­terrorising women — the law is officially called the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (DVDS) and allows police to reveal normally ­confidential ­information about someone’s criminal history to a person at risk of harm.

Vulnerable Terri Harris and her children were murdered by her partner Damien Bendall

Vulnerable Terri Harris and her children were murdered by her partner Damien Bendall

Year on year, the number of applications has risen as more women — and it is mostly women — use the power it grants to ask whether partners have a ­violent past. In 2016-17, police made 3,410 disclosures, increasing to 13,442 in 2020-21, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Yet, as Cassie discovered, not all police forces are implementing it ­correctly — or at all. Ten years on, access to this potentially life-­saving tool has become a postcode lottery, say domestic violence ­campaigners, with some forces reporting criminal histories in up to 73 per cent of cases, but others offering minimal or no information whatsoever.

Some women even report being actively ­discouraged by the police from making an application.

Cassie met David in 2017 and, at first, she thought he might be the love of her life. ‘He was fun. Gave me flowers, always texting, calling. I’m quite small: size 6. He could pick me up.’

But mostly she liked the fact that he liked her ­children — a son and

a daughter from a previous ­relationship. ‘It’s quite hard as a single mum to find someone who likes your kids.’

A few months later, in the spring of 2017, they moved in together. What happened next is what domestic violence experts call the ‘tension-building’ phase.

He asked her to pay for the car: £175 a month. He sent the children, then 13 and eight, to their rooms in the evenings. ‘He’d say, “I want time alone with your mum.” I just sat on the settee while he was drinking and going on about his ex-­partners.’ Cassie felt like she was ­walking on egg shells.

When David put padlocks on the kitchen ­cupboards to stop the kids helping themselves to food, Cassie’s son, who was 13, went to live with his biological father.

Terri and her children, Lacey and John Bennett. The youngsters were killed along with a friend during a sleepover

Terri and her children, Lacey and John Bennett. The youngsters were killed along with a friend during a sleepover

David carried on getting drunk at nights. ­Sometimes ‘he’d grab me by the arms and throw me across the bedroom’, says Cassie.

‘He’d get angry about his exes and how he didn’t see his kids and take it out on me. He’d say, you’ve got your kids. I haven’t. And it’s your fault.’

In 2020, Cassie decided she’d had enough and packed his bags and left them outside the flat. They separated for six months. But she missed him. ‘He promised he’d change,’ she says. Incredibly, she believed him.

The couple got married in 2021 and later had a baby. ‘I’ve

always wanted to get married. Always wanted one last baby. He knew that.’

But the cycle started again. ‘He said he wouldn’t drink any more, but that was a lie.’

David started to isolate her, ­stopping her from using her mobile phone or walking her daughter to school. ‘He said she was big enough to do it herself. She was ten. It was a 45-minute walk.’

One evening last August she was bathing their baby Molly, who was then four months old. He came in. ‘I said: “I’ve just got to get a towel.” I grabbed the towel off the settee and I heard the most blood-­curdling scream.’ It was Molly.

‘He was putting water all over her face, all over her body. Molly was gasping for breath. I just grabbed her and took her out.

Bendall, whose previous crimes included grievous bodily harm, was jailed in 2022

Bendall, whose previous crimes included grievous bodily harm, was jailed in 2022

‘He was jealous of the baby and it felt really menacing. That night, he grabbed my face and held me by my jaw and kissed me. The way he said “I love you” wasn’t right.

‘I was so frightened I was going to get hit or thrown across the room. I thought, “What if I have Molly in my arms?” ’

Later that same night, she fled with her two daughters. ‘We walked for an hour in the dark to get a train. I went in the clothes I was in.’

Her priority now, she says, was to protect Molly. ­Suspecting a violent past was the reason David wasn’t allowed to see his other children, she submitted an online request for information under the terms of Clare’s Law.

Three days later, a police officer left a voicemail on her phone: nothing to disclose. Cassie checked she had spelled his name right and given the right date of birth, but still ‘nothing came up’. She began to doubt herself. Perhaps he’d only been violent with her? Perhaps he wasn’t a risk to Molly after all?

Yet the information she’d been given was wrong. Two months later, Cassie and David began a legal battle over contact with Molly and it was only because of this that she discovered exactly how the police are failing women who ask for information under Clare’s Law.

A report given to her solicitor by Cafcass (the ­Children and Family Court ­Advisory and Support ­Service) revealed that not only did David have a criminal record, but that the police in fact held ­information on

20 separate incidents — all related to domestic abuse.

‘Seven convictions for domestic violence, coercive control and ­battery, and 13 allegations, dating back to 2008,’ says Cassie, who starts to cry. ‘When I found out I had to try to keep myself together until my girls were asleep and then I went outside and I cried and cried, and I thought, “What have I done to my kids? What if I’d gone back?” ’

She still has no idea why her Clare’s Law request came back with nothing to report. Did the police look hard enough? Did they do a national search? ‘I don’t feel angry,’ she says. ‘I feel broken. How could they not tell me? I just want to protect my kids.’

John Bennett and sister Lacey with their father Jason

John Bennett and sister Lacey with their father Jason

According to a recent report, Thames Valley Police disclosed information for only 18.43 per cent of the Clare’s Law applications it received in the two years to March 2023, compared to a national average of 38.5 per cent.

This means that 81.57 per cent of applications failed to result in ­information being provided. And yet, Thames Valley has a high ­prevalence of domestic abuse, with 30,375 domestic abuse-related crimes reported in the year to March 2023 — an increase from 27,469 offences logged the previous year. Over the past few months, His Majesty’s ­Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services sent ­warnings over Clare’s Law to Thames Valley Police (and two other forces: Merseyside and ­Durham) after inspections ­highlighted problems including resourcing issues and long delays.

‘Tackling all forms of domestic abuse is a top priority for Thames Valley Police,’ says a spokesman. ‘We have recently introduced a new Public Protection and ­Safeguarding Command which will continue to prioritise domestic abuse in all its forms.’

In fact, Thames Valley is not the worst offender. Essex Police takes that crown, disclosing information for only 5 per cent of the 1,940 Clare’s Law applications it received in the two years to March 2023. Six other forces reported ­disclosure rates below 30 per cent over the same period.

The Metropolitan Police is no better. In Baroness Casey’s ­damning report into the Met last year, commissioned after Sarah Everard was murdered by police officer Wayne Couzens, officers said they ‘didn’t have time to use Clare’s Law’.

The disclosure rate for the ­Metropolitan Police was around 28 per cent in the two years to March 2023. There were, said the report, ‘delays and backlogs in the processing of these requests’. Casey also found institutional misogyny within ­Britain’s largest police force.

‘It’s more than a postcode ­lottery, it’s a people lottery,’ says Vickie Robertson, CEO and founder of Kaleidoscopic UK, a ­charity ­offering peer-to-peer specialist domestic violence support ­services. ‘The ­information you get ­essentially depends on which police officer deals with your application.’

Wiltshire Police has also ­admitted to ‘catastrophic service failure’ in the way it has dealt with ­applications under Clare’s Law. A review identified

25 ‘­failures’, including the case of a woman who was badly beaten by her partner — an extra on Peaky Blinders — after her Clare’s Law request gave him a clean bill of health. It later transpired he’d been convicted of assaulting at least three women.

In Wiltshire’s case, one man was responsible for processing all of the force’s Clare’s Law ­applications between 2015 and 2023. He was ­suspended last September, and the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is investigating what went wrong.

‘It makes me really angry,’ says Michelle Livesey, a radio news reporter who campaigned for the right to ask for information ­alongside Clare Wood’s father Michael Brown, who died in 2020, aged 76.

‘Michael would be ­horrified to see these failings,’ she says. ‘Opportunities to protect women are clearly being missed.’

When Clare was killed — she was raped, strangled and set on fire — domestic abuse services and Greater Manchester Police were fully aware of George ­Appleton’s convictions for ­violence, which included a six-year prison ­sentence for breaking into an ex-partner’s house and holding her at ­knifepoint. They knew that Clare was in ­danger and yet, because of privacy laws, they couldn’t warn her.

‘You couldn’t go to the person at the centre of it all, the person you are trying to protect, and say: “Your partner’s got previous ­convictions for this,” ’ says Michelle. ‘Her father Michael was absolutely heartbroken, but at the same time he was really angry.

‘Clare’s Law was always bittersweet for him — something so ­positive had come from something so tragic.

‘We never said that Clare’s Law was the answer to domestic abuse. What it does is put a ­protective framework around that person; it shows them that help is available, should they need it.’

Except, all too often, it seems, that framework is failing horribly. Indeed, some are put off using Clare’s Law altogether by the ­attitudes they encounter.

Abigail asked for a Clare’s Law check on her ex-partner in 2015. She’d escaped him in January 2012, after six years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. But her ex was still harassing and stalking her, despite four non-molestation orders to stop.

‘I wanted to see if there had been other victims before me,’ she says. ‘The police officers came to my house and I asked how to access it. But they just said you can “look online” to fill out a form. They just closed me down as if it wasn’t important.’

Having previously reported her ex’s behaviour, Abigail says the attitude felt ­dismissive. ‘It was like, “Oh, she’s moaning again.”

‘Like Clare’s Law was a waste of their time and money. That’s the impression I got from the police. I didn’t feel the help and support was there.’

In fact, her ex did have a serious complaint against him. Abigail later discovered — not through a Clare’s Law application, which she never made — that a 17-year-old girl had accused him of rape when he was 19 or 20. ‘This girl’s parents took her to the police but there wasn’t any proof.’

She wishes Clare’s Law had been available when she was in the ­relationship. ‘You think it’s your fault. Because that’s what they say to you: “You made me do it”. You end up believing that. But if I’d found out about that previous complaint of rape, I truly believe it would have given me the strength to leave him earlier.’

Clare’s Law wasn’t originally a law at all. When it was introduced in 2014, it came with Home Office guidance that was vague and ­indeterminate. Forces took ­different approaches to ‘­balancing’ the right to privacy with the need to protect the ­vulnerable, ­resulting in very different disclosure ­thresholds, depending on the ­culture of the force.

In 2021, that changed when Clare’s Law became a statutory requirement under the Domestic Abuse Act, meaning police forces can no longer choose to ignore it.

‘Putting the guidance on a ­statutory footing will make sure the scheme is applied ­consistently across all police forces and will help increase the number of ­applications,’ according to a Home Office policy paper.

But it still isn’t happening, say campaigners.

In April last year, the ‘rule’ changed again as a result of ­lobbying by two women who found themselves at the centre ­of a ­tragedy that made national headlines.

Campaigners Jade Donovan (left) and Angie Smith

Campaigners Jade Donovan (left) and Angie Smith

It was on a Sunday in September 2021 that Angie Smith, 57, from ­Killamarsh, Derbyshire, drove the ten minutes to the house of her daughter, Terri Harris, 35, only to find it cordoned off with police tape.

‘What’s going on?’ asked Angie, who was visiting only because she hadn’t been able to reach Terri for a chat on the phone. ‘Go home and we’ll come and see you,’ the police said.

Fifteen minutes later, two ­officers knocked on her door, and Angie’s life changed in an instant. Terri, then eight weeks pregnant, had been killed with a claw hammer by her partner Damien Bendall, 33, along with her children, John, 13; Lacey, 11, who was also raped; and Lacey’s friend, Connie Gent, 11, who was on a sleepover.

‘I kept saying, “No! That’s not true!” I didn’t believe it. And then I said, “It’s him, He’s done this, hasn’t he?” I knew it was him.’

Terri, a former nursery worker, met Damien ­Bendall online during lockdown in 2020. Four months later, he came to stay from his home in Swindon and never left.

At first, Angie thought he was ‘quite charming’. But then it started to unravel. ‘He was a ­master manipulator,’ she says.

Her daughter changed. She swapped her ­tracksuit bottoms and jeans for ‘low-cut tops and really short shorts, like he was parading her around. “Look what I’ve got” ’.

Angie used to see her daughter most days. ‘But her visits stopped. He was the reason. She was very guarded. If we went into a room, he’d follow us. He never let her be alone with me. He’d wrap his coat around her and say, “She’s mine.” ’

In June 2021, Angie decided to do a Clare’s Law check on her ­daughter’s boyfriend, after ­watching a programme about Clare’s father, Michael Brown. ‘I thought, “Right, I’m going to download the form.” I just knew he had a violent past. Gut instinct.’

But then Angie hit an obstacle: there was no way for relatives to request information without ­alerting the person on whose behalf they were doing it — and very ­possibly the subject of the request himself.

‘I got halfway through the form and I thought, “I can’t do this. Because the police will send a response directly to Terri, and if the police phone her or go to her house, he’ll be there.” I worried he might hurt her.’

Later, the inquest at Chesterfield Coroner’s Court revealed that Bendall had previous convictions for crimes including robbery, attempted robbery and grievous bodily harm dating back to 2004. There were also allegations of ­violent assault and injury of a ­previous partner, and an incident of possible child sex abuse.

In March 2022, together with Jade Donovan, the stepsister of John and Lacey’s father and ­Terri’s friend for 15 years, Angie launched a campaign to amend Clare’s Law so police can send a response to a close relative. They had meetings with ministers and Home Office officials, and 8,500 people signed a petition.

Last April, the Home Office said the form would change. ‘We were like, “Oh my God! We’ve done it!” ’ says Jade.

‘But take-up is hit and miss, depending on the force,’ says Angie, who has been diagnosed with PTSD.

In December 2022, Bendall was sentenced to a whole-life order, meaning he will die in prison.

‘Terri was my only daughter; John and Lacey were my only grandchildren,’ continues Angie. ‘It’s just devastating.

‘If Terri knew her children were in danger because he had a violent past, she wouldn’t have let him stay. She could still be alive. They all could.’

Some names have been changed to protect identities

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