Connecticut Senator Alex Kasser (D) Greenwich, Stamford and New Canaan, has introduced “Jennifer’s Law,” for the 2021 Legislative session. The bill is named in honor of Jennifer Dulos, the New Canaan mother
who was murdered by her husband while she was pleading for her and her children’s safety in family court and whose five children are now orphaned.
The focus of the bill is to update and modernize the definition of Domestic Violence (DV) in Connecticut state law to include Coercive Control
- a pattern of abuse which is not necessarily physical that isolates, dominates and intimidates a victim into submission through a pattern of behavior. This can include assault, psychological abuse, financial abuse, revenge porn, stalking and other forms of domination and threat. The bill would also prioritize child safety in custody proceedings by making DV, including child abuse, the first factor assessed by the family court in a case involving custody.
The bill also requires Coercive Control training by professionals with direct experience working with survivors, as well as legal support for victims seeking a protective order from the Court. Kasser’s bill would require judges to recognize victims of DV and child abuse and give them the safety and protection they deserve.
“When women are the victims of abuse, they seek safety for themselves and their children. Often that means staying with the abuser because the danger of leaving is too great. But when victims do summon the courage to leave, we have a responsibility to believe and protect them. Too many women have lost their lives just trying to get free. And too many children have become collateral damage in this struggle. It’s time for us to shine a light on DV in all its forms and protect those who need protecting.
Women feel shame and fear when they’re with their abuser and when they leave they are re-traumatized by a society that doesn’t believe them. DV is a public health crisis that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic. And oftentimes the signs are invisible. Many victims say that the invisible forms of DV - aka Coercive Control - are more terrifying than physical violence.
It’s time to update our systems and beliefs to reflect this reality. It’s time to remove the stigma, shame and fear. It’s time for real change,” said Senator Alex Kasser, lead sponsor of this legislation.
“National experts agree that DV includes not only physical and sexual abuse. It includes additional actions used to dominate and control a spouse/partner, making her afraid, powerless and subjugated. These actions are collectively referred to as coercive control. Hawaii
passed a coercive control bill in September, 2020. California has one too
. Given the national attention on the Jennifer Dulos case, and the fact that DV affects women in every community, Connecticut should be a leader on this issue,” added Kasser.
For two years, Jennifer Farber Dulos and Fotis Dulos were engaged in divorce and child custody litigation in Connecticut Family Court. In court transcripts, she said her husband "expects to exhibit complete control over me and the children.” The Dulos court transcripts also revealed the rising tension and frustration of the litigants with the escalating time in the courtroom, over 500 pleadings on their case docket, as well as the rising cost of the legal bills to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Police are examining the Dulos divorce as part of their investigation, which was racking up enormous costs including fees paid to at least three attorneys, family therapists, three psychologists and court approved monitors working on the case.
According to Betsy Keller, the founder of Connecticut Protective Moms,
a grassroots advocacy group for protective moms in family court proceedings, “The 10% of family court divorce and separation cases that eventually go before a family court judge are labeled “high conflict” by court professionals, but are very often abuse cases. These court professionals - judges, family lawyers, forensic psychology evaluators and family relations counselors - do not have the needed extensive training in DV and the complicated tactics of how Coercive Control plays out in a court of law.
Seasoned DV experts know that the “high conflict” label is a misnomer and these contentious custody and divorce cases can often be a red flag indicating an abuser’s coercive control tactics, including legal abuse
to punish the victim for leaving them.”
In an Op-Ed
written by Hon. Family Court Justice Michael Albis published in March, 2020, the Connecticut Judicial Branch publicly supported the key component of Kasser’s proposal - expanding the legal definition of DV to include Coercive Control. Current law only recognizes “continuous threat of present physical pain or physical injury” but not other types of threat or injury. The current definition “severely restricts” what the court can do to protect victims, Albis noted.
Judge Albis concluded that “by adopting language as suggested by Sen. Kasser, the legislature will allow judges to elevate all DV to the scrutiny it deserves, particularly in cases involving child custody.”
According to research, DV only presents itself as verifiable physical violence in 10% of reported cases. However, many DV cases include an abuser’s escalating use of Coercive Control tactics - emotional, verbal, financial, legal abuse, stalking and isolation. “This bill could have better protected Jennifer Dulos and countless other Connecticut mothers and children who have been harmed over the years while seeking safety from an abusive partner in family court,” says Danielle Pollack of CHILD USA
, a national think tank for child protection.
“As a way to punish an ex for leaving, abusers who previously had perpetrated violence against their adult partner will often redirect their abuse toward children and/or litigate for control of the children once their adult partner - no longer available to abuse directly - exits the relationship. Unfortunately, family courts often do not recognize this pattern, but Jennifer’s Law aims to improve the courts capacity to do so.”
According to Joan Meier, Law Professor at George Washington University Law School and Director of the National Family Violence Law Center, a leading DV and child custody expert who published a 2019 study of DV and family court harmful practices,
“My family court research is a groundbreaking empirical study of over 4000 cases powerfully affirming the reports from the field, that women who allege abuse – particularly child abuse – by a father are at significant risk (over 1 in 3) of losing custody to the alleged abuser in family court. Protective parents are often forced to share custody with an abuser while enduring years in contentious family court proceedings.”
Evan Stark, PhD, MSW, Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University, introduced the concept of coercive control in his book Coercive Control
(Oxford U. Press, 2007). In his book, Dr. Stark shows that most abuse in relationships includes a combination of violent and nonviolent tactics (such as threats, stalking and psychological abuse), introduced over time, that often extend to use of the children to control the mother by threatening to harm them if she leaves or disobeys him or by enlisting the children as allies in the mother's abuse. A number of countries, with England and Scotland
as leaders, and several US States (most notably Hawaii and California) have adapted Coercive Control laws to reflect the scope of protection required to meet the needs identified.
Interpersonal Femicide in Connecticut goes far beyond the Dulos case. Almost fourteen women are murdered each year as are many children whose protective parent tried to keep them safe from an abusive parent. A few examples of coercive control cases escalating to murder from the past few years:
In 2020, Christine Holloway was brutally murdered in her Ansonia home and her young daughter is still missing. Her boyfriend is the only suspect named by police.
In 2019, Perrie Mason of Meriden, the mother of two boys first went missing, then police discovered her remains at a Waterbury recycling facility where her boyfriend works.
In 2015, seven-month old baby Aaden Moreno was thrown from the Middletown Bridge by his father and died when he fell into the icy winter water. Just five days before, a Middletown Family Court Judge denied the mother’s request for a permanent restraining order based on his view that neither she nor her baby were in danger.
In 2007, Magnano was shot and killed by her estranged husband on Aug. 23, 2007 at their Terryville home. He then turned the gun on himself. Four months earlier, Jennifer Magnano fled the home with her children only to learn that no shelter in Connecticut would take them and that it would take two weeks to get money approved for a hotel. In need of immediate help, they headed to a shelter in California. Magnano was killed when she returned to Connecticut for a court-ordered custody hearing. Michelle Cruz, JD, the State Victim Advocate at the time, released a 45-page report calling for drastic changes in the way state agencies help DV victims. The report detailed the numerous steps Jennifer Magnano took to get help in the months before she was murdered. It also details gaps in state services. "The report is lengthy and it describes the colossal systematic failure of the systems that were supposed to protect Jennifer and her family," Michelle Cruz said.
Connecticut Protective Moms (CPM) is a 501 (c) (3) grassroots organization of Connecticut moms who are dedicated to improving the Connecticut Family Court process to validate all forms of Domestic Violence (DV) including physical, coercive control, emotional, verbal, financial and legal abuse. By raising awareness and educating Connecticut Family Court stakeholders on this broader definition of DV, we will advocate to reform state legislation to protect mothers and their children from continued DV during Connecticut Family Court proceedings and to eliminate bias against a mother's DV allegations during child custody proceedings.
The lack of education and knowledge of DV abuser tactics among family court professionals - judges, lawyers, GALs, forensic evaluators - during divorce and family court proceedings often put moms and children at further risk of abuse and danger. Our objective is to change the "default" position of laws, court orders, and social attitudes in general to see moms and children protected not only before, but during and after they step into a family court for divorce from an abusive individual. CPM will raise awareness of new and stronger legislative solutions to family court legislation and loopholes that jeopardize the safety of children.