Connecticut Protects Coercively Controlled Women and Their Children

In signing this bill, Governor Lamont propels Connecticut onto the short list of states that have recently passed civil or criminal legislation against coercive control.

On Monday, Connecticut governor Ned Lamont signed into law Senate Bill 1091, which is the latest and perhaps most comprehensive law in the United States protecting people who are subject to coercive control by their partners and ex-partners.

The bill includes nearly a dozen new statues relating to domestic abuse. Among them, for the first time Connecticut will consider coercive control a form of domestic violence. The coercive control definition includes controlling, regulating or monitoring a household or family member’s movements, communications, daily behavior and economic resources, depriving them of basic necessities or isolating them from family or loved ones. The law allows coercive control survivors to file restraining orders against their abusers rather than requiring that they wait for physical violence severe enough to be acknowledged by a court as a threat.

“This Bill Will Save Lives”

Former Connecticut state Senator Alex Kasser—the major proponent of the law—expects the law will save lives. Men who kill their female partners usually dominate them first—sometimes without physical violence. Indeed, for 28 to 33 percent of victims, the homicide or attempted homicide was the first act of physical violence in the relationship.

The bill includes forced sex, sexual threats and threats to release sexualized images as well as a section on vexatious litigation, which Kasser defines as “how abusers use the legal system to harass their victims, dragging them to court repeatedly to drain their resources and make them lose their jobs, homes, savings and sometimes their children.”

The Connecticut bill will also protect the children of an abused parent. The bill establishes the physical and emotional safety of the child as the first of 17 factors to be considered in custody decisions.

Domestic Abuse Is Not Like A Bar Fight

Coercive control laws popping up across the United States are meant to address the way some people deprive their intimate partners of their basic human rights. Typical coercive control tactics include isolating, intimidating, stalking, micromanaging, sexual coercion and often—but not always—physical abuse. Abusers inflict these tactics on their partners over time in a variety of ways, ultimately reducing the victim’s ability to live as a free person. Coercive control is nearly always at the core of what is usually called “domestic abuse” or “intimate partner violence.”

Great Britain and European countries began passing laws on coercive control in 2015, but until quite recently, people in the U.S. lacked similar protections. For too long, U.S. law has treated intimate partner violence like a bar fight—considering only what happened in each incident and excluding information about prior intimidation and threat. Research shows, however, that domestic abuse is not about arguments, short tempers and violent tendencies. Rather, it’s about domination and control.

Laws Concerning Domestic Abuse Beyond Physical Violence

In signing this bill, Governor Lamont propels Connecticut onto the short list of states that have recently passed civil or criminal legislation against coercive control.

California law Senate Bill 1141, which was passed in 2020, expands the already-existing concept of “disturbing the peace of the other party” to include coercive control. It defines coercive control as a pattern of behavior that, in purpose or effect, unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty. The law establishes that an award of child custody to a person who has perpetrated domestic violence is detrimental to the best interests of the child. This is considered a rebuttable presumption. That is, the burden rests on the domestic abuser to prove that he or she is not a risk to a child.

New legislation on coercive control could substantially change the way domestic abuse is handled in the U.S. “Legislation against coercive control is critical to broadening the range of abusive behaviors recognized in the law,” said Helena Phillibert, director of legal services at the Rockland County New York Center for Safety and Change. “The advantages to victims/survivors are numerous but most significantly, legislation that recognizes coercive control necessarily expands the understanding of domestic violence beyond physical abuse.”

Even in states that lack laws specifically addressing coercive control, expert witnesses testify to the importance of coercive control in legal cases concerning pre- and post-nuptial agreements or other contracts; immigration; divorce; child custody and visitation; and as mitigating factors in cases where a coercively controlled person has killed their abuser, or committed another crime under pressure from the abuser.

Take Action

Want to take action around coercive control? Here are some steps:

  • If you think you may be coercively controlled by your partner or ex-partner, contact your local domestic violence agency and speak to a domestic violence advocate about your concerns.

  • Share information with people you know who you believe may be subject to coercive control.

  • Contact your state legislators and find out if a coercive control law is in the works in your state, and how you can be part of a movement to propel forward laws on coercive control.

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Lisa Aronson Fontes, Ph.D., is author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship. She is a senior lecturer in interdisciplinary studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and trains people globally on topics related to violence against women and children.