Empowered: Women Tell Family Court Judges of Experiences With Coercive Control Using New Domestic Abuse Law

Lessons learned on the one-year anniversary of Jennifers’ Law in Connecticut

Meredith knew there were deep-seated issues in her marriage—but she didn’t bargain for the hell that raged after it went south.

She can’t use her real name because she’s scared for her safety and has a protective order against her ex-husband. Like so many women, she said the control her ex wielded over her escalated during her divorce and the legal battle after. This Fairfield County, Conn., mother of three is nine years and five lawyers into the war now—plus half a million dollars in legal debt. She’s trying to get court-ordered support her ex stopped paying and six-figures in expenses for their children’s medical bills, college costs and activities.

Women like Meredith of Fairfield County, Conn., often spend years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in family court battles—as evidenced by her mountain of legal documents that keeps growing. (Courtesy)

Meredith and her kids have moved three times, her house went into foreclosure and she’s cashing in her kids’ bonds to pay the rent this month. Sounds crazy? It’s not out of the ordinary in the U.S. family court system—especially when coercive control is involved. 

“This should not be happening. I have three court dates this month and more to come. I cannot tell you how many people say, ‘You should be working,’ but what they don’t understand—and I didn’t at first either—is that it’s nearly impossible,” said Meredith, a former professional in New York City who desperately wants to return to her field.

“There is emotional trauma every week, plus gathering documents and files, then showing up to multiple court hearings. I’ve been told I must do everything by the date required. Meanwhile, there’s never been a hearing date, deadline or document request where my ex has done a quarter of what he’s supposed to do.” 

She has two words for this: litigation abuse. Connecticut’s new Jennifers’ Law, which went into effect last October, expanded domestic abuse to include coercive control—addressing the way perpetrators weaponize the court system. The law is named for two women who lost their lives to domestic violence—Jennifer Dulos and Jennifer Magnano. It makes stalking, isolation, financial abuse, intimidation, sexual coercion and legal abuse a factor in family court cases

But Meredith said it has been challenging to find an attorney who is willing to cite Jennifers’ Law. Many lawyers don’t understand the law yet, she said, and still equate abuse with only physical harm. So, she decided to go “pro se” in a recent hearing and addressed the court herself: 

“Your honor, these motions are hearsay and grossly untrue. They are vexatious, and he continues to harass me through the court. He continues to slander me in and out of court with false accusations and lies to the children and others. I respectfully request your honor to dismiss these motions and impose sanctions based on Jennifers’ Law CGS 10 46b-1. Thank you.” 

Meredith’s case is ongoing—but she is far from alone. Connecticut Protective Moms, the advocacy group dedicated to improving the court process to validate all forms of domestic violence, reports that few attorneys will champion the new law. So, it’s coaching women to go it alone if necessary. 

Many female and male attorneys can’t even imagine such abuse because they wouldn’t do it to someone—and it’s never been done to them.

Five states now have laws on the books that redefine domestic abuse to include coercive control: California, Hawaii, Washington, Maryland and Connecticut.

“Coercive control is a pattern of behavior that encompasses other abuses that may be overt or covert,” said Dr. Christine Cocchiola, a coercive control advocate who testified in support of Jennifers’ Law. “This abuse is based on the need for control by the offender, and is the foundation of most domestic abuse.” 

Betsy Keller, head of the protective mothers group, said every stakeholder in the family court system needs to be educated on the broader definition of “domestic abuse”—from judges to law clerks to family relations officers. The Connecticut Judicial Branch declined my request for an interview and I received no response from the Connecticut Bar Association. So, it’s unclear how much is being done — and Keller’s moms can’t wait. 

“My hope was that through Connecticut Protective Moms, I could educate my moms, they could educate their attorneys and the attorneys could educate judges,” she told me. “And guess what? It’s working.” 

I told the judge there was financial abuse, sexual abuse and coercive control—which made my ex’s attorney say, ‘That’s not abuse.’ But the judge said actually it was under the new Jennifers’ Law.

A presentation on Jennifers’ Law with the Connecticut Bar Association in March. (Connecticut Protective Moms / @MomsProtective Twitter)

Keller points to anecdotal evidence that some mothers are successfully raising Jennifers’ Law in court. Plus, the fact that a handful of attorneys are stepping up and representing women with these kinds of abuse. One of them spoke to me—but did not want to use her name. 

“If you haven’t lived it, you’re not going to understand what it is,” the litigator told me. “Many female and male attorneys can’t even imagine such abuse because they wouldn’t do it to someone—and it’s never been done to them.” 

The attorney pointed out that there are plenty of relationships where the woman stays home, the man works and it’s not a problem. In coercive control situations, however, it is — because this dynamic is used as leverage for psychological and financial abuse. 

“One of the things I come up against is ignorance about how insidious coercive control is. It is a slow build,” the lawyer explained. “The husband tells his partner there’s no need to work, she has no control over the finances, she’s been out of the workforce for years, her resume is stale to put it mildly—and all of this is a deliberate effort to strip her of any power.” 

It is a slow build. The husband tells his partner there’s no need to work, she has no control over the finances, she’s been out of the workforce for years, her resume is stale …

In one recent case, she highlighted a husband’s refusal to pay child support or spousal support for a full year which deprived her client of buying food, clothing and prescriptions. The attorney cited the section of the new law stating: 

CGS Sec 46b-1 (4) states “Coercive control” includes, but is not limited to, unreasonably engaging in any of the following…

(B) Depriving the family or household members of basic necessities;

(C) Controlling, regulating or monitoring the family or household member’s movements,  communications, daily behavior, finances  

A northern Connecticut woman we’ll call Renata, since she also is fearful of being identified, said a judge in her ongoing family law case seemed to be aware of it too—even citing Jennifers’ Law in her court order. Renata and her ex-husband divorced in 2016. She said he abused her, threatened to make sure they all ended up in a shelter and said he’d take custody of their kids. He got custody of their three children and moved to North Carolina but she said he has not honored an agreement for her to get them back. 

“I told the judge there was financial abuse, sexual abuse and coercive control—which made my ex’s attorney say, ‘That’s not abuse,’” she recalled. “But the judge said actually it was under the new Jennifers’ Law. I was shocked that I didn’t even have to say it, and she came to that conclusion herself. Then she ruled in my favor that Connecticut has jurisdiction over the case.” 

Meredith, like Renata, is hopeful that with more women speaking out about psychological and legal abuse in court, there will finally be a change. 

“We’ve faced trauma and been dismissed in our marriages—then we’ve seen the truth dismissed in court. We tell people to leave an abusive marriage and go to get help and be protected, but then the judicial system has to step up to protect us,” she told me. “I hope women hear our stories and are empowered to speak up about Jennifers’ Law too.”

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Amy Polacko is a divorce coach and journalist who also runs a support group for single/divorced women. She worked on the Pulitzer Prize-winning team covering the TWA Flight 800 crash for Newsday. A single mom, she’s writing her first book Don’t Fall for a Con: How to Spot Narcissists and Sociopaths Before It’s Too Late. Learn more about Polacko and her mission at www.freedomwarrior.info.