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Connecticut is the latest state to do so, updating its laws to provide new protections for people victimized by damaging psychological tactics and controlling behavior.
Domestic violence victims in Connecticut who have not been subjected to physical abuse can more easily obtain restraining orders under legislation that took effect last week.
The bill, approved by state legislators and signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont earlier this year, broadens Connecticut’s definition of domestic violence to include “coercive control,” a pattern of abusive behavior that seeks to control a victim through emotional and psychological tactics. That can include isolating a victim from family and friends, restricting access to money or threatening harm to a person’s children or pets.
More than a third of women and nearly half of men reported experiencing coercive control in a relationship, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But court cases relating to criminal domestic violence usually do not take emotional abuse tactics into consideration, relying instead on an “incident-specific” approach that requires proof of physical injury to determine whether abuse, or a pattern of abuse, have taken place, according to the nonprofit Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Connecticut’s new law changes that, incorporating coercive control into the legal definition of domestic violence. The legislation also allows victims of domestic violence to testify against their abusers remotely or in writing, and to submit forms via email rather than in person. The policy also requires the state to provide free legal assistance for indigent victims applying for restraining orders against their abusers, and ensures that all court locations constructed after July 1, 2021 contain a dedicated safe space for victims of family violence.
“Many victims say that the invisible forms of domestic violence—coercive control— are more terrifying than physical violence,” former state Sen. Alex Kasser, a Democrat and the legislation’s lead sponsor, said in a statement. “It’s time to update our systems and beliefs to reflect this reality.”
A handful of states, including California and Hawaii, have similar laws in place. Legislators in New York, Maryland and South Carolina also proposed coercive control laws last year.
Some domestic violence advocates have expressed concern that coercive control laws are well-intentioned but do little to actually help victims, who often prefer to seek help that does not involve law enforcement. But supporters say the move to incorporate coercive control into existing laws will ultimately benefit victims who have already entered the court system.
"By expanding the definition of family violence in Connecticut’s restraining order statute to address coercive control, we’ll be able to ensure court-ordered relief for the many non-physical tactics abusers use to gain and maintain control over their victims," Meghan Scanlon, president and CEO of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said in a statement.
"As we come to better understand the trauma and paralyzing fear that emotionally and psychologically abusive actions can have on victims, it is essential that our state shift its response and update legal options to reflect that understanding. That's what we've done with this new law,” Scanlon added.
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
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