UMA 03: Violence beyond the body
how coercive control laws are redefining domestic abuse
Incomplete legal definitions of domestic violence are putting mothers and children in danger across America; but change is on the horizon, one coercive control bill at a time.
Domestic violence is simple, according to most U.S. Family Courts: The physical body is the only site of violence that matters when determining if a person has the right to legal protections from their abuser.
In South Dakota, for example, domestic abuse means simply actions that cause bodily injury, attempts to cause bodily injury, or inflicting fear of causing bodily injury.
The problem is, domestic violence isn’t always physical, and when it is, physical harm is almost always accompanied by other kinds of abuse. Emotional, psychological, and financial abuse are all types of abuse that are often present in cases of domestic violence, all of which may not involve any physical assault.
Reductive legal definitions of domestic violence that focus only bodily harm are especially dangerous when it comes to Family Court cases.
When abuse victims cannot meet the threshold for “domestic violence” because of a requirement to provide proof of physical assault (or threat thereof), survivor parents
and children are excluded from essential protections.
For example, in Washington State, mandatory arrest laws obligate police officers to arrest the “primary aggressor” in response to 911 calls in cases where domestic violence has been officially designated. Warrants are not required for these arrests, and officers need only probable cause to believe that a domestic violence offense occurred within the previous four hours. These arrests can be life-saving for caregivers* and children who are in danger.
Currently in Washington, domestic violence is defined by a list of 23 crimes, ranging from assault to malicious mischief. Compared to most other states, the Evergreen State has one of the broader definitions of domestic violence, and legislation expanding that definition further is pending.
Led by the state of Hawaii, legal definitions of domestic violence are expanding as advocates turn their focus towards coercive control.
Washington is not the only state grappling with semantics as courts begin to acknowledge what abuse survivors have always known: The body might keep the score, but that’s not necessarily where trauma begins or ends.
In September 2020, Hawaii became the first state to sign into law HB 2425, a bill that specifically includes coercive control under the larger framework of domestic violence. According to Hawaii law:
“‘Coercive control’ includes a pattern of behavior that seeks to take away the individual's liberty or freedom and strip away the individual's sense of self, including bodily integrity and human rights, whereby the "coercive control" is designed to make an individual dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence, and regulating their everyday behavior[.]”
The law specifies the following behaviors as coercive control:
(1) Isolating the individual from friends and family
(2) Controlling how much money is accessible to the individual and how it is spent
(3) Monitoring the individual's activities, communications, and movements
(4) Name-calling, degradation, and demeaning the individual frequently
(5) Threatening to harm or kill the individual or a child or relative of the individual
(6) Threatening to publish information or make reports to the police or the authorities
(7) Damaging property or household goods
(8) Forcing the individual to take part in criminal activity or child abuse
Just weeks after Hawaii signed this bill into law, California followed suit by expanding their legal definition of domestic violence with the approval of SB 1141. This law defines coercive control as “a pattern of behavior that in purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty.”
Less than a year later, in June 2021, Connecticut passed SB 1091, which reflects similar language around free will and liberty as California’s bill. This Connecticut bill is known as Jennifer’s Law, named for two women—Jennifer Dulos and Jennifer Magnano, both of whom sought sole custody of their children in Family Court before they were killed by their ex-husbands. Magnano’s children, now adults, were active advocates for the passing of Jennifer’s Law.
Coercive control laws are finding support across the political spectrum.
Today, in addition to Washington, four other states also have pending legislation that expands the definition of domestic violence to include coercive control: Florida, New York, Maryland, and South Carolina.
While all three states that have already passed coercive control bills—Hawaii, California, and Connecticut—have voted Blue in at least the last eight presidential elections, the states with pending legislation are not as monochromatic.
In contrast to Washington, New York, and Maryland—states that have all also been voting for Democrats for president since at least Bill Clinton’s run in 1992—South Carolina’s voting record has remained consistently Red. The Republican candidate has come out on top in South Carolina for the past eleven elections—since Regan’s 1980 win.
Florida, a Red or Purple state depending on who you ask, is more complicated. While a majority of Florida voters cast their ballots for Trump in the last two elections, they voted for Obama in the previous two.
What does this all mean for Family Courts? For one, it indicates that support for abuse survivors is bipartisan. That means hope for the determined advocates who are fighting for change. In these early days of codifying a more comprehensive definition of domestic violence, support from both sides of the aisle will be critical.
If you’re interested in following along as courts redefine domestic violence, Americas Conference to End Coercive Control shares a “Coercive Control Bill Tracker” on their website. This international resource is designed to aid in understanding of the importance and history of each coercive control bill as it is passed.
And if you’re a coercive control survivor who has been failed by Family Court and would like to share your story, The Unwed Mother Agenda is listening. Subscribers can leave a comment below or hit reply on this email newsletter to send me glimpse into what you’ve come through. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org. ⬛
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*The majority of people who experience domestic violence are women. A 2001 study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that of nearly 700,000 nonfatal violent crimes committed in 2001 by intimate partners, 85% involved female victims. According to a 2022 report by the World Health Organization, most intimate partner violence perpetrators around the world are men.
🔥 Did you miss last week’s UMA post? Here it is: Forcing children into fire: In Family Court, sharing custody with abusers wins
Everyone deserves to be safe. If you or someone you care about is experiencing domestic violence, you can find free and confidential help and resources through The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788.