Connecticut Senate expands domestic violence law to include nonviolent ‘coercive control’; measure prompted by Jennifer Farber Dulos case

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Prompted by the high-profile case of Jennifer Farber Dulos, the Connecticut Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to expand state law regarding domestic violence to include nonviolent acts like financial and psychological abuse.

The bipartisan measure passed by 35-1 with the only negative vote by Sen. Rob Sampson, a conservative Republican from Wolcott.

Sen. Alex Kasser, a Greenwich Democrat who spearheaded the bill, said that more women are treated in hospital emergency rooms for domestic violence injuries than for “muggings, rapes and car accidents” combined.

“Domestic violence is the leading cause of death for pregnant women in Connecticut,” Kasser said. “It is past time to recognize the reality and the full scope of what domestic violence really looks like. It is much more than black eyes and bruises. It is a form of terrorism. It can happen to anyone at any time, but mostly, it happens to women and children of every color and in every community.”

Kasser originally introduced the bill last year as “Jennifer’s Law” to commemorate the case of Farber Dulos, a 50-year-old New Canaan woman who went missing in May 2019 after dropping her children off at school. Her estranged husband, Fotis Dulos, was arrested and charged with murder in the case and later died by suicide in January 2020.

“If you feel unsafe in your home or unsafe leaving your relationship, you’re probably experiencing abuse,” Kasser said on the Senate floor. “Women who leave are 14 times more likely to be beaten or killed, which is why no one should ever ask, ‘Why did she stay?’ or assume because she stayed, it couldn’t have been that bad. On the contrary, she stayed because the pain of pursuing freedom was even greater than the pain she was already suffering.”

Overall, 33% of women who are killed by their partners “were never hurt by him before,” Kasser said.

In addition, 90% of domestic abuse is not violent, she said.

“It’s psychological, financial, sexual and legal because those methods are even more effective at controlling a person,” Kasser said. “Her human rights have been violated.”

The bill details the concept of nonviolent abuse or “coercive control,” saying that it includes “isolating the household or family member from friends, relatives, or other support,” as well as “depriving the household or family member of basic necessities,” according to a legislative analysis.

The control includes “regulating, or monitoring the household or family member’s movements, communications, daily behavior, finances, economic resources, or access to services.”

The control also includes “committing or threatening to commit cruelty to animals that intimidates the applicant.”

With the expansion of the law, Superior Court judges will now have increased tools to recognize domestic abuse and issue protective orders when necessary, legislators said. Senate President Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat, said the new expansion will help the judges who have not seen any physical violence but realize that the woman is facing “psychological warfare.” He noted that “women of affluence and education” suffer from domestic violence in the same way as victims of all ages and income levels.

Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican who serves as the ranking member on the judiciary committee, said, “It makes Connecticut, once again, on the forefront” of domestic violence law.

“This will ultimately have ripple effects, if not direct effects, on young people and children in Connecticut,’' Kissel said. “It is extremely heartbreaking ... when you run into individuals who have gone through this.”

But Sampson, from Wolcott, said he was surprised to see a new version of the bill that had additional sections that he said were not in the original bill. He was concerned that landlords would be required under the bill to change the locks within 48 hours of a request by a tenant who was being protected by a restraining order in a domestic violence case. The charge for the locks could be deducted from the tenant’s security deposit, but Sampson said that would often not leave enough money in the security account.

“In the real world, it’s difficult to get something like that done in 48 hours,” said Sampson, who has worked as a landlord. “Some landlords live out of state. ... It might be problematic to get someone out [to the home] within 48 hours. ... Maybe change the 48 hours to a week. Something like that.”

But Kasser countered that there is “great urgency when there is risk of injury” because “a lot can happen in six hours.” The landlord provision “potentially protects someone’s life,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk said that his mother volunteered for a domestic violence crisis center when he was in high school.

“That always stayed with me,” Duff said.

He told the story of a Darien woman who came to his office at least 10 years ago and said that her husband had literally marked the driveway where her car tires were so that he could tell if she had driven anywhere.

“She said nobody would ever think I was a victim of domestic violence,” Duff recalled her saying.

Duff added, “We will do everything we can to support victims and make sure that they have safe places to go and they have the necessary support in our courts - and they are able to change the locks if they need to change the locks.”

Christopher Keating can be reached at ckeating@courant.com.