Sen. Alex Kasser

David Magnano recalled for the Judiciary Committee the moment in 2007 when his mother, Jennifer, was fatally shot by his father as he watched a few feet away.  

Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, told her fellow committee members how her unborn child was injured when she was shoved through a glass patio door by her ex-husband.

Actress and advocate Evan Rachel Wood described the isolation tactics she alleges were used by musician Marilyn Manson to keep her under control, including monitoring her social media to the point that she didn’t feel safe reaching out for help.

The committee heard harrowing and emotional testimony from survivors Wednesday on what is becoming a hotly contested bill that would expand the definition of domestic violence in court proceedings to include coercive control.

Crafted by Sen. Alex Kasser, D-Greenwich, SB 1060, the proposed legislation she calls “Jennifers’ Law,” would require judges to first address allegations of domestic violence including coercive control when dealing with family court proceedings and restraining orders.

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

The bill was inspired by the disappearance and death of New Canaan resident Jennifer Dulos who was embroiled in an acrimonious two-year divorce and custody battle when she went missing in 2019.

But domestic violence advocates and the judicial branch are bucking the proposed legislation, claiming that it might allow abusers the upper hand in court and increase expenses for victims and the state. 

“By removing the current standards for obtaining a restraining order, the proposal creates a potential defense for violent abusers who might claim that their actions did not cause ‘fear or harm,’” said Steven Eppler-Epstein, the interim CEO and president of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

CCADV and some of its 18 umbrella agencies are instead backing SB 6, which would only expand the definition of domestic violence to include coercive control for individuals seeking a restraining order. SB 6 also seeks to require courts to provide a secure room for domestic violence advocates and victims to use in all courthouses built after 2021, and requests more legal assistance for victims.

But SB 6 could potentially leave victims with a restraining order but little else in the way of relief from the courts while dealing with a divorce and custody agreement with an abusive spouse, said former state Victim Advocate and Attorney Michelle Cruz.

“The number one thing that courts need to look at in custody cases is coercive control,” said Cruz who is now in private practice. Under SB 6, victims can alleviate coercive control through a restraining order, Cruz said. “But not in family court,” she said. “There is a disconnect there,” Cruz said.

Victims would also have to prove their abusers’ intent under SB 6, which Kasser says is an impossible standard to meet. Jennifers’ Law “doesn’t just create a standard for coercive control, it applies it where it plays out, in custody disputes,” Kasser said.

She repeatedly pointed out to domestic violence advocates including Eppler-Epstein that in the two years she has fought for the expansion of the definition of domestic violence, providers have been largely silent.

“Hopefully we have the same goals to protect victims,” Kasser said before later adding, “we already have evidence that the current system isn’t protecting victims.”

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

Kasser and dozens of others testified that SB 1060 would save lives by allowing judges to identify domestic violence including acts of coercive control at the beginning of family court cases.

SB 1060 would define coercive control as a pattern of behavior including verbal threats, withholding resources including finances that could lead to independence, stalking, cyberstalking, isolating victims from family and friends and attempting to stop a person from leaving a relationship.

Under current state law, judges cannot consider threatening acts or coercive control when deciding whether to issue a restraining order.

Jennifer Dulos sought a restraining order in 2017 when she left her husband. But the evidence she submitted didn’t fall under the category of physical abuse so a judge denied her request, even though she contended she was afraid of her husband and said during a hearing that he had chased her out of the house and threatened her when she refused to sign a custody agreement.

She was reported missing on May 24, 2019. Her remains have not been found. She left behind five children who are now in the care of her 85-year-old mother. Police charged Fotis Dulos with her disappearance and murder about 18 months later. He attempted suicide and died within three weeks of his arrest.

“Intimate partner violence affects all genders and cuts across the socioeconomic spectrum,” said Carrie Luft, a close friend of Jennifer Dulos and the spokesperson for her family. “This bill is a critical step toward a larger shift. By changing the language of domestic violence to include coercive control, we can change the law. By changing language we can also change the discussion, and, I hope, change the story. Jennifer Farber Dulos would have wanted to do everything in her power to help others in abusive situations to live free from fear. As her friend, I urge the Connecticut state legislature to pass this bill.”

Magnano was 15 when his father fatally shot his mother outside the house where they were ordered to live by a judge following divorce and custody proceedings. The family had fled the state to escape his father’s abuse but were forced to return to deal with the custody case, he said.  

Court officials and police didn’t care about his family’s contention that his father was abusive, Magnano told legislators while indicating his support for Jennifers’ Law. “He threatened to take my mom out in the woods and tie her to a tree and torture her until she begged for death,” Magnano said. “I remember that. I remember him threatening to beat our heads in with a baseball bat and bury us in the woods behind the house and the police would never find us. We said all that, and nobody cared.”

Porter said she thanked God every day that she was a domestic violence survivor and she wanted to “validate” the need for a bill like Kasser’s. “I do believe as someone who experienced it, that it’s necessary,” Porter said.

“The court does fall extremely short in addressing these issues and it really is life and death,” Porter added.

Wood said in her testimony that if she had been educated about coercive control, she would have recognized the signs as her relationship deteriorated. 

“You didn’t realize it was happening until it was almost too late and you didn’t have the power to do anything about it,” Kasser noted. She asked the actor if Wood felt she would have been able to prove intent if she had sought a restraining order. 

“I couldn’t get a restraining order when I wanted one,” Wood said. “I think the actions and patterns speak for themselves.”