Sen. Alex Kasser, D-Greenwich

In an effort to expand the definition of domestic violence to include coercive control the Judiciary Committee forwarded legislation to the state Senate Thursday.

“This is groundbreaking legislation for Connecticut in many ways because it ensures the rights of every victim – adults and children – to be safe,” said Sen. Alex Kasser, D-Greenwich, who worked on the bill for nearly two years.

“This legislation is a big step forward for all survivors of coercive control, myself included,” Kasser said after the vote.

An overwhelming majority of committee members voted in favor of the legislation with a handful of Republicans voting against.

The bill for the first time creates a definition of domestic violence that includes coercive control, which encompasses behaviours such as withholding resources to allow a person to live independently or leave the relationship, threats and intimidation, that would be applied to family court and custody cases.

It also provides for more legal representation for victims at the five judicial districts that see the most requests for restraining orders: Bridgeport, New Haven, Stamford, Waterbury and Hartford. It sets a standard for “vexatious litigation” – a common tactic used by abusers in court proceedings, and it defines what judges need to consider in custody cases including allegations of domestic violence. 

“People assume that a child’s right to be safe is the highest priority in custody cases,” Kasser said. “In fact, that is not how our law is written or practiced. This bill explicitly requires the courts to consider the child’s physical and emotional safety.”

Numerous survivors of domestic violence spoke during a public hearing last month, with many, including Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, contending that without the changes to law, Connecticut courts don’t have enough power to adequately deal with domestic violence. 

“It is critical to get this done at this point,” Porter said Thursday before encouraging her colleagues to vote for the bill.

Kasser began work on the bill after the disappearance of Jennifer Dulos in May of 2019. 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 said she was afraid of her husband and told the courtt he had chased her out of the house and threatened her when she refused to sign a custody agreement.

Her remains have not been found. Dulos 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.

The bill also honors Jennifer Magnano by making sure that victims are made aware of their right to testify at court hearings remotely, Kasser said. “After her death a law was passed that gave DV victims the right to participate in court proceedings from outside the courthouse – so they didn’t have to be in the presence of their abuser,” Kasser said. “But the law was never applied in practice. Now with this bill, domestic violence victims will be informed of their rights to participate remotely. This is another way to keep victims safe.”

Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, was among those who voted against the bill. “I will recognize that there are some good things in this bill,” Fishbein said. “There are some troubling things as well.”

Fishbein questioned the constitutionality of allowing victims to testify or attend court proceedings remotely. “Our constitution says we have a right to face our accusers,” Fishbein said. He also had an issue with victims being allowed to submit their statements electronically without getting them notarized under oath to gain a restraining order.

Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, who worked on the bill with Kasser, stated that the legislation simply codifies what the judicial branch has been doing since the pandemic started in March of 2020.

“There were dozens of victims at the beginning of the pandemic who were unable to apply for a restraining order,” Flexer said.

Flexer also pointed out that many of the survivors who had testified during the public hearing on Kasser’s original bill had lost loved ones who were required to be in the courtroom with their abusers.

“There have been a lot of people in the past 15 years who wouldn’t have lost their lives if they didn’t have to stand two feet away from their abuser” during court appearances, Flexer said.

Editor’s note: The original bill that included this language was SB 1060. However, the new language is in SB 1091 going forward.