Sen. Alex Kasser, D-Greenwich (Christine Stuart / photo)

The Senate passed legislation Tuesday expanding the definition of domestic violence to include coercive control, a concept that will immediately be applied to family court and custody cases if passed by the House and signed by Gov. Ned Lamont.

“For too long, domestic abuse was only recognized as bruises or black eyes. But domestic abuse is much more,” Sen. Alex Kasser, D-Greenwich, said. “Survivors say that non-violent abuse is often more powerful and painful than physical abuse. When a person is threatened with losing her children, her job, her home or her reputation, she is no longer ‘free’ to leave. Victims don’t stay because they want to, they stay because the price of leaving is greater than the suffering they’re already experiencing.”

The legislation, which passed 35 to 1, for the first time creates a definition of domestic violence that includes coercive control, which encompasses behaviors such as threats and intimidation and withholding resources to allow a person to live independently or leave the relationship.

Under the current definition of domestic violence, judges cannot consider acts of coercive control unless they rise to physical harm – a fact that has prevented some victims from receiving restraining orders.

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“When victims come forward and seek a restraining order they will appear before a judge who can give them the protection they need,” Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, said.

Flexer said by the time violence happens, it’s often too late. 

“There is a run-up to physical abuse, and it often starts with things like coercive control,” Flexer said. “This bill represents a restructuring of our state laws to recognize the fact that emotional and mental abuse often starts before physical violence happens.” 

The version of the bill that passed Tuesday included a section that requires landlords to replace the locks of a person who has received a restraining or protective order within six hours of a request – an addition that caused Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, to ask his colleagues to oppose the amendment.

“I am as concerned about victims of domestic violence as anybody,” Sampson said. But he felt the six-hour time frame was “unreasonable.” Sampson was the lone vote against the bill.

But Kasser explained that the six hours simply triggered the period when the tenant could act if the landlord was unable to do so.

Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, a retired police officer, asked if teens who had their car or phone taken away due to discipline could seek a restraining order under the new definition of domestic violence including coercive control.

Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, talks with Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury (Christine Stuart / photo)

Flexer explained that the bill wasn’t aimed at child and parent relationships but rather intimate partner violence.

Several senators called it some of the most important domestic violence legislation the state has passed in years.

“This is about that woman with a new baby who finally realizes this is not how a child should be brought up,” Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague said. It’s also about a child who comes forward because of the way they are being treated at home and the family that needs space to heal, Osten said.

“This piece of legislation allows that for the first time,” Osten said.

The Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates that if passed, the law could increase the number of restraining orders sought annually by 4,000. That, in turn, could trigger a need for more clerks and family relations counselors at a cost of about $1 million a year. 

The proposed law would also create a grant program for free legal counseling to indigent victims at the five judicial districts that see the most requests for restraining orders: Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, Stamford and Waterbury. It sets a standard for “vexatious litigation” – a common tactic used by abusers in court proceedings. The bill provides guidance to judges by defining what to consider in custody cases including allegations of domestic violence, and the physical and emotional safety of parties when deciding custody and visitation. 

In the wake of a murder-suicide involving a married couple in his district this week, Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said the bill would have provided some relief for the woman who was killed by her husband. “Tragically this will help other women who may be in a similar situation,” Duff said.

Numerous survivors of domestic violence spoke during a public hearing in March, 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. 

Kasser began work on the bill after the disappearance of Jennifer Dulos in May of 2019. 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 court 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. Fotis Dulos attempted suicide and died within three weeks of being charged with her murder.

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.

Magnano was killed by her husband in Terryville hours after a judge had ordered her to return with their children to the family home. After her death, the legislature passed a law allowing victims to testify remotely but it was never fully implemented.

The bill that passed Tuesday requires the courts to provide victims with an alternate means of testifying.