A poster outside the Capitol for one of the groups in support of the bill. (Christine Stuart photo)

After more than two hours of discussion, Friday evening the House overwhelmingly passed a domestic violence reform package unofficially called “Jennifers’ Law” that expands the definition of domestic violence and provides new support for victims.

“This is a milestone victory for all victims of abuse,” said Sen. Alex Kasser, D-Greenwich, who worked for two years to get the bill passed. “And it would not have been possible without the tremendous courage and tenacity of survivors who spoke out, told their stories and fought for justice. They are all Jennifers.”

The bill, SB 1091, passed 134 to 8 after Senate approval last month.  

The legislation for the first time creates a definition of domestic violence that includes coercive control, which encompasses behaviors such as threats, intimidation and withholding resources that would allow a person to live independently or leave the relationship. That portion of the bill will go into effect immediately when the law is signed by Gov. Ned Lamont.

Under today’s definition of domestic violence, judges cannot consider acts of coercive control unless they rise to physical harm, and that has hampered some victims from receiving restraining orders. The legislation also allows a victim to email marshals the forms needed to serve a restraining order on an alleged abuser and it creates a free legal assistance program for low-income victims in the five judicial districts where the most restraining orders are filed. 

Several Republicans challenged the bill on the grounds it didn’t go far enough to protect victims.

Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, questioned Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Steve Stafstrom on several aspects of the bill and then concluded that it wouldn’t have saved Jennifer Dulos, who went missing in 2019. Dulos sought a restraining order in 2017 but her request was denied because she couldn’t prove her estranged husband had physically abused her.

Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, D-Avon, said Dulos was her close friend and she had talked to Jennifer three days before she disappeared. “This is probably the most critical legislation we’ll pass this session,” Kavros DeGraw said.

Rep. Jaime Foster, D-Ellington, spoke of her friend Delores who was killed by her husband a week ago. “In Delores’ honor I can do something today that makes sense of your loss,” Foster said of the vote.

Other provisions of the legislation supported by the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence provide guidance to judges in custody cases where domestic violence is alleged, and give tenants the right to change locks soon after a protective order is issued. 

“The changes in this bill will be a lifeline to the more than a third of all Connecticut women who will experience some form of intimate partner violence or stalking in their lifetime,” said Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham. “It’s the result of years of input and experience and advocacy to give victims the tools to leave abusive relationships and hold their abusers accountable,”

The bill also honors Jennifer Magnano, who 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 passed Friday requires the courts to provide victims with an alternate means of testifying if they request to not be in the same courtroom as their abuser. 

When it is signed into law, Connecticut will be the third state in the country to add coercive control to statute, according to Flexer.