Sarah* is a Simsbury mother of three who – amid an ongoing and difficult divorce that has been dragging for more than 18 months – has been trying to clear her name from a large amount of debt she says was created by her husband without her knowledge.
“Credit cards, savings accounts, checking accounts, in my name over the course of 20 years at seven or eight banking institutions," Sarah said. “I had over $230,000 of credit card debt in my name.”
Sarah is a victim of financial abuse at the hands of her estranged husband. She said she was dumbfounded when she discovered the accounts.
“It’s been very stressful; it’s been very stressful for my kids,” Sarah said.
With family court facing delays because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sarah – who has a law degree but was a stay-at-home mom during her marriage – said she’s stuck in limbo, with no credit score, still beholden financially to her estranged husband.
“I don’t have the ability, as a result of financial abuse and coerced debt, to go get a lease on a car," Sarah said.
There is a bill of hope for Sarah.
Jennifer’s Law went into effect on Oct. 1, 2021. Its intention is to help save lives by giving domestic abuse victims more tools to fight back against a controlling or dangerous relationship before it escalates to violence.
Sarah is one of the many women who hope they can now access protections in family court that weren’t there before.
*FOX61 News is not identifying Sarah due to the nature of the divorce proceedings.
What is Jennifer's Law?:
Jennifer’s Law was nicknamed after Jennifer Dulos and Jennifer Magnano.
Dulos – a mother of five – has never been found. Her estranged husband, Fotis Dulos, was charged with her murder but took his own life.
Magnano was shot and killed by her estranged husband in front of their children when she went back to the home they shared.
The law is more than 40 pages long and includes a number of new measures to help domestic violence victims, but perhaps the most profound piece of the new law is the expanded definition of domestic violence to include “coercive control.” It’s defined in the law as “a pattern of behavior that in purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty.” That can include isolating, controlling, regulating, monitoring, threatening behavior, or financial abuse.
“Coercive control and controlling behavior, in general, is the crux of domestic violence," said Karen Foley O'Connor, Executive Director of The Network Against Domestic Abuse. "What’s good about this bill is that we now have [an] agreed-upon language to define it here in the state.”
Foley O’Connor said the concept of coercive control is not new. It’s something they’ve seen time and time again with the domestic violence victims they help. But now, a legal definition is on the books, that victims can use.
“What we’re looking at is maybe the possibility that we can maybe get somebody safe before they are hurt," she said.
New law? New questions and concerns:
But with any new law, there are questions and concerns.
“We have this new law and we’re all very hopeful and grateful to our legislators for passing this, and we have a new definition of coercive control," said Betsy Keller, founder of Connecticut Protective Moms, "but the problem now is how to implement that law.”
Victim's rights groups, like Connecticut Protective Moms, are concerned on how it will be interpreted by attorneys and judges. The worry? It won't have the teeth it was meant to have for victims.
Victim's rights and family attorney Michelle Cruz wrote the report on Magnano’s tragic death when she was the State Victim Advocate in 2007. The report highlighted the systemic failures in both the civil and criminal justice systems. She said Magnano wasn't the only case.
“The courts have not been able to keep them safe," said Cruz, "Part of the problem is coercive control has not been understood in the community, in the court system.”
Cruz said a law was implemented after Magnano’s death. It allowed domestic violence victims to attend court hearings remotely. She claims the law's implementation is a cautionary tale for Jennifer’s Law.
“In 2008 moving forward it was rarely used, most people didn’t know it existed," said Cruz, "so we had this great law that we had to protect victims and it was never implemented.”
She believes judges, attorneys, victims’ advocates, and all court support staff need to be educated and trained on the concept of coercive control.
Mike Lawlor, an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of New Haven, said with any new law and new concept there’s a learning curve.
“I can remember in the 1990s when the stalking laws first went on the books," said Lawlor. “It took a while for that to get up and running. It was modified a number of times during the 1990s to work out the kinks, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this coercive control concept goes through the same process.”
Tackling the learning curve: Training the courts
Efforts are underway at the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence to train judicial employees on the new law, such as court support staff, probation officers, and anyone who may touch a case in court.
Meghan Scanlon, CCADV President and CEO, said they're also training community partners like health professionals.
“We’ve held about 15 trainings and trained over 350 people individuals that would interface with a victim through the civil, criminal family court," said Scanlon.
But what about training on coercive control for judges, the ultimate decision-makers in these complex cases?
FOX61 asked the CT Judicial Branch to take part in this story. The branch declined an interview, but a spokesperson sent over an updated document that lists off the domestic-violence-related education required for judges over the last several years.
The document showed that in 2021 there was a program on coercive control and its impact on children and adults.
The CT Judicial Branch said in a statement: “Judges’ training on domestic violence is extensive, regular, long-standing, conducted by leading national experts in the field and is in addition to other resources available to a judge.”
The branch also informed us additional training on coercive control is planned for 2022.
A hopeful outlook for the future:
One victim advocate told FOX61 she's already seeing Jennifer’s Law work.
“With restraining orders, it’s definitely been helpful to have this law in effect,” said Family Violence Victim Advocate, Colette Donnelly, who advocates for victims at Rockville Superior Court.
“Over the past month I've definitely had more than six restraining orders that were granted just on Jennifer’s Law," said Donnelly, "No physical abuse in the case just coercive control, so it’s definitely been pretty significant.”
Donnelly said a male victim was also granted a restraining order under Jennifer's Law.
While emergency motions like restraining orders and custody applications are going through more quickly, it will take longer to see how Jennifer’s Law plays into complex custody and divorce cases, according to Divorce and Family Law Attorney Alex Cuda. That’s because of a serious case backlog due to that COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been very much been a challenge for litigants, for lawyers, for the courts to be able to hear pending claims in a timely fashion," said Cuda, "so in terms of protecting people with Jennifer’s Law, that’s a significant concern in terms of its implementation.”
Cuda, who is also Chair of the Connecticut Bar Association's Family Law Section, said the Connecticut Bar and the CT Judicial Branch are working together to find ways to alleviate the log jam.
“It’s a shame to see that law or any law not be able to protect people the way it’s intended just because somebody can’t get into court. For months and months and months, at this point, it’s dragging on into well over a year in some instances," said Cuda.
As for Sarah, she has started practicing law again and has been able to clear her name with several banks. According to the paperwork she showed FOX61, some of those banks confirm she was the victim of identity theft.
Sarah said she has filed reports with the Simsbury Police Department, but so far, no criminal charges have been filed against her estranged husband.
However, she is holding out for justice through family court.
“I do want to believe the courts are going to do the right thing for everybody. I do think we’re making progress, the law is passed," said Sarah, "I think the law can be expanded upon but it’s really going to all be based on whether everybody is educated and willing to across the board follow it.”
Sarah recently filed for a restraining order against her estranged husband under Jennifer's Law after she grew concerned with a gun purchase she said he made a few months ago. That restraining order, she told FOX61, was denied.
Ultimately the law will be molded over time through the work of attorneys and the interpretation of judges. At this point, all sides appear to agree that understanding and being educated on the concept of coercive control could save lives.
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