BY GILLIAN LAMPHERE and SAMANTHA ROSENGARD
URBAN HEALTH MEDIA PROJECT
GREENWICH, CONN. – It was only in looking back that the southern Connecticut mother of two saw all the red flags in her marriage: her husband criticized her looks, their childrens’ looks, how she cleaned the house, even her cooking. He’d stand over her, watching her every move, waiting for a mistake.
In the early days of their relationship, he was sweet and charming, she said. The change in behavior was gradual and subtle, she said, and when she did finally realize something was wrong, she couldn’t put it into words.
“I couldn’t say it was drinking or drugs or there were infidelity issues. There was just something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on,” said the woman, who is remaining anonymous out of fear of retaliation by her ex-husband.
Over the course of many years, she came to the conclusion that what was happening was not healthy. “There was a lot of control that I wasn’t aware of and that I didn’t see,” said the woman. “I thought, ‘What am I doing? I can’t stay.’ I didn’t want [my children] to think this was a healthy relationship.”
So she left.
Leaving was not an easy process. When she first announced that she wanted a divorce, the couple entered counseling, which didn’t help. An attempt at a collaborative divorce, wherein both parties and their lawyers sit in a room and try to work out terms without the need for a court appearance, also failed.
The court process dragged on for almost eleven months. Each new delay required a continuance to be requested, and as the plaintiff, the woman was responsible for the legal fees.
A ‘tribe of smart women’ working together
This past fall, she joined Connecticut Protective Moms (CPM), a grassroots organization of more than 100 Connecticut parents working to pass legislation that was re-introduced in the new legislative session earlier this month. The bill, SB-442, would broaden the definition of domestic violence beyond physical abuse to include coercive control and emotional, verbal, financial, and legal abuse.
The legislation is informally called Jennifer’s Law after Jennifer Dulos, the New Canaan mother of five who disappeared in May 2019 after telling people, including the family’s nanny, she feared her estranged husband, Fotis, might hurt her. Fotis Dulos was charged with murder in January 2020, but died after a suicide attempt.
The woman was very familiar with the Dulos case. Her youngest child had gone to school with one of the Dulos sons.
Joining CPM and working with a group of 25 other parents to pass Jennifer’s Law made the woman feel less alone and provided a sense of purpose, she said.
Dozens of Connecticut mothers like the woman have contacted CPM’s founder Betsy Keller to find emotional assistance and strategies to deal with the court-related abuse and harassment often involved in their own cases, and to join the fight to pass Jennifer’s Law. “CPM moms understand that Jennifer’s Law…will help protect their children from all forms of abuse,” Keller said.
Working on passing the law has provided hope to many of these women who felt alone in their experience, Keller said. “They now know they have a tribe of smart women who have experienced the same legally abusive patterns, and fighting together gives us a collective voice to create change.”
The woman said CPM helped her to feel connected and not alone in her journey: “I realized that I’m going to be in pain no matter what, but because I’m in this group, I know that I don’t have to do it by myself,” she said.
If Jennifer’s Law passes, Connecticut would be among the first states to legally expand the definition of domestic violence in this way, following California, Idaho, and Hawaii.
Physical violence not the only abuse
“Coercive control can be psychological-isolation, intimidation, and gaslighting. It can be economic-stealing money or withholding resources. It can be legal retribution-dragging us into court when reasonable people could resolve the issues. It can be sexual-coerced sex or other forms of sexual humiliation. Or it can be the threat of having something taken, including your own children,” said Connecticut Sen. Alex Kasser (D-Greenwich), who introduced Jennifer’s Law in the State Senate’s judiciary committee.
The insidious nature of coercive control, alongside the lack of legal protection that the court offers survivors, can make it feel like there is no way out.
“Never ask a woman ‘why did you stay?’,” said Kasser. “We do not choose to stay. We think we have no choice.”
Jennifer’s Law would aim to broaden the legal definition, and allow family court judges to recognize and issue protective orders even if physical assault has not yet occurred, said Kasser.
Kasser stated that, “when a woman asserts her independence the old methods of coercive control no longer work, so an abuser escalates. Sometimes to physical violence.”
This is true of the anonymous survivor, who is one of the estimated 1.2 million women in Connecticut who have experienced domestic violence. The abuse she suffered, the woman said, was not physical until after her divorce was finalized in August of 2014 and she was moving out of the house. She and her husband had been living together throughout the divorce proceedings. When the day finally came for her to leave, he hit her in the driveway.
“He was in this rage,” she said. ”I didn’t know who he was.”
Completely stunned, she ran inside the house and had her friend, who was helping her pack, call the police. Her ex-husband was arrested.
She reached out for help at a crisis center and was connected to a lawyer, a therapist and a group of fellow survivors. She filed for a protective order, which is granted through criminal court. Since the custody arrangements were being determined in family court, the day after the incident her ex-husband was still allowed to see the kids.
She could not believe that the driveway incident and arrest did not impact his custody. “[That incident] shows someone’s capability, right? It shows their violence. It was mind-blowing to me.”
It is this tangled and complicated legal system that Jennifer’s Law would hope to improve. While the woman is not sure if Jennifer’s Law would have impacted her divorce if it had existed during her proceedings, she has no doubt that it would have made the post-divorce litigation much easier.
The woman said her experience working to pass Jennifer’s Law and in her recovery from domestic violence has made her more tenacious. In 2020, she worked to increase voter turnout in Connecticut, and was among a group of people invited to meet with Gov. Ned Lamont. While others in the group asked the governor about COVID-19, she asked about domestic violence and Jennifer’s Law, she said.
Such work has helped her recognize she is stronger than she thought she was.
“I became a phoenix rising from the ashes,” she said.
Keller said women like this who are fighting for awareness “will hopefully one day change the fate for other protective moms trying to keep their kids safe from abuse in a family courtroom where there is misinformation, gender bias and ignorance of what [domestic violence] actually looks like behind closed doors.”
Kasser agrees: “What keeps domestic violence a shameful secret is shame and fear. And that is something that we need to change.”
Keller compares her group to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which was formed by a California mother in 1980 after her daughter was killed by a drunk driver, and has since expanded to every state. MADD has helped pass laws increasing the minimum drinking age and reducing the legal limit for blood alcohol levels.
“Do something and don’t just complain,” Keller said. “CPM moms are done complaining and now are collectively doing something about it.”
Editor’s note: Gillian Lamphere is a sophomore at Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy in Hartford, Conn. Samantha Rosengard is a graduate student in Boston University’s College of Communications and a UHMP intern. Lamphere was a participant in the Urban Health Media Project’s fall 2020 workshop “Surviving and Thriving Despite Trauma,” which was sponsored by The National Council for Behavioral Health.