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How California's Coercive Control Act could help women manipulated by their partners

Coercive control

By Viji Sundaram. Ethnic Media Services.

Blanca suffered decades of psychological abuse from her husband, whose behaviors fall under the category of abuse that sociologists and family law experts call coercive control.

After two decades of marriage, Blanca finally reached a breaking point. Watching her husband tear apart the wedding dress she had so painstakingly sewn, and then kept over time, caused something to change inside her.

The emotional abuse had been going on for years, according to Blanca. She said he constantly denigrated her appearance and her Hispanic accent by speaking English, refused to include her and their two children in the health insurance he had from his job as a mechanic, and made her pay all the rent on the Bay Area house they shared with his relatives.

Experts in sociology and family law call this type of behavior coercive control, in which people - usually men - nonviolently manipulate their intimate partners to do their bidding. It can also give way to physical violence, as research shows.

Coercive control is underreported, as is abuse in general. It is often hidden in plain sight.

"I started to feel ugly and worthless," Blanca said. "I started to get depressed."

She spoke to us on the condition that we not reveal her last name and that she not contact her husband for his comments, for the safety of her family. Since 2017, Blanca has worked as a maid for several people, including this journalist.

Blanca said she was aware that leaving an abuser was the most dangerous time for a woman. But after decades of damage to her self-esteem, she has finally cut ties.

And under a California law passed in 2020, the government is finally offering some recognition of the harm it suffered.

Recognizing the harm that coercive control can cause

Coercive control encompasses a wide range of behaviors that cause emotional distress, according to social scientists. Some common practices include isolating someone from friends and relatives; depriving the person of basic needs; or controlling communications, daily behavior and financial resources.

At its core, "coercive control is an imbalance of power obtained through cruel, powerful, and manipulative means," said Chitra Raghavan, a forensic psychologist at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

There are no federal laws dealing with coercive control in this country. But a handful of states have recently taken action to criminalize it.

In 2020, the California Legislature amended the state's Family Code to include. coercive control as evidence of domestic violence, which expanded the definition contained in the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. The statute defines coercive control as "a pattern of behavior that as a purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person's free will and personal liberty."

California took action a month after Hawaii added coercive control to its definition. Last June, Connecticut passed a similar law; and bills in New York, South Carolina and Maryland are in the pipeline.

"The fact that so many jurisdictions want to codify coercive control into law means that it is recognized as a harm for which there should be a legal remedy," said Julie Saffren, who teaches a course on domestic violence at Santa Clara University School of Law as an adjunct professor.

A person subject to a restraining order is prohibited from possessing or purchasing firearms while the order is in effect. A person subject to a restraining order is prohibited from possessing or purchasing firearms while the order is in effect.

"The law can also be used when the victim seeks child custody and the court decides in favor of the child's best interests," said Pallavi Dhawan, director of domestic violence policy and prevention for the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office, the bill's sponsor.

Susan Rubio, a state senator, introduced the coercive control legislation as a survivor of domestic abuse herself.

"I endured domestic abuse myself and I know what survivors go through," she said, adding, "It's about time it was recognized that domestic violence is more than just physical abuse. This bill protects survivors of domestic violence by making their cases harder to dismiss and easier to prosecute."

Dhawan, who worked closely with Rubio in drafting the legislation, said the bill initially faced resistance from those who wanted to make coercive control a crime.

Rubio said he decided not to make it a crime because the issue was "foreign to some of my colleagues and making it a criminal offense would have clogged up the bill."

Women's advocates also point out that a criminal response is not the most effective way to obtain justice for survivors who just want the abuse to stop.

"The criminal response creates barriers to reporting," said Shiwali Patel, who advocates for cultural and policy change for women and girls at the National Women's Law Center near Washington, D.C. "If it's a civil matter, the survivor will have more control over the process."

"I always felt tied down."

Blanca, 50, said that at first her husband, a U.S. citizen of Mexican origin, seemed pleasant and attentive.

But a few months into their marriage, her husband began to belittle her. The insults became more personal after she confronted him about a love affair he was having. "Your hands are rough and not very smooth," he would tell her. "You have chicken legs." "You have a manly build and stretch marks on your stomach."

Still, it was his behavior that made the relationship coercive. Blanca had no control over her finances, even though she made as much money cleaning houses as her husband, who worked as a mechanic.

He insisted that she pay all the rent on a four-bedroom house they shared with her children, and his mother and brother in Contra Costa County. He told her to pay for utilities, groceries and other household expenses.

"I always felt tied down," Blanca said, crossing her wrists in front of her as a few tears escaped.

It was particularly humiliating, Blanca said, when her husband had his new girlfriend call her to tell her she had only herself to blame, a tactic many abusers use to maintain power and control.

In terms of mental health, I think it's a form of projection where it's unbearable for the abuser to acknowledge his or her behavior because inside he or she knows it's wrong, so he or she projects outward to hold his or her partner accountable," Saffren said.

Last fall, Blanca filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. Court documents show that her husband has also filed for divorce, citing the same reason.

When asked why she had not left her husband earlier, Blanca said she could not imagine a life without him.

"I was always forgiving her behavior," he said with a frown. After a pause, he continued. "Now, that I'm going through a divorce, I wonder why."

This article is part of a series on California's coercive control law produced by the San Francisco Public Press, a nonprofit investigative news organization. Read the full article and others in the series at sfpublicpress.org/series/coercive-control. This story was funded by a grant from the Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund of the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. It was excerpted, edited and translated by Ethnic Media Services.

You may be interested in: "I wasn't allowed to have my own thoughts": California courts begin criminalizing psychological domestic abuse

Peninsula 360 Press
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