‘I Was Not Allowed to Have My Own Thoughts’: California Courts Start Penalizing Psychological Domestic Abuse
This article is part of a series on California’s new coercive control law, underwritten by a Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund grant from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.
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It didn’t take long for Emily Caesar to realize that Trevor, the man she had fallen in love with and married, had to have his way on everything — how she dressed, with whom she spoke, how much she ate, where she went. He never let her forget that he was head of the household, Emily told the court.
Emily provided written documents and audio to show how he had allegedly abused her time and time again. In her testimony, she said he monitored her phone conversations, even those related to the web design business they jointly set up before their marriage. Sometimes, she recalled, in a fit of jealousy he would hang up on male clients while she was negotiating a business deal.
Trevor was so controlling, she said, “I felt I was not allowed to have my own thoughts.”
So she bit her tongue and said nothing, afraid of his mercurial temper. In November 2020, after receiving a bruised arm from him — an episode his lawyer says was mostly her fault — representatives from his church told her she should accept physical discipline from her husband, she said in an interview. Their message: She needed to learn to forgive.
Her attorney, Minty Siu-Kootnikoff, filed for a temporary restraining order in February 2021 and custody of the couple’s then 6-year-old son. It was a complicated case, with accusations of bad parenting and disruptive drug use flying back and forth between the couple.
Siu-Kootnikoff was one of the first lawyers to invoke a new legal tool California had enacted just a month earlier that expanded on the law’s long-standing conception of domestic violence. The reform allows victims to claim a pattern of “coercive control” — psychological abuse that does not necessarily end in physical harm. Siu-Kootnikoff is the legal services director at Sojourn, a domestic violence shelter in Santa Monica.
Siu-Kootnikoff viewed the recently enacted law as the best tool for getting her client a legal remedy. “Domestic violence is about control, and is not limited to physical abuse,” Siu-Kootnikoff said. “Therefore the amendments adding coercive control to the definition of ‘disturbing the peace’ are critical to addressing abuse that is not dealt with in the criminal codes, yet is as damaging and destructive as a black eye or broken arm.”
Not all judges are sympathetic to the stories of intimate partners who claim emotional abuse, and some even exhibit misogynistic conduct, women’s rights advocates say. More than six in every 10 California judges are male, down from seven a dozen years ago. It is not uncommon to hear a judge cast doubt on a claim of domestic abuse if one partner returns to the other after the abuse was alleged to have started. But the conclusion of the judge who heard Emily’s case shows that at least a few jurists seem to have gotten the message.
“The dynamic of domestic violence is not subject to black-and-white rules,” Judge Michael J. Convey of the Los Angeles County Superior Court noted in his Feb. 5, 2021, ruling on the case. “It is individual. It is nuanced. It is changing. The court’s views of domestic violence are evolving over the years to reflect a more proscriptive assessment — and a set of orders designed to recognize more subtle, more insidious, if you will, behaviors that can be called violence or abuse.”
Convey echoed the observations of sociologist and forensic worker Dr. Evan Stark, whose prize-winning book “Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life” helped to stimulate the conversation on the newly recognized crime of coercive and controlling behavior in the United States and throughout the United Kingdom and Australia. “It’s not about hitting or hurting, but taking away women’s autonomy,” Stark said in an interview.
Convey agreed with Siu-Kootnikoff that what Emily had undergone for years was indeed coercive control, that there “was an exercise of coercive control by Trevor and that it was pervasive and that it was long-standing and that it was part of the dynamic between them.”
The judge also said that by going back to Trevor a year after they divorced in 2015, he was not persuaded to discredit her story, citing research showing that it is not uncommon for victims to return to their abusers.
It remains to be seen how many more judges affirm what proponents of the concept say is the purpose of the reform, which is to give victims like Emily the benefit of the doubt.
The 2020 California law, introduced by state Sen. Susan Rubio, herself a survivor of domestic abuse, widens the definition of domestic violence and allows victims to introduce evidence of coercive control in applications in family court for a restraining order or child custody. The coercive control law applies to civil, but not criminal, cases.
California became the second state in the nation to adopt such a reform, following Hawaii in September 2020. In July 2021, Connecticut passed a law similar to California’s, with a couple of additional provisions: It set up barriers to vexatious litigation, preventing abusers from dragging their intimate partners to court for frivolous reasons, said Meghan Scanlon, president of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The law also established a grant program to provide low-income survivors with access to legal assistance when making an application for a restraining order in five of its cities where the most domestic violence cases are heard. California’s law has no direct funding provision.
All of the laws passed so far recognize coercive control as a subtler form of abusive behavior that is often overlooked when a victim testifies about abuse. It occurs when an abuser isolates an intimate partner from friends and family, takes over their personal finances and surveils their activity, or uses verbal attacks to reinforce authority.
In her book, “Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship,” author Lisa Aronson Fontes, a survivor of domestic abuse, says coercive control describes an ongoing and multipronged attack, with tactics that include manipulation, humiliation, isolation, financial abuse, stalking and sometimes physical or sexual abuse.
Coercive control is “about domination and control,” noted David A. McLeod, an associate professor in the Social Work Department at the University of Oklahoma, who has researched and published papers on intimate partner violence. “If the abuser feels he is losing control, he will push his partner back into compliance.”
The view from the bench
Women’s rights advocates say it is hard to convince court officials that victims who claim coercive control should be taken seriously, rather than wait for them to be bruised or hospitalized.
“We prefer to use the term abuse rather than violence because it means so much more than physical violence,” Convey wrote in his ruling on Emily and Trevor’s case. “And the term has been used here, coercive control.”
He continued: “Where appropriate, it can be found to be mental abuse. It can be found to be upsetting enough to cause one’s peace to be disturbed and their calm, their emotional calm to be upset.”
More than 1 in 3 women in the U.S., and 1 in 4 men, will experience physical violence, rape or stalking by an intimate partner. —National Domestic Violence Hotline
The education of judges in how to apply the law will be key to its success. Women’s rights advocates say enshrining the concept of coercive control gives family courts additional options to punish behaviors that have severe mental and financial consequences for victims, and might become violent if not addressed early.
On average in the U.S., more than 1 in 3 women, and 1 in 4 men, will experience physical violence, rape or stalking by an intimate partner, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
During the pandemic, domestic violence in the U.S. has risen by more than 8%, studies show. In response, the Biden administration last year invested nearly $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan to support services for domestic violence survivors, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Even prior to California, Connecticut and Hawaii passing coercive control laws, some jurisdictions in the United Kingdom and Australia had broadened definitions of abuse. But it may take at least 10 years to know how well the laws are working, said Chitra Raghavan, a women’s rights advocate and forensic psychologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Meanwhile, in California at least, some judges, inspired by the intent of the new law, are taking action.
Drawn-out court battle
Emily tied the knot with Trevor in 2011, two years after they began dating. She was 30 and he was 28. He checked all the boxes: charismatic, tall, attractive, a good business partner with a shared interest in travel. And she loved how he showered her with attention.
They ran their web designing business out of their home in Castaic, in Los Angeles County. Her skill was in designing animated cartoons and games. Between them, they were pulling in between $15,000 and $20,000 a month, Emily said.
But early on she also noticed how “controlling and narcissistic” Trevor could be, she said. Even so, she kept excusing his behavior and was determined to make the relationship work. That didn’t happen, and in 2015, they divorced. They shared joint custody of their son, then a toddler.
Three years later, they got back together because they decided that it would be better if Trevor were more involved in the child’s life, according to both parents.
“He’s absolutely my world,” said Trevor about his son in a recent telephone conversation. When Emily went to his church, he added, “I took it as a hopeful sign.”
But once they were back together, she said the abuse she had earlier experienced only intensified and at least once turned physical.
In November 2020, when Emily was trying to get her son ready for school and sought Trevor’s help because the boy would not cooperate, Trevor held her by her arms and pushed her “multiple times” in front of their son, according to testimony presented at the February 2021 trial. She included pictures of bruises on her arm as exhibits.
We prefer to use the term abuse rather than violence because it means so much more than physical violence. —Judge Michael J. Convey
Trevor’s attorney, Matthew J. Chung, defended his client’s behavior on that day.
“Emily was the one that was getting up in Trevor’s face,” Chung told the court. “Emily was the one who was pushing forth towards him. Emily was the one who was yelling” at the boy.
“Had she not gotten into Trevor’s face,” Chung said, “he would not have a need to have defended himself and pushed Emily away.”
In his conversation with the San Francisco Public Press, Trevor alleged that he was a victim too. “It’s difficult to summarize these very personal events,” he said. “But I can tell you there was a lot of violence perpetrated by her against me.”
In testimony, Emily alleged that Trevor manipulated the boy, telling him Emily’s opinion didn’t matter and encouraging the child to side with him against her. She heard the boy once tell Trevor, “It’s OK to hit mommy if she doesn’t do what you say.”
She told the court that Trevor did not allow her to “actively parent,” or have a say in what school he attended. Trevor also made all the household decisions.
She accused Trevor of spanking their son, sometimes so hard that it left welts, a claim Chung sought to discredit in court. He suggested it was a “light clap.”
“Nothing more than that,” Chung said. “No lasting redness, no lasting lumps on the minor child’s body.”
But Judge Convey dismissed that claim. After pointing out that Trevor did testify that he used physical discipline on the boy, evidence “also shows that the physical discipline caused red marks on the child. That is excessive physical force to a child.”
Chung said that if anything, it was Emily who, through a deluge of text messages, kept gaslighting Trevor — making him question his own sanity. The messages cast Trevor as “always a bad person,” paraphrasing them as “Why are you abusing me? You should stop abusing me.”
At the trial, Chung said that Emily smoked marijuana in the presence of their son. “Emily used marijuana at the household and at family events to excess,” and even in the presence of the boy, to deal with her diagnosed anxiety disorder, diminishing her parenting skills, said Chung.
But Convey dismissed that allegation: “There has been insufficient evidence that this use of either prescription drugs or marijuana has altered or impacted her ability to care,” he said.
He just as emphatically dismissed Emily’s accusations that Trevor was using non-prescription opioids and alcohol to excess. “The evidence was absolutely to the contrary,” he said, finding that Trevor had been sober for several years.
Convey said he believed Trevor when he said that after the November 2020 incident, he did not “kick” Emily out of the house, that she left the premises voluntarily.
In his ruling, Convey granted Emily a temporary restraining order against her ex for three years and denied Trevor one against her. He also gave Emily sole custody of their son. Trevor was given unsupervised visitation rights three weekends a month.
“I made mistakes,” Trevor said in an interview. “I wasn’t perfect.” But he said he found the judge’s decision distressing: “I’m having to entrust our child to someone who’s not stable.”
Emily said she did not ask for child support from Trevor because she wanted to make a “clean break from him.”
Both Trevor and Emily were ordered to attend parenting classes separately. Emily said she continued to take medicine to treat her anxiety disorder and migraines, and attended court-mandated group therapy.
Asked why she went back to Trevor after she experienced so much psychological abuse during the four years she was married to him, Emily said that’s a question she has often asked herself.
“All that I went through,” she said, “is behind me now.”
This article is part of a series on California’s coercive control law, underwritten by a Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund grant from the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California.
[This article was originally published by San Francisco Public Press.]