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What I learned reporting on the failures of California’s coercive control law

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What I learned reporting on the failures of California’s coercive control law

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(Photo by Jeremy Bishop via Unsplash)
(Photo by Jeremy Bishop via Unsplash)

When I began reporting the story on California’s coercive control statute, it had just been passed by the state to give women experiencing prolonged emotional or psychological abuse a remedial tool against their partners in family court. I soon came upon a 36-year-old mother in Berkeley who told me she would’ve preferred her husband had beaten her instead of emotionally and psychologically controlling her for years. 

“I wish he had hit me instead of torturing me for years,” she said. “That would have given me a good reason to leave.” 

But even if she had left him and taken him to court for a protective order, there was no guarantee she would have won. I found out there were many family court judges who routinely discredit women’s stories of abuse. For instance, there was a judge in Southern California who said the woman who was claiming long-term abuse by her husband could not be credible. If she were speaking the truth, why had she stayed in the marriage for five years and had a child with him? he asked.

Then there was the South Asian woman in Fremont who claimed that she had been emotionally abused by her husband for 10 years, with the abuse occasionally turning physical. He once allegedly threw hot chai in her face. And more than once he had tried to choke her. Last year, she tried to get a restraining order against him and custody of their children, now aged 5 and 6, invoking the newly minted coercive control law.  But the judge who presided over her case told her that her claims of abuse were not credible because she kept going back to him again and again, and even spent Valentine’s Day with him last year. 

Such pronouncements from the bench cause women’s rights activists to gasp.  “It’s absolutely outrageous,” as one of them put it.

Even so, most say having the coercive control law is better than not having it because survivors of even non-physical forms of abuse can now get restraining orders against their partners and custody of their children if they could prove the abuse had occurred, and if they were lucky enough to land a judge who understands the nuances of such behavior. 

I soon came to understand what the women’s rights activist I interviewed meant when she asserted that the law is good only if family court judges set aside their pre-conceived biases against women and recognize what they had gone through as an insidious form of domestic abuse.

I couldn’t determine how many of the 1,643 Superior Court judges in California had been educated on the new law before they were assigned to family court after the bill kicked in in January 2021. Representatives from the California Judicial Council (CJC), which oversees the training, seemed reluctant to share that information, saying they didn’t know because they were not the only ones that did the training. Some of it was outsourced. All they would say is that they had included training on the new law long before it went into effect. 

Yet last November, nearly a year after the law was enacted, Pallavi Dhawan, director of domestic violence policy at the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office, the main sponsor of the bill, wrote to the CJC expressing her concern over whether family court judges were qualified to do their jobs. 

“I'm hearing feedback from stakeholders, mostly survivors, about judges lacking an understanding of (the law), particularly how it intersects with child custody determinations …. I understand that the Judicial Council oversees training, and that we've talked about this already, but I'm concerned about the feedback I've received from survivors since the last time we spoke.” 

California should have taken a page out of Scotland’s 2018 coercive control law and assigned money in the bill to train its judiciary on the law even before it went into effect. 

Some women told me that they couldn’t appeal a judge’s ruling denying them a restraining order because they didn’t have the money to do it. It makes you wonder why California, with its $75 billion general fund surplus in 2020, could not have set aside some money to fund its coercive control law, when Connecticut, with its much smaller budget surplus of $3 billion, included a grant program in its law, passed just a few month’s after California’s, to provide low-income survivors living in counties where there is a high incidence of domestic violence with legal representation when applying for a restraining order. 

The California law also falls short in another area: It has no requirement for any state agency to keep track on just how many survivors had used the law to get protections against their abusers. Lack of record keeping will make it hard to find out how the bill is holding up and where it is falling short. 

I am hoping that my stories will move the policy needle and make the coercive control law in California a lot stronger. I was lucky to find a handful of women willing to share their experiences with me.  

The Mexican immigrant woman who trusted me with her story of having been in an abusive marriage for two decades seemed like a good story to start my three-part series, even though she could not take advantage of the law because she was neither seeking a restraining order against her husband nor custody of their children because they were young adults when the law kicked in. She simply left her husband and filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. The woman had endured psychological and financial abuse and, according to her lawyer, was a “textbook case of a coercively controlled victim.” It seemed a shame to not tell her story. My editor at the San Francisco Public Press pointed out that it would be the perfect narrative to begin the story arc. I should use her story as a canvas to paint the nuances of the law and its provenance, which I did. 

What happened to a San Diego woman who had faced coercive control from her husband in the five years they were married lent itself to the second section of the story arc. It talks about how women face legal obstacles in family court because of the misogynistic attitude of some judges. Many women say they were retraumatized during their trial, and at least one woman told me she wished she hadn’t sought relief through the courts. 

I wanted to end the series on a positive note and I luckily found Emily, a survivor of abuse, who was happy to tell me her story. When I interviewed her, Emily had just a few months earlier won a restraining order against her ex, as well as custody of their child. During the seven years she had spent with him — four years as his wife and three years thereafter — she said she was tightly controlled by him. “I often felt I was not allowed to have my own thoughts.” The judge who presided over her trial seemed to have understood what coercive control was all about and he laid it out in his decision, citing case law and provisions in the law itself. He granted Emily a restraining order and custody of her son.

For other reporters who are covering issues of coercive control and domestic violence, I share a few words of advice that may help:

  • Don’t refer to formerly abused women as victims. Call them survivors. Remember, they want to believe they have a future. 

  • Remember to balance the ethics of journalism with the safety of the people brave enough to let you interview them. Don’t use the story if there is even a sliver of a chance that the survivor has put her life in danger by talking to you.

  • Interview as many survivors as possible to have a “cushion” just in case some of them change their mind about going public with their stories before you publish them.

  • Be skeptical about the information court clerks give. One clerk told me I would never be able to get the court transcripts of a particular trial because a minor child was involved. Trial transcripts are in the public domain. You can get them through the court reporter who covered the trial — for a fee, of course.

  • Have infinite patience when interviewing a domestic violence survivor. Keep reminding yourself that she is healing from a traumatic experience.

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