Lawmakers advance package of bills to protect domestic violence victims
The Assembly advanced 11 bills Thursday aimed at helping domestic violence survivors. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)
One by one, women appeared before two dozen lawmakers in Trenton on Thursday to share their stories of being brushed off by the courts after surviving horrifying episodes of domestic violence.
A woman who lived in fear of her ex-husband breaking into her house and kidnapping her kids. Another whose ex-husband withheld insurance information and credit cards when she was 36 weeks pregnant at the start of the pandemic. A third who said her then-husband isolated her from her family and convinced her she had no friends, leaving her alone to suffer.
They were all told the abuse they suffered didn’t rise to the level of domestic abuse under current law, and they say their cries for help were ignored until they were victims of physical violence.
A bill advanced Thursday, if it becomes law, could offer them some protections. The legislation would require courts to consider evidence of coercive control when overseeing domestic violence proceedings, along with emotional, physical, and mental abuse, which they must already consider.
Courtney, a mother of two children, said coercive control — a pattern of controlling behavior that interferes with someone’s free will and daily life — is a stepping stone to physical violence. She was married to her abuser for nine years and said her children are still used as “pawns in his unrelenting game.”
A judge threatened to take away her kids and sent them to live with their father five days a week, she said, before he was deemed an abuser by a forensic psychologist. She obtained custody three days before Christmas, she said.
She said the abuse built up as they spent more time together. At the start of their relationship, he controlled her relationships, punched walls, and spit in her face. But it soon became more violent — he forced her to engage in sexual acts for hours, threatened to cut off her access to insurance while pregnant, and refused to let her nurse her babies.
But, she added, all this abuse she suffered from him was “without ever having to raise a finger. This is the power of coercive control.”
“A family court judge ignored my pleas for help and ordered our children to spend significantly more time with their abusive father,” she said. “I remain trapped in the court system because of the lack of understanding.”
Under the bill, courts could have to consider coercive control, including controlling victims’ finances; isolating them from support; threatening harm; damaging property; regulating someone’s movements, communications, and daily behaviors; or depriving them of their basic necessities.
Derrick Reed of the New Jersey State Bar Association argued that the bill would limit judges’ control over their rulings. He said judges should look “holistically at the nature of the behavior that was exhibited.”
Others shared concerns that abusers would find other ways to abuse their partners not prohibited by the bill.
Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro (D-Hudson) said the bill’s inclusion of ways abusers use coercive control would be helpful to judges who might be numb to domestic violence cases, since they see thousands of them a year.
“We have to do something, and we just can’t say, ‘Oh, it’s really hard and it’s really confusing.’ The system is already messed up. We have to do something,” she said.
The measure was one of nearly a dozen passed Thursday during a four-hour meeting of the Assembly’s judiciary and law and public safety committees. The measures ranged from requiring domestic violence orders to be issued in languages besides English to expanding the issuance of restraining orders in certain situations.
The package of legislation received both opposition and support from survivors. Some voiced concerns over overly broad language that could lead to unintended consequences.
“Yes, we can do better, we could do better, but we need to do something now. We can’t walk away today without helping these women,” said Assemblyman Sterley Stanley (D-Middlesex).
Other bills in the package would:
- Require OBGYN providers to perform domestic violence screenings.
- Bar courts from awarding alimony to a person convicted of certain criminal offenses.
- Allow courts to order counseling for children exposed to domestic violence in their homes.
- Make a restraining order applicable to a pregnant victim’s child once the baby is born.
- Permit tenants with temporary or permanent restraining orders to change locks on their rental units.
- Require copies of certain police records to be provided to victims upon request.
- Allow courts to issue an order mandating phone companies transfer phone numbers to domestic violence victims that aren’t account holders.
- Authorize protective orders where there may not be a familial or dating relationship between the victim and the abuser, which does not rise to domestic violence statutes.
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