On Jan. 17, prosecutors in Stoughton charged Victor Carter with viciously murdering Amber Buckner, who was stabbed 30 times. Police found her with the handle of a 4-inch knife protruding from her right temple. The next day, prosecutors in Quincy charged Brian Walshe of Cohasset with brutally murdering his wife, Ana, then dismembering and discarding her body. Last year, there were 26 domestic violence-related homicides in Massachusetts — a more than 40% increase over the previous year. Most perpetrators were men; a majority of the victims were women.
To address this scourge, Massachusetts lawmakers have so far filed nearly 70 bills this year. One approach is to address coercive control — the attempt to dominate an intimate partner by subjecting them to psychological, sexual, technological or financial abuse.
“Almost all domestic homicides are preceded by coercive control,” says Lisa Fontes, a senior lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship. “In fact, coercive control is a better predictor of domestic homicide than previous violent assaults.”
Survivors of domestic violence and their advocates are organizing across the state of Massachusetts to pass new laws addressing coercive control. HD 1844 and SD 1975 would allow survivors to obtain a restraining order based on coercive control and technological abuse, including electronic monitoring or surveillance, non-consensual sharing of explicit images and impersonation on the internet.
“Physical violence is just one tool in an abuser’s tool box — along with intimidation, isolation, manipulation, and emotional, financial, legal and sexual abuse,” says Fontes. “This legislation is important because it enables Massachusetts victims of coercive control to seek protective orders based on the entire tool box of coercive control. This is especially important where there either was not physical violence or where the physical violence has not been documented.”
Examples of coercive control include isolating a spouse or partner from friends or relatives; repeatedly humiliating a partner or using degrading language or behaviors towards them; controlling, regulating or monitoring a partner’s activities, communications or finances; damaging property; threatening to abuse family pets; displaying a firearm in an intimidating manner; and threatening deportation.
“Coercive control is devastating. It tears down the individuality and the centeredness of a person. It leaves them open to self-doubt and therefore makes it more difficult for them to leave an abusive situation,” says Jamie Sabino, Deputy Director of Advocacy at the Mass Law Reform, a leading advocate for the legislation.
Courts are willing to issue restraining orders in cases of physical violence, but many will not when the abuse is not physically violent or when it happened in the past, says Sabino.
“Sometimes an abuser has beat up a person in the past and then continues to use coercive control. Survivors will say, ‘he was talking to me the way he did when he beat me up before, I just had to do what he said because I was so afraid of it.’ But if they go into court at that point, a judge is going to say, you’re not in reasonable fear at the moment,” says Sabino.
Advocates are also supporting legislation to prohibit abusive litigation. HD 2611 (introduced by state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-South Deerfield) and SD 2054, would prohibit litigation for the purpose of abusing, harassing, intimidating, threatening or maintaining contact with a current or former family or household member. Examples are constantly refiling motions in a custody matter when they have been repeatedly denied or bringing claims with no legal or factual basis. Abusive litigation costs survivors time and money, and subjects them to the emotional trauma of constantly having to face off against their abuser in court.
“Judges could stop this now and sometimes do — but are reluctant to cut off access to the courts,” says Sabino. “Having this bill would give specific guidance to judges (and litigants) as to what is controlling and abusive litigation — and would allow a judge to not only compensate survivors for their costs but also allow judges to put in place protections like limiting new custody motions unless approved by the judge.”
Massachusetts’ statewide coalition of domestic abuse and sexual assault community providers Jane Doe Inc. supports both of these laws as do survivor networks from across the state and local lawmakers.
“Some of the hardest calls my office receives are from people trying to survive and escape from intimate partner violence,” says state Rep. Lyndsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, who is co-sponsoring both bills. “It becomes clear from those conversations that the law, while trying to help, often doesn’t do enough to protect them and, in fact, puts up hurdles making it harder for survivors to move on with their lives. These bills are small, concrete things that the state can do to offer assistance and support.”
Carrie N. Baker is a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College and a regular contributor to Ms. Magazine.