Jennifer’s Law: Dramatic Shift In Connecticut Family Law Landscape

by McConnell Family Law

Domestic Violence Mental and Physical Abuse

The holiday season should be a time for joy and celebration.  But for some, it can be a time of increased family violence

This past October, Connecticut law regarding domestic violence took a major step in a new direction.  Prior to the enactment of Jennifer’s Law, victims could apply for Restraining Orders only upon the showing of a continuous threat of present physical pain or injury, stalking, or a pattern of such behavior.  Now, Jennifer’s law provides victims with the ability to file for Restraining Orders to stop non-physical coercive control.  Additionally, victims of coercive control can now seek protections for their children as the requirements for entering Custody and Visitation Orders have been amended to include the physical and emotional safety of the child.

Jennifer’s Law is named for two Connecticut victims of domestic violence and coercive control.  Jennifer Dulos has been missing since May 2019.  Her husband, Fotis Dulos, was charged with her murder.  Fotis Dulos took his own life in 2020.  Prior to the date of her disappearance, Jennifer Dulos shared her fears of leaving the family home and having to arrange to move quickly, within a short period of hours.  Jennifer Magnano was shot and killed by her husband in front of her children in 2007.  Her husband also took his own life.  Jennifer Magnano was killed after being required to testify against her husband in Family Court. 

Jennifer’s Law protects against psychological abuse by expanding the definition of domestic violence from a continual threat of present physical pain, physical injury, or pattern of stalking, to include coercive control which is defined as a pattern of behavior that in purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty.

“Coercive control” includes, but is not limited to, such actions as isolating the victim, depriving the victim of basic necessities, monitoring and/or controlling the victim regarding movements or finances, and threatening sex acts or the publication of sexual images, or “revenge porn.”  The law further includes threats of animal abuse. 

Importantly, Jennifer’s Law permits a Restraining Order applicant to file remotely instead of having to go to the Courthouse to apply.  Restraining Order applicants can further request to testify in court virtually instead of in person.  Further, State Marshals must now accept Restraining Orders electronically, so that the victim does not have to meet the Marshal in person.

Statistics show that physical abuse represents approximately 10% of all Domestic Violence cases.  Connecticut is only the third state to enact a coercive control law. Hawaii and California have also enacted similar laws.

Jennifer’s Law also requires Judges to sanction any party that engages in continued frivolous and intentionally fabricated Court pleadings and Motions designed to delay the action and to keep the victim under the abuser’s control.  The law further enacts a grant program for legal assistance for indigent Restraining Order applicants. 

Until Jennifer’s Law, the hurdle to obtain a Restraining Order was high.   There had to be a threat of present physical violence.  The applicant had to fear for her safety.   If children were included in the application, the children had to be in some form of imminent physical danger as well.  Too many times, victims of coercive control were not able to get Restraining Orders.  The Court denials emboldened abusers to continue, and even increase non-physical control.  The result was fear and intimidation without a judicial remedy.  Coercive control is non-physical, but it can be and often is, a precursor to physical violence. 

 As is the case with other Family laws, Jennifer’s Law can be a double-edged sword.  The intention is to save lives and protect victims of non-physical control that escalates to dangerous physical violence.  There is no reasonable question that this intent will be accomplished and that it is an extremely important goal.  However, there are spouses/domestic partners who may use Jennifer’s Law as a tool to gaslight their spouses and/or to use the law as a sword in acrimonious family law cases.  Regrettably, some parents are prone to make baseless accusations when fighting over domestic matters—particularly when arguments persist over children.  The new standards are subjective, and the proof will often come down to interpreting which parent’s testimony is more credible in the eyes of the judge.  Thus, preparation and presentation will still be key to persuading the court to rule in the litigants’ favor.   

At McConnell Family Law Group, we are knowledgeable and prepared to represent you in all your Family Law matters.  We know that the need for a Restraining Order is accompanied by extreme stress and the requirement of immediate action.  We hope that neither you nor your loved ones ever find yourselves in this position; however, we also know that life is complicated and sometimes fraught with fear.  We know that new laws present new challenges, and we are here to help you meet those challenges.  To learn more or to schedule an appointment with our office, contact us today at (203) 541-5520, or by visiting Find Peace Through Strength!

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