When someone hears the term “domestic abuse” their mind often conjures an image of a spouse being subjected to physical violence. However, domestic violence extends far beyond acts of bodily harm. It is possible for someone to be the victim of domestic violence through persistent verbal abuse and being subjected to “coercive control.” In California, verbal abuse is domestic violence. This is also true for forms of emotional abuse, mental abuse, and can even extend to stalking and other forms of harassment. This new law recognizes “coercive control” as a part of that list.
What is Coercive Control?
Coercive control is often described as an “invisible” form of domestic violence since the abuse and trauma are not immediately apparent. It occurs when someone, for example, is forced to isolate from friends and loved ones or when they are prohibited from accessing their own bank account or other economic resources. In effect, the abuser is making the victim cut all ties to the outside world so the abuser can exert a significant level of control over the victim’s life and daily activities.
The term “coercive control” made its way into the mainstream in 2007 as a result of Dr. Evan Stark. He published a report describing coercive control as a pattern through which abusive partners (most oftentimes males) employed a combination of violence, intimidation, isolation, humiliation, and control to victimize their spouses or significant others. When it comes to coercive control, the threat of physical violence is only one dimension within a complex interplay in an abusive relationship. To summarize “coercive control” Dr. Stark declared that it is not just what men do to women, but what men prevent women from doing for themselves.
California Courts Recognize Coercive Control as a Form of Domestic Abuse
Appellate Courts in California recognize coercive control as a form of domestic violence. For example, in McCord v. Smith (Cal.App.5th 2020), the Court specifically held that coercive and controlling behavior is a form of domestic violence under California’s restraining order laws.
In McCord, the Court stated that seemingly isolated events need to be evaluated in a broader context of the relationship to properly assess the “totality of circumstances” for purposes of issuing a restraining order. The Court in McCord highlighted a series of text messages sent from the abuser to the victim that threatened the victim’s peace of mind. The Court indicated that the evidence presented, when viewed in its totality, reflected a spouse intending to exert dominion and control over their significant other.
California Law Now Recognizes Coercive Control as Domestic Violence
Despite California Courts recognizing the concept of coercive control, there was no actual statutory prohibition against this form of domestic abuse. That changed in September 2020 when the Governor of California signed a bill into law clarifying the state’s Domestic Violence Prevention Act that coercive control constitutes a form of domestic abuse.
Specifically, the law amends Section 6320 of the Family Code so that “disturbing the peace of the other party” (which is grounds to obtain a DV Restraining order) includes coercive control. The California legislature unequivocally recognized that actions that result in the destruction of “mental or emotional calm” of a victim is a form of domestic abuse, even when there is no act of physical violence.
Statutory Definition of Coercive Control
Within the amended Section 6320, coercive control is defined as “a pattern of behavior that in purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty.” The statute goes on to include examples of coercive control. Those examples include the following:
- Isolating the other party from friends, relatives, or other sources of support;
- Depriving the other party of basic necessities;
- Controlling, regulating, or monitoring the other party’s movements, communications, daily behavior, finances, economic resources, or access to services; and
- Compelling the other party by force, threat of force, or intimidation, including threats based on actual or suspected immigration status, to engage in conduct from which the other party has a right to abstain or to abstain from conduct in which the other party has a right to engage.
Our Thoughts on the New Law
At Castro Law Offices, P.C., we applaud the new legislation and amendment to Section 6320. Why? Because it will help to ensure uniformity of appropriate responses at the trial level, which is where many domestic abuse victims interact with the courts. The new legislation will assist courts in identifying incidents of coercive control. This is extremely important since victims of coercive control need help and no Court should question whether such incidents of intentional isolation and restriction are in fact abuse.
Are You Being Abused by Your Spouse and Want to Separate? Contact Castro Law Offices, P.C.
If you are being abused by your spouse, including being subjected to coercive control, the Castro Law Offices, P.C. are here to help. We know this is a difficult situation and we will do all we can to assist you in getting to a safe, healthy environment. Attorney Jeremy Castro possesses extensive experience helping victims of domestic abuse. He previously worked for the Family Violence Law Center in Oakland, a non-profit organization dedicated to cases involving domestic violence. This experience provided Jeremy with insight into the challenges associated for those who fear leaving an abusive relationship. If you are in this situation, do not give up hope. Contact Castro Law Offices, P.C. today to learn more about your legal options.