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What Defines Domestic Abuse? Survivors Say It’s More Than Assault

As destructive as those behaviors may be, they are not often treated by law enforcement or courts as improper on their own, sharpening the belief that victims must be battered and hospitalized before their accounts might be taken seriously. Doubt about how the justice system would treat them is not unfounded: About 88 percent of survivors surveyed by the ACLU said the police did not believe them or blamed them for the abuse.

The new laws to address coercive behaviors have raised some concerns from advocates who worry that — in court proceedings that lawyers in the field say are already stacked against survivors — the standard of proof might be too high, especially when officials don’t have the tools to identify and prove patterns of risky behavior. “Researchers understand coercive control as something that can help predict the outcome of a dangerous situation that becomes deadly,” said Rachel Louise Snyder, author of the 2019 book “No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us.” But, she added, “law enforcement doesn’t necessarily recognize that.”

Coercive control has been illegal in England and Wales since 2015, but 2018 saw the highest number of domestic violence-related killings in five years, according to the BBC. The Center for Women’s Justice, a British watchdog group, filed complaints in 2019 and 2020 alleging “systematic failure” on the part of police to safeguard victims. “Officers on the ground don’t understand” coercive control, said Harriet Wistrich, the center’s director. Though there has been some training, she emphasized that for the law to be most effective, police, social workers and the courts need to have a shared understanding of how emotional abuse can become criminal.

Others are concerned that, in the United States, adopting and implementing new laws could drain resources from survivors’ pressing logistical needs, or from other pathways to justice. A growing faction of advocates say the best response lies not in the criminal courts, with their racial and economic inequities, but in dialogue-based alternatives like restorative justice.

Judy Harris Kluger, a retired New York judge who is executive director of the nonprofit Sanctuary for Families, said she agreed that coercive control is important as a concept. As a judge, though, “I’d rather have energy put into enforcing the laws that we have,” she said, “but also focusing on other things besides litigation to address domestic violence,” like funding for prevention, housing and job programs for survivors.

Still, supporters say that legally acknowledging how pernicious the problem is will make it easier to fight — and help force a reckoning over its pervasiveness.

They point to Scotland as a potential model. Its domestic abuse laws enacted in 2019 focus on coercive control and include funding for training; a majority of its police and support staff has taken mandatory courses to understand the issue, said Detective Superintendent Debbie Forrester, Police Scotland’s lead for domestic abuse. The judiciary got lessons too. Alongside a public campaign explaining that controlling behavior is illegal, the authorities put abusers on notice that they would be scrutinized: “We will speak to previous partners,” a police statement warned.

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