New Domestic Violence Statute Expands the Definition of Abuse

Domestic violence is one of the darkest underbellies within the space of family law. Entrenched in power and control, domestic violence rears its ugly head in a multitude of ways, from threats on social media, threats against a victim’s livelihood or career, financial abuse so that the victim is dependent on the perpetrator, and a broad range of behaviors that includes intimidation, stalking, annoying phone calls, vandalism, and acts which disturb the peace of the other party. 

In the past year, domestic violence became even more pervasive during the COVID-19 pandemic due to stay-at-home orders, school closures, and the pandemic’s devastating financial impact. Indeed, one of the unintended effects of COVID-19 was that it forced victims of domestic violence to be confined with their abusers and caused a severe obstacle for victims of domestic violence to seek help. 

Effective January 1, 2021, the definition of abuse was significantly expanded within the California Family Code and now includes the term “coercive control”. Coercive control is a form of psychological abuse and is a pattern of behavior that in purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty. It is a discreet form of domestic violence that results in severe emotional distress and harm to the victim. 

Some examples of coercive control include, but are not limited to, 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, behavior, finances, economic resources of 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. 

While courts have concluded that abuse includes certain forms of mental abuse, this is the first time that a statute has encompassed such a clear definition of psychological abuse with particular criteria upon which the family law courts may now rely. 

The inclusion of the term “coercive control” within the meaning of abuse in the Family Code is a brand-new addition and thus it is unknown how this new statute may affect domestic violence matters going forward. 

Supporters of this new statute argue that the statute has established specific factors in defining the parameters of psychological abuse. Others claim that this statute is too broad, and that the statute must include only intentional conduct in which an individual unreasonably interferes with another person’s freedom. Only time will tell to see whether this new statute is indeed utilized as a shield or sword in the continuing and unending battle against domestic violence.