Woman Awarded Custody Partly Due to Ex’s Coercive Control

A change in the definition of domestic violence helped one California woman gain custody of her children and receive the Jewish divorce (called a “get”) that she had been denied.

In February of 2022, a Los Angeles judge determined that a man’s refusal for more than two years to give his wife a Jewish divorce was a form of domestic violence. That conclusion was reached using a relatively new definition of domestic violence in California, which now includes coercive control.

Without a get, a Jewish woman can be legally divorced but still considered “chained” to their former husband in the eyes of the church. Known as agunots, these women stay married until the husband allows a get. Jewish religious courts can enable the man to remarry while the woman remains technically married in the religious sense.

Coercive Control Only One Aspect in Custody Case

The man’s coercive control and other elements led the judge to give custody of the three underage children to the mother. She was also finally granted a get by her former husband. Because the secular court stated that get refusal was only one aspect of a pattern of coercive control, a Beit Din (religious court) cannot rule later that the man was directly threatened to revoke custody over the get.

California’s Definition of Coercive Control

In the context of the state’s Domestic Violence Protection Act, coercive control is not a one-time act but rather a pattern of behavior that interferes with another person’s free will and personal liberty. The offending party must be a current or former spouse, romantic partner, or blood relative, or must have lived with or have a child in common with the victim.

Examples of coercive control include the following:

  • Isolating the victim from your friends, family, and other forms of support
  • Depriving the victim of your basic needs
  • Controlling, regulating, or monitoring movement, communications, daily activities, and finances
  • Taking control of your reproductive autonomy through force, the threat of force, or intimidation

Coercive Control in Three States

California was the second state in the U.S. to add coercive control as a behavior classified as domestic violence.

Hawaii was the first state to pass a coercive control bill, signed into law on Sept. 15, 2020. That law adds coercive control to the definition of domestic abuse in the context of insurance laws and domestic abuse protective order statutes.

Coercive control is defined in Hawaii as a "pattern of threatening, humiliating, or intimidating actions, which may include assaults, or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten" another individual, and includes a "pattern of behavior that seeks to take away the individual's liberty or freedom and strip away the individual's sense of self, including bodily integrity and human rights."

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the California bill on Sept. 29, 2020. The bill revised the Family Code, which now allows coercive control to be used as evidence in custody cases or to obtain an order of protection against an abuser.

The third state to pass similar legislation was Connecticut. On June 28, 2021, Jennifer’s Law was signed into law. The law is named for Jennifer Dulos, a mother of five who disappeared from New Canaan, CT in 2019 during a custody dispute. Coercive control applies to all family court proceedings including divorce, custody, and restraining orders.

Several other states have taken some legislative steps toward adding coercive control:

  • Florida
  • Maryland
  • New York
  • South Carolina
  • Washington

Get Answers to Your Custody and Family Law Questions

If you are wondering whether your circumstances qualify as coercive control, speak with one of our attorneys at Palmer Rodak & Associates. Our team understands that non-physical domestic abuse can be just as debilitating. An intimate partner’s controlling behavior can be used as the foundation for restraining orders as well as custody cases.

If you hire our firm, you have the benefit of hiring the entire team, not just one attorney. Managing Attorney Matthew E. Palmer is a Certified Family Law Specialist by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. This designation is a testament to the firm’s dedication to excellence in Family Law.

Schedule a consultation by calling (760) 573-2223 or completing our online form. We have offices in Oceanside and Del Mar.