Ariana Riley, Ally Cable and Jill Michelle Montes speak about their reunification camp experiences at an Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma conference in San Diego. Kathleen Russell, executive director of the Center for Judicial Excellence, describes reunification therapy programs as “harmful and traumatic.”

California Judges’ Group Helped Block Bill to Address Family Violence, Calling Training Mandate ‘Advocacy’

A state senator said she withdrew a proposal to reform the family court system in August after harsh criticism from the California Judicial Council, which called requiring extra training on family violence law burdensome and reflective of an “advocacy agenda.”

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State Sen. Susan Rubio, who introduced a senate bill to expand the California Family Code to include coercive control in family court hearings and criminal trials, speaks about the need to keep children of domestic violence survivors safe in front of Los Angeles City Hall on June 27, 2022.

Coercive Control Victims Face Skeptical Judges, Court Transcripts Show

On average in the U.S., more than 1 in 3 women, and 1 in 4 men, will experience physical violence, rape or stalking by an intimate partner, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Nevertheless, when victims turn to family court for protection from their abusers, they often face skeptical judges. And that’s especially true when the abuse doesn’t leave a mark.

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The entrance to Los Angeles Superior Court's Stanley Mosk Courthouse is shown, with three robed stone figures above the doorway.

‘I Was Not Allowed to Have My Own Thoughts’: California Courts Start Penalizing Psychological Domestic Abuse

While not all California judges are sympathetic to the stories of intimate partners who claim emotional abuse, and some even exhibit misogynistic conduct, others have shown an interest in using new legal tools to give the benefit of the doubt to people who say they are victims.

In a Los Angeles-area case, a judge acknowledged the evolving understanding of domestic violence to include psychological abuse, and extensively cited the state’s new coercive control law in his ruling.

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A white woman with blond hair stands on a lawn in front of the water, with a city skyline in the background.

Expanding View of Domestic Violence Gives Survivors New Tool, but Unsympathetic Judges Remain an Obstacle

A California law enacted in 2021 allows domestic violence victims to claim coercive control — a broad range of behaviors including humiliation, surveillance, intimidation, gaslighting and isolation that strips an intimate partner of a sense of autonomy and personhood.

Experts in domestic violence say judicial skepticism of abuse victims, often with misogynistic overtones, has long been widespread in U.S. family court, creating dangerous hurdles to justice. The expanded conception of domestic violence on paper is of limited use if judges continue to cast a skeptical eye on testimony, usually from women, of manipulation within intimate relationships.

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How California’s Coercive Control Law Could Help Women Manipulated by Partners

Blanca suffered decades of psychological abuse from her husband, whose behaviors fall under a category of abuse sociologists and family law experts call coercive control.

Under a California law passed in 2020, the government is finally offering some acknowledgment of the harm she experienced. But the reform applies only in civil court — and can be used only in limited types of cases.

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