David Pisarra

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and I traditionally do a series of columns on this very important but often misunderstood part of the law and society.

Six years ago I wrote about the murder of Bell Gardens Mayor Daniel Crespo by his wife, she did less than 42 days in jail for his murder. This year I could write about former Dodgers pitcher Charles Haeger who killed his girlfriend by gunshot in Arizona last week and then committed suicide. The death of Travis Alexander still reverberates in my soul, his killer is in a prison in upstate New York serving her life sentence. I’ve visited his grave in Riverside and occasionally there are still new flowers there – I assume from his family.

When it comes to high profile domestic violence cases there’s a lot of content, from Johnny Depp being accused of it by his then wife Amber Heard and his then suing her for libel and slander and mutilation – he lost part of a finger due to her actions allegedly. And of course there is the most high profile of cases – the O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman murder trial that I describe as a turning point in our societal awareness of domestic violence and our response to it.

Prior to the “Trial of the Century” domestic violence, or Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) as it is now referred to, was a ‘family matter’ and the courts and the police ran from taking any responsibility in these cases. But the graphic murder, the 24 hour a day coverage of the trial on the cable channels and the celebrity killer element all came together to raise an awareness and change a consciousness of what had been happening, and continues to happen, in homes across the globe.

At the time of the Brown/Gold murders, IPV was ignored, minimized and swept under the carpets, as it had been for millennia. In my own home, as a child, my parents were incomprehensibly violent with each other. Yes my father was an angry drunk, but my mother had her moments as well.

The professionals in the IPV world say you can’t make someone mad enough to hit you – I call BS on that. I saw it in both of them. I was taught to knife fight by my mom when I was young lad of 6 or 7. To this day I have a crystal clear memory of her showing me that when you knife fight, you keep the knife blade side up, so if they go to knock it out of your hands they cut themselves.

Yes, I was steeped in a violent, abusive home. But not all abuse is violence. Some of it, most of it probably, is verbal, sexual, financial, ego destroying and controlling. The cycle of abuse is very dependent on the power dynamic, one person is exerting power and control over another, usually psychological, to the point that it becomes physical after the frustration builds and boils over, then there is a remorse and reconciliation phase and it starts all over again.

In an effort to put a breaker in the cycle the legislature has just updated the definition of domestic abuse to include coercive control language. The idea of coercive control is that one party is dominating the other in ways that are not obviously abusive – there are no bruises from keeping you from your family and friends. There is no third party to be a mandated reporter if your movements are tracked by your phone or email or texts. If you have to constantly report your whereabouts and get approval to meet with certain friends – that presents as someone is just concerned about you – that’s love isn’t it? No, not it’s not.

So the legislature added new language, and the Governor just signed it at the end of September and this expansion is important for everyone to know about so that they can stop it, if it’s happening to them, or spot it, if it’s happening to a friend. In my family law practice I see a particular form of this often.

The isolation of the man from his friends when he gets into a relationship is a form of coercive control that happens when he abdicates his responsibility for planning events and keeping his social network vibrant. It’s usually couched in terms of “happy wife, happy life” – that is an unhealthy reaction to the control being exerted.

Everyone needs to have their own circle of friends and a healthy marriage is dependent on each person being healthy. The converse I see is when the overly protective husband makes his wife account for all her movements from work to home, and calls in every hour to make sure she’s still at work. Yes, I’ve had that case, and at first she thought it was because he loved her and was worried, it was only years later when she was an emotional wreck that it was no longer seen as ‘nice that he cares so much.’

I am hopeful that this new language will help defuse those relationships like the Crespo’s, Alexander’s, and Simpson’s – the quicker people realize what coercive control is, the quicker they can set boundaries and see that they need to leave an unhealthy relationship.

Here are the examples used in the definition: “Examples of coercive control include, but are not limited to, unreasonably engaging in any of the following: (1) Isolating the other party from friends, relatives, or other sources of support. (2) Depriving the other party of basic necessities. (3) Controlling, regulating, or monitoring the other party’s movements, communications, daily behavior, finances, economic resources, or access to services. (4) 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.”

Too often IPV results in death of at least one, if not both parties in an unhealthy relationship. We as a society are making progress on increasing awareness, and preventing the lifetime impact that IPV has on children. Thank you to our legislature and our Governor for pushing forward.

David Pisarra is a Los Angeles Divorce and Child Custody Lawyer specializing in Father’s and Men’s Rights with the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He welcomes your questions and comments. He can be reached at dpisarra@pisarra.com or 310/664-9969.You can follow him on Twitter @davidpisarra