Domestic violence doesn’t always lead with a fist. Abuse as often starts with emotional, social and psychological assault. In a world where everyone carries a computer in their pocket, those acts of aggression are delivered via text, email or instant message just as often as they’re uttered.
Patterns of control at the hands of an abuser are well known. Still, laws written to prevent and punish domestic violence still imagine crimes in two-dimensional, physical terms. Those laws need updating. Massachusetts can and should become a leader among the states by changing its own.
A bill before the Legislature lays out specific definitions of what’s known as coercive control -- the “pattern of threatening, humiliating or intimidating actions” that seek to “harm, punish or frighten.” Often, note the authors of HD.3052, the aim is to limit a victim’s freedom or tear down their self-identity.
As important to protecting abuse survivors is a three-line section near the bottom of the bill that more than doubles the statute of limitations to charge a perpetrator to 15 years. Doing so acknowledges that many abuse survivors experience deep trauma and may not be able to speak up within the six years now allowed for an indictment.
“We’ve seen instances where if they see other victims from the same perpetrator, that might incentivize them to seek recourse,” state Rep. Tram Nguyen, D-Andover, said of survivors. Nguyen, who worked with survivors of sexual and domestic abuse as an attorney for Greater Boston Legal Services, is now coauthor, with state Rep. Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster, of the bill that would update the law.
“We want to enable folks to have their day in court and hold perpetrators accountable,” Nguyen said. “We want to make sure that we give them the time and space to heal.”
Nguyen said the bill that she and Higgins filed, and that’s drawn seven more cosponsors, comes out of a larger movement to adopt what’s known as the Phoenix Act. The law that began in California, and prominently advocated by actress Evan Rachel Wood, extends statutes of limitations for survivors of domestic violence. In addition, California and Hawaii have passed laws defining the nature of coercive control, with similar measures now pending in New York and Connecticut.
The United States is not the first to address the psychological and emotional crimes committed within a home or intimate relationship. England and Wales did so more than five years ago and according to a Time magazine account were the first countries in the world to criminalize the behavior.
Laura Richards, a British criminal behavior analyst who advocated for the law, told the magazine the movement is as much about changing the wider understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse. “We’re beginning to understand that it isn’t about one-off incidents,” she said. “Abuse is a pattern, a war of attrition that wears a person down. Coercive control is the very heart of it.”
Such painful assaults are the underpinning of Natasha Trethewey’s book published last year, “Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir.” The Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate explores the abuse of her mother, a professional social worker, at the hands of her stepfather and her perception of it through the eyes of a child. Only in her adulthood does Trethewey find the evidence of a terroristic relationship that spanned veiled threats to specific ones to physical assault to, eventually, her mother’s murder.
Criminalizing the emotional and psychological assaults that underpin cases of domestic violence -- and further opening the window to prosecute cases of domestic violence -- are only part of a long legislative agenda that Nguyen brings to the Statehouse on behalf of survivors this session. Another measure seeks to protect survivors of sexual assault committed by neighbors, classmates, coworkers or other perpetrators outside a victim’s household. A different measure, revived from last session, seeks to help victims of violent crime and human trafficking qualify more easily for protective visas to stay in the United States.
All merit careful consideration, but lawmakers should begin with a clear-eyed review and update of the state’s laws that criminalize domestic violence.