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Massachusetts lawmakers and domestic abuse survivors push for 'coercive control' victim safety

A blank Massachusetts Complaint for Protection from Abuse form and pen.
Carrie Healy
A blank Massachusetts Complaint for Protection from Abuse form and pen.

Domestic abuse victims could gain expanded protections — namely, securing a restraining order in the absence of physical harm — under proposals from state Reps. Natalie Higgins and Tram Nguyen and Sen. Michael Moore (H 1547 / S 1077).

The bills are awaiting a hearing before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary and were the focus of a legislative and media briefing Tuesday at the State House hosted by Together Rising Above Coercion Coalition, composed of survivors and advocates.

Coercive control, which the legislation defines as behavior that "has the purpose or effect of substantially restricting an individual's safety or autonomy through intimidation, isolation, implicit or explicit threats, or by compelling compliance," could forge the basis for seeking a restraining order. Abusers who threaten to harm or kill their partner or child, isolate the other parent from friends and support networks, and control their finances are examples of coercive control, based on the legislation.

Coercive control is at the root of domestic abuse, advocates and lawmakers emphasized at the briefing.

Restraining orders could also be sought in circumstances involving technological abuse, which includes cyberstalking, sharing explicit images and impersonating through any type of technology like mobile devices and social media platforms, according to the legislation.

"We have an opportunity here to close the books on this unacceptable behavior and to ensure that the courts recognize that these manipulative behaviors are abuse, and to allow for protections that victims and survivors deserve," Nguyen, an Andover Democrat, said. "Domestic violence, again, is not always physical. Sometimes it's so much more insidious than that."

Higgins, a Leominster Democrat, said the legislation would also extend the statute of limitations for domestic violence crimes from six to 15 years, which is the time limit for rape.

It's a thorny component of the bill for some advocates who are worried the longer timeframe could make it difficult to prove facts around the case, Higgins acknowledged in an interview after the briefing. But Higgins, a former rape crisis counselor, contended that survivors need additional time to heal and to feel comfortable reporting a crime to law enforcement.

The coalition also advocated for bills from state Rep. Natalie Blais and Moore (H 1399 / S 1079) that would allow survivors to request an order restricting "controlling and abusive litigation" that's intended to abuse, harass, intimidate, threaten or maintain contact with another party, particularly a current or former family or household member.

Urging survivors and advocates to lobby their elected officials at the State House, Moore said the bills highlighted at the briefing will provide the resources and protections that victims need during crises.

"Legislators alone cannot get legislation passed," Moore, a Millbury Democrat, said. "We get the privilege of being here and being the face of legislation, trying to move it to the Legislature. But if we don't have the support of you, these pieces of legislation will not go forward."

Updated: June 26, 2023 at 1:22 PM EDT
This story has been updated to remove allegations that could not be immediately verified.
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