Los Angeles city prosecutors will explore potential legislation aimed at targeting offenders of various types of domestic abuse, most notably “coercive control,” a psychological form of abuse that prosecutors said often goes unpunished, City Attorney Mike Feuer said Monday.

During a City Hall discussion on domestic violence, Feuer said his staff will be having conversations internally about what types of changes could be made in state law to address more subtle forms of abuse.

He noted that in the wake of the “Me Too” movement, it can seem strange that such issues aren’t reported more often, but he said he understands how controlling abusers can be difficult for victims to escape.

Monday’s discussion focused primarily on “coercive control,” a form of domestic violence in which perpetrators make victims believe they cannot live a successful life on their own. Such abuse can be carried out by the perpetrator debasing victims and psychologically manipulating them, and in some cases threatening victims’ families if they attempt to leave their abuser.

Pallavi Dhawan, director of domestic violence policy with the City Attorney’s Office, said because coercive control is so “subtle,” it can be difficult for law enforcement to adequately respond to such reports.

“The problem with coercive control is that it’s not even flagged as a crime because it doesn’t exist anywhere on the books (in law), so these particular manifestations of abuse are not noticed,” Dhawan said. “So part of what we’re trying to do is raise that awareness so that we can educate victims to come forward, law enforcement to respond and then lawyers to take action accordingly.”

Among those taking part in the discussion was Debra Newell, the primary subject of the Los Angeles Times’ podcast “Dirty John.” Newell described her own experiences with coercive control and how it took time to recognize the patterns of abuse she experienced from her ex-husband. She said she didn’t want to meet the same fate as her sister, who was fatally shot by her ex-husband when she tried to leave him.

“I was raised with no abuse. I had an incredible dad, but we were taught to forgive, so I think we had more of an acceptance for certain behaviors than most families,” Newell said. “You can’t get out. It’s not that simple. You walk away and you put yourself in harm and your family in harm.”

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and according to the U.S. Department of Justice, about 1.3 million women and 835,000 men are victims of physical violence by a partner every year. That’s the first statistic that comes up when searching for domestic violence issues on Google, but it takes a more specific approach to find information on coercive control.

“There is too much subjectivity in this, and absent some sign of physical abuse, in a broad sense, we risk punishing people for behavior that may have never occurred,” Feuer said.

Dhawan said such cases are not always prosecuted because the societal norm has not caught up with the issue.

“If we think about the history of domestic violence, as criminalized, it’s fairly new, and for the longest time, hitting your wife was not a crime,” Dhawan said, referring to a law from the past century that allowed men to hit their wives with a stick no wider than their thumb. “I still to this day am getting pushback from people, even legal professionals … people within the domestic violence community telling me` `It’s too hard, don’t bother.”’

But Dhawan said the issue is being addressed elsewhere. She pointed to the United Kingdom and the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act, which criminalizes “coercive and controlling behaviors.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.