Kansas lawmakers must carefully begin addressing the coercion in domestic violence

Addressing coercive control in domestic violence is essential for solving a public health crisis that accounts for 25% of Kansas homicides, writes Will Averill, the director of communications for The Willow Domestic Violence Center. (Getty Images)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Will Averill is the director of communications for The Willow Domestic Violence Center, which provides shelter, support and services for survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking in Douglas, Franklin and Jefferson counties in Kansas. 

Every morning there was a rose on the car. To the neighbors, it was sweet, like something out of a romantic comedy. For the owner of the car, it was a reminder: “I know where you live; I can find you any time.”

For someone else, it was a gun. When their abuser was unhappy, they would clean and load their gun in the living room, often looking up as if to say, “Do you see what I can do?”

Neither of these acts was physical abuse, yet both created conditions of terror and fear of future harm for individuals who eventually ended up seeking help at our domestic violence shelter.

Their abusers used coercive control, an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation, intimidation or other abuse used to harm, punish or frighten their victims. The purpose of coercive control is to make the victim utterly dependent on their abuser through isolation, depriving them of their independence and controlling their everyday behavior.

Coercive control is an integral part of the larger pattern of domestic violence. Addressing it is an essential step in solving a public health crisis that accounts for 25% of Kansas homicides and affects the lives of thousands of Kansans, their families, workplaces, faith communities and health services.

Abusive relationships seldom start with physical abuse. Some never even escalate to that point; the mere threat of violence can often be enough. Abusers establish a pattern of coercive control over months and years to impose their will upon their victims. These tactics can range from separating the abused person from family, inflicting emotional and psychological abuse (gaslighting), threatening or using children and pets, and financial and economic abuse. Often, domestic violence’s psychological effects are as devastating as the physical effects and take longer to heal.

A survivor will leave their abuser up to seven times before they can leave permanently. This may be due to this lack of resources; often, survivors will have no access to money, credit cards, even their essential ID documents. Survivors may feel they will never be worthy of being with anyone else again, having been told so often no one else likes them that they believe it. Or they may still be in love.

There are many reasons it is complicated for a survivor to leave an abusive situation.

Current laws on domestic violence typically focus only on the physical act. And while it is possible to get a protection order without abuse, those orders are challenging to get.

In some states, however, legislation is beginning to recognize that coercive control is a pattern as detrimental as physical abuse. Hawaii and California currently have coercive control legislation on their books, and other states are working toward similar bills. These laws seem, on the surface, to be a big step forward in the fight against domestic violence.

Passing more laws without addressing the root causes of domestic violence does create some troubling problems.

As with cases of physical abuse, many incidents never make it to court. Kansas is a “mandatory arrest” state, which means that if a domestic violence incident is reported, someone must be arrested. For survivors, this can increase the danger for multiple reasons. They may be arrested themselves, or they may lose necessary income if a member of the family is arrested. Their abuser may take it out on them after being released from law enforcement custody. Abusers often control finances, and with their abuser arrested, survivors may find themselves and their children without financial resources. For survivors of color, involving law enforcement may be dangerous — Black survivors are incarcerated with their abusers at a much higher rate than white survivors, often for acts otherwise deemed self-defense.

Relying on enforcement without proper access to social services and assistance may result in lackluster attempts at enforcement because domestic violence is a cyclical and recurring pattern. Coercive control laws have been in place in the UK and Ireland since 2015, but the majority of cases are routinely dropped, creating additional stress for survivors.

Coercive control legislation, if enforced, is an essential beginning to addressing the public health crisis of domestic violence in Kansas. However, law enforcement and the court system can create even more barriers for already disadvantaged and displaced survivors. Education, prevention, access to resources and accountability for abusers are essential in resolving this crisis.

For information on current legislation and information on domestic violence in Kansas, please contact the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence at kcsdv.org or your local domestic violence center. We can offer presentations, statistics, and training on recognizing and working to end domestic violence’s devastating effects in our communities.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.