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California courts start penalizing psychological domestic abuse


By Viji Sundaram | Ethnic Media Services

It didn’t take long for Emily Caesar to realize that her husband Trevor had to have his way on everything — how she dressed, who she spoke with, how much she ate, where she went. He never let her forget that he was head of the household, Emily told the court.

Emily provided written documents and audio to show how he had allegedly abused her time and again.

“I felt I was not allowed to have my own thoughts,” she recalled.

Her attorney, Minty Siu-Kootnikoff, filed for a temporary restraining order in February 2021 and custody of the couple’s then 6-year-old son.

Siu-Kootnikoff was one of the first lawyers to invoke a new legal tool California had enacted just a month earlier that allows victims to claim a pattern of “coercive control” — psychological abuse that does not necessarily end in physical harm.

Siu-Kootnikoff, legal services director at Sojourn, a domestic violence shelter in Santa Monica, viewed the recently enacted law as the best tool for getting her client a legal remedy.

“Domestic violence is about control, and is not limited to physical abuse,” she said, noting the new law is “critical to addressing abuse that is not dealt with in the criminal codes, yet is as damaging and destructive as a black eye or broken arm.”

While not all judges are sympathetic, the conclusion of the judge who heard Emily’s case shows that at least a few jurists seem to have gotten the message.

“The court’s views of domestic violence are evolving over the years,” Judge Michael J. Convey of the Los Angeles County Superior Court noted in his Feb. 5, 2021, ruling on the case, to “reflect more subtle, more insidious, if you will, behaviors that can be called violence or abuse.”

Convey agreed with Siu-Kootnikoff that what Emily had undergone for years was indeed coercive control, affirming what proponents say is the purpose of the reform, which is to give victims like Emily the benefit of the doubt.

The 2020 California law, introduced by state Sen. Susan Rubio, herself a survivor of domestic abuse, widens the definition of domestic violence and allows victims to introduce evidence of coercive control in applications in family court for a restraining order or child custody. The coercive control law applies to civil, but not criminal, cases.

Coercive control occurs when an abuser isolates an intimate partner from friends and family, takes over their personal finances and surveils their activity, or uses verbal attacks to reinforce authority.

Emily tied the knot with Trevor in 2011, two years after they began dating. She was 30 and he was 28.

They ran their web designing business out of their home in Castaic, in Los Angeles County. But early on she also noticed how “controlling and narcissistic” Trevor could be, she said. In 2015, they divorced, sharing joint custody of their son, then a toddler.

Three years later, they got back together, agreeing it would be better if Trevor were more involved in the child’s life, according to both parents.

But once they were back together, Emily said the abuse only intensified.

In November 2020, when Emily was trying to get her son ready for school and sought Trevor’s help because the boy would not cooperate, Trevor held her by her arms and pushed her “multiple times” in front of their son, according to testimony. She included pictures of bruises on her arm as exhibits.

Trevor’s attorney, Matthew J. Chung, defended his client’s behavior on that day.

“Emily was the one that was getting up in Trevor’s face,” Chung told the court. “Emily was the one who was yelling” at the boy.

But in his ruling, Convey granted Emily a temporary restraining order against her ex for three years, along with sole custody of their son.

“I made mistakes,” Trevor said in an interview. But he said he found the judge’s decision distressing: “I’m having to entrust our child to someone who’s not stable.”

Both Trevor and Emily were ordered to attend parenting classes separately, while Emily said she continues to attend court-mandated group therapy.

This article is part of a series on California’s coercive control law produced by the San Francisco Public Press, a nonprofit investigative news organization. It was excerpted, edited, and translated by Ethnic Media Services. Read the full story and others in the series at This reporting was underwritten by a Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund grant from the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California.

This article is a part of a series of articles for Our Weekly’s #StopTheHate campaign and is supported in whole or part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library.


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