Utah could look to these countries to outlaw “coercive control” in intimate relationships

New laws overseas and in some states define coercive control as a crime, or include it as evidence that can support protection orders.

(Courtesy photo) Gordon McCreadie, a chief superintendent for the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Division of Police, led a national task force to train Scottish officers when a new law against “coercive control” went into effect.

Imagine a hostage situation. A woman is trapped in her home, and her life and the lives of her family members depend on how well she obeys her captor’s commands. A hostage negotiator calls and asks if she’s OK. With a gun to her head, she says, “yes.”

“Great,” the negotiator replies, “let us know if you need any help in the future,” then hangs up.

This is how the late sociologist Evan Stark saw the experiences of many victims of domestic violence.

Police, focused on physical injuries, often miss the broader context of “coercive control,” Stark said, a concept he pioneered in the early 2000s to describe the surveillance, isolation and threats that many victims face as abusers exert constant and oppressive control.

[Read more: A Utah man never hit his wife — until he tried to kill her. But how he treated her was a warning sign.]

Stark’s work has in recent years gotten the attention of policymakers around the world. “Coercive control” has now been added to the definitions of domestic violence in multiple countries and in some American states.

While a domestic violence task force is looking at next steps for Utah in tackling domestic violence, here’s a look at how “coercive control” laws have been implemented in other parts of the world.

England: An early adopter

In England, “coercive control” laws took hold over five years of iterations from 2012 until 2018, when the nation fully adopted it as part of the legal definition of domestic violence.

“When the law first came in, the prosecutors were still looking for a pattern of bruises rather than a pattern of control,” said Dr. Jane Monckton-Smith, a former police officer and current professor of public protection at the University of Gloucestershire.

The use of the law has improved since then, she said, but she believes coercive control is still not prosecuted as often as it could be.

Scotland: A changed focus

Scotland invested heavily in training the nation’s 14,000 police officers after it adopted “coercive control” in its definition of domestic violence in 2018.

Gordon McCreadie, a chief superintendent for the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Division of Police, led a national domestic abuse task force as the law went into effect. In hundreds of classes, groups of 25 officers met in plainclothes, he said, to make it easier for everyone to speak up.

Some veteran officers felt they already understood domestic violence, after decades of responding to the calls, he said. But representatives from domestic abuse relief organizations helped officers understand that “coercive control” offenders were “master manipulators,” and not just of victims, but of police as well, McCreadie said.

When an instructor asked officers in one class why they stay in a job with risks and problems, some responded they needed the money, or talked about their bonds with other officers, or their feeling that they could manage their own safety in a dangerous job.

McCreadie said it quickly dawned on them how their reasoning sounded similar to explanations from victims about why they stay in abusive relationships. “In that heartbeat,” he said, the officers realized “I can now see this.”

Investigations now are more time intensive. “Now instead of looking for bruises and stubbed shins, officers might start by saying, ‘Have you got your own passport? Have you got access to your own money?’” McCreadie said.

Under the new law, officers can look for a “course of conduct” by establishing at least two incidents that don’t have to be violent. The factors could include when a person is being isolated from family, their finances are controlled, or their access to children is being manipulated. It could also include threats made against them or against their pets.

While McCreadie said he sees great success with the new law, recent reports indicate it is still a work in progress. According to reports by the BBC, only 250 individuals were prosecuted for coercive control in the first year, but that number went up to 420 for 2021-2022.

First American steps

Hawaii enacted the first American “coercive control” law in 2020, adding new language to its definition of domestic abuse and allowing it to be considered for the issuing of temporary restraining orders.

“In some of these situations where domestic abuse is starting, it’s being done through coercive control,” said Rep. David Tarnas, “so if we intervene early, I think we can save people’s lives.”

In Philadelphia, councilmember-at-large Kendra Brooks led efforts in 2021 to allow city employees to receive paid time off to deal with coercive control in relationships. The municipal legislation also allowed victims in coercive control relationships to terminate leases to get away from abusive partners. Brooks’ cousin was killed by a controlling and violent partner.

California added “coercive control” to its definition of domestic abuse in 2023. In August, the law had an early first test in family court, where attorney Rebeka Frye used it to get a restraining order against her client’s husband and shore up child custody for her client.

The client’s husband had not been physically violent toward her, but had written nearly 200 pages of rules for his wife to follow, including roughly 30 pages of instructions just on how to wash the dishes.

The effect of this oppression was similar to the impacts of institutionalization, Frye said in an interview.

“People who have been in an incarcerated situation, their day is very regimented, they have a certain time to be in a particular place and particular thing, they don’t have the freedom to choose their day,” Frye said. “That’s what the judge was very clear about in her decision in our case, that coercive control really is a removal of a person’s freedom.”

Editor’s note • Those who are experiencing intimate partner violence, or know someone who is, can call the Utah Domestic Violence Link Line, 1-800-897-LINK (5465), or the statewide sexual assault line run by the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault at 801-736-4356 and in Spanish: Línea de Apoyo de Violencia Sexual las 24 Horas de Utah: 801-924-0860.