Updated: Aug 31
"Attorney Alexander Cuda stepped into family court for two days and managed to exploit Jennifers’ Law. He distorted and twisted its intended purpose to attack an allegedly innocent mother and blame her for the coercive control of her own children - children she had no visitation or access to." CPM Advisor
*DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender) is a common tactic deployed by abusers to co-opt one of the few (potential) sources of power available to the survivor — disclosure — and turn it towards their own coercive control.
In only two short days, Family Law Attorney Alexander Cuda was able to exploit Jennifers' Law - which took five years of dedicated work by Domestic Abuse advocates and legislators to introduce and pass. The law intended to safeguard abuse victims was misused to further victimize and traumatize a protective mother and her children. On August 8, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas J. O’Neill issued restraining orders against a protective mother, Karen Riordan, forcing three teenage children – Mia (16), Matthew (16), and Sawyer (13) – out of her home. The father, with his new attorney Alexander Cuda, filed the application for the restraining order on behalf of the teenagers – albeit against their wishes.
What did Karen do to have the State of Connecticut provide relief from her alleged abuse of her children? When her children ran away from their father’s home claiming he abused them, she opened her door and listened to them. She then provided them with an environment that was safe, secure, and allowed them to be vulnerable and process their current situation.
The Bait and Switch
Alexander Cuda, the former chair of the Connecticut Bar Family Practice group, was hired by the alleged abusive father Christopher Ambrose, who had already spent years litigating and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of their marital assets against his former wife Karen Riordan, to win sole custody of their three adopted children. Alexander Cuda entered the case late in the game after years of the toxic custody battle and the withdrawing of Ambrose’s former attorney.
Alexander Cuda stepped into family court for two days and managed to exploit Jennifers’ Law. He distorted and twisted its intended purpose to attack an allegedly innocent mother and blame her for the coercive control of her own children - children she had no visitation or access to. This transpired in a hearing for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) intended to address keeping domestic abuse victims and their children safe from abuse by giving them court ordered distance from their abuser.
Jennifers' Law Passes in 2021
After passing Jennifers’ Law in Connecticut in 2021, family court stakeholders across the U.S. - lawyers, legislators, judges, Domestic Abuse experts as well as abusers and fatherhood rights activists - have been keeping a close eye on Connecticut to see how the new law will be implemented, adapted and potentially ignored or abused.
Connecticut was the third state after California and Hawaii to write coercive control language into family court laws. The law redefines Domestic Violence to include coercive control - actions taken by an abuser to make a victim feel fearful, dependent, submissive and powerless. Coercive control can involve psychological abuse, isolation, intimidation or financial abuse and it can include the ultimate terror for a protective mother - threatens to withhold access to the children. There is also litigation abuse, where a victim seeking safety and justice for themselves and their children in family court may instead encounter their abuser's misuse of court procedures to further victimize them.
Opposition by The Connecticut Bar Association
Domestic Abuse advocates and policy experts across the U.S. suggested that once the new coercive control law passed, it would be a difficult to convince judges and family lawyers about the need to be educated and trained on how to identify domestic abuse issues. In fact, The Connecticut Bar Association had strongest opposition to the law. It took months of negotiation with former Senator Alex Kasser and Domestic Abuse advocates to sway them to accept the law after many of the crucial safety features for abuse victims were edited and/or removed.
Family Court Professionals Need Training
Jennifers’ Law now allows a judge to acknowledge coercive control as domestic abuse and provides six specific criteria to make that determination. But these judges, family law attorneys, and other court appointed evalutors have no training in identifying this dynamic in “high conflict” cases. We often hear "high conflict" described as two fighting parents who can't get along or "He said, she said" battles. High Conflict is a red flag for an abuser controlling a victim and signal to all involved to step back and understand the abusers' use of coercive control post separation.
Guardian ad Litems (GALs) who are at times appointed by the Judge in a contentious custody case are also ignoring the law. Our CPM moms are reporting that GALs who are appointed to determine the "best interest of the child," are not factoring Jennifers' law stating, "Because it has nothing to do with the children" or “Just because he abused you [mother], doesn’t mean he will abuse the children.”
In reality, a complex custody case has everything to do with safeguarding not only women but the children. Studies show that continued exposure to an abuser places children in danger. Even if the abuser has never directed his abuse at the children, post-separation conflict can increase the chances that the child will become the target. In fact, there is a strong probability that a man who abuses his wife will eventually abuse the children. Studies show that between 50 and 70 percent of batterers also abuse the children..
In addition to the learned behaviors and safety concerns of being forced to live with an abuser,, children who witness or experience abuse can suffer developmental impairment in a number of ways. Children may exhibit any of the following behaviors: “eating/sleeping disorders; mood-related disorders, such as depression or emotional neediness; over-compliance, clinging, withdrawal, aggressive acting out, destructive behavior; detachment, avoidance, a fantasy family life; somatic complaints, finger biting, restlessness, shaking, stuttering; school problems; and suicidal ideation.”
"I will not use the new law in a domestic abuse case because I do not want to shake things up too much by being the first one to use it and irritating judges who are not addressing it [abuse]." CT Family Lawyer
Advocates across the U.S, are keeping a close eye on cases in Connecticut family court where Jennifers’ Law is being used ostensibly to protect domestic abuse victims and their children. We have had many small successes with the new law when CPM mothers who are going pro se - self represented - so they are able to freely explain on the record why they are being abused and why they and their children are seeking safety. However, there is a greater struggle than anticipated to have family court professionals understand the law and be willing to take part in training. CPM has interviewed some family law attorneys using the law and they reported pushback from Judges and other professionals assigned to "high conflict" cases.
According to Dr. Christine Cocchiola, DSW, LCSW, a leading expert on coercive control," The inability for many judges, attorneys, and court professionals to understand the ways in which coercive controllers exert their harm is endemic. Even the most astute of us have missed the signs. Being willing to educate one’s self and identify the characterological traits that inflict this harm is an imperative. We must ask why someone wouldn’t want to do this? "
How did Jennifers’ Law get twisted to punish a protective mom?
On August 8, 2023, a now infamous Connecticut family court case, Ambrose v. Riordan - already deemed “high conflict” due to an allegedly abusive father - became fodder for tabloid news.
The Ambrose-Riordan divorce case was mired in what is now well known to Domestic Abuse advocates and family attorneys as the DARVO play by an allegedly abusive parent flipping the abuse narrative onto the victim.
DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender) is a common tactic deployed by abusers to co-opt one of the few (potential) sources of power available to the survivor — disclosure — and turn it towards their own coercive control.
DARVO was a strategic play by Ambrose from the beginning, as Judge Gerard Adelman, one of the many judges in the case - awarded all $2 million of joint marital assets to Ambrose - as well as Karen Riordan’s family inheritance. He also awarded Ambrose complete and exclusive custody of the children, despite the children’s repeated pleas to live with their mother.
Was the two page TRO form a victim needs to submit, used strategically for an allegedly abusive father to force his teen children who fear him and ran away to return to his home?
Jennifers' Law was drafted to also help domestic abuse victims avoid being re-victimized in family court through legal abuse. CPM moms discussing Karen Riordan's case among themselves all agree this TRO in Karen's case was intended to punish her and the children for leaving him. The alleged abuser wanted to force them back after they ran away. This legal play had all the hallmark red flags of Coercive Control using the TRO as a tactic to control. According to the bill analysis, “In any family relations matter, including restraining order actions involving domestic violence, if the court finds that a pattern of frivolous and intentionally fabricated pleadings or motions are filed by one party, then it must sanction the party in an appropriate manner that allows the matter to proceed without undue delay or obstruction.
Who is Alex Cuda?
In 2020, Alexander Cuda was honored with an award by the Greenwich YWCA Domestic Abuse Services (DAS), one of the 18 Connecticut Domestic Violence agencies, for his outstanding commitment to domestic abuse victims in family court. "Needle | Cuda proudly supported the DVCC as a Twilight Sponsor of Harvest Fest. 2021."
Alexander Cuda appeared to embrace Jennifers' Law and agreed to present at the few Connecticut Bar trainings on the law.
Alexander Cuda is also a member of the Judicial Branch Working Group, giving him close access to the family court judges who preside over his cases. The recent launch of this new initiative inspired to have the CT Judicial Branch and CT Bar Association to collaborate and cooperate together.
"Jennifers' Law Offers Domestic Violence Victims New Protections in Connecticut" Attorney Alexander Cuda (Partner at Needle|Cuda: Divorce and Family Law) was interviewed in this in-depth news story covering the Implementation of Jennifers' Law (a law named after both Jennifer Farber Dulos and Jennifer Magnano -- two, highly publicized victims who lost their lives to Domestic Violence in Connecticut.) Attorney Alexander Cuda, Chair of the Connecticut Bar Association's Family Law Section. Jennifers' Law was signed by Governor Lamont in June of 2021. Jennifers' Law provides expanded protections for victims of domestic violence who file for restraining orders against their abusers. The law is meant to create a more efficient process for potential victims, but faces the immediate challenge of immense back-logs and scheduling delays plaguing the Connecticut Family Court system due to Covid-19. Over the last eighteen (18) months Connecticut Family Courts had limited operation (prioritizing emergency matters); modified their rules and procedures; and grappled with inherent technical and practical complications of hearing certain matters virtually (via video conferencing). Simply put, it is very difficult to get matters scheduled in front of Connecticut Family Court Judges."
Alexander Cuda's partner Melissa Needle published this blog on Jennifers’ Law and Domestic Abuse cases in family court, admitting adaptation of the new law has been slow. “Although Jennifer’s Law is meant to better protect victims of domestic abuse, implementation has been slow. It takes time for judges, judicial staff and lawyers to learn the legal tools included in new law…”
Mia (16), Matthew (16), and Sawyer (13)
“He is the one who cut contact with all of my family. Chris has a history of using our phones and Wi-Fi as a weapon against us. Anytime we would report abuse, it’s either “I’m turning off your Wi-Fi,” or “I’m cutting off your phone.”
All three teens were adopted shortly after birth. The mother, Karen Riordan, raised them as a stay-at-home mother, leaving her full-time tenured position as a special education teacher, while the father spent most of his time in Hollywood as a screenwriter. Prior to this new TRO being applied, the children had already been court ordered to live with their father and did not have access to Karen.
According to reports from the mother, the children were suffering gravely emotionally and physically from the stress. One of her children has started cutting themselves. Another child has taken to drug use. Fast forward and the teenage children had enough of the abuse and have run away from their father. They are now speaking out and using their own voices to expose the allegedly abusive behavior of their father toward them. And yet their abuser has been able to have a Restraining Order approved on their behalf.
They ran away to return to Karen only for her to be forced back into court by the father, his new attorney Alex Cuda and newly appointed Judge Thomas O’Neil, a former corporate attorney. Judge O’Neil was assigned to the case with no experience in family court and quickly issued a one-year stay-away order against the protective mother Karen.
Why Switch Judges?
Before the TRO hearing against Karen Riordan, the judge in the case was switched. Why did the Judicial Branch remove Judge Gladys Nieves, the prior judge who has years of experience in complex family law cases? Prior to her nomination, Nieves was a Family Support Magistrate in the state Judicial Branch for seven years. She also was a sole proprietor where she represented children and parents involved in neglect and child abuse proceedings and termination of parental rights. CPM moms are discussing the fact that because during Judge Nieves time in the case, Chris Ambrose lost his first battle in court in his four-year fight, losing a motion for a protective order. He sought to bar his wife from coming within a mile of the children’s school or home.
A domestic abuse advocate and court watcher at the hearing reported that the judge did not allow Karen Riordan to present her case in a fair court and Alex Cuda waxed on about Jennifers’ Law and how Karen was the abuser in this case based on her coercive and controlling behavior of her children to turn them against their father. Parental Alienation (PA), the go to DARVO tactic by abusive parents in court to remove children from a protective mother.
Karen now continues the hopeless battle to provide her children with the safety, security, and compassion they so desperately need. While she cannot legally provide her children with this protection, she can continue to fight for what is in their best interest. This mother has been failed by the Connecticut Family Court system, as many protective mothers are.
Our CPM membership of over 400 mothers in family court are still hopeful that Jennifers' Law will provide victims with needed legal protections against their abusers in family court proceedings. We need to:
Address the gender bias in our court systems,
Address the denial and disbelief of children who report their abuse,
Address the training of court professionals to see the signs of abuse as opposed to assuming children need two parents to thrive even if one of them is abusive and harmful to their emotional and physical safety.