HARTFORD, Conn. — Long before she disappeared, Jennifer Dulos told the court handling her divorce case that her husband was verbally abusive and she feared for her life.
And well before Fotis Dulos was arrested this week on murder and kidnapping charges, advocates noted the highly publicized case appeared to be an all-too-common episode of domestic abuse.
That was driven home by the Connecticut State Police officers involved in Wednesday’s arrest who wore purple neckties and pins depicting purple ribbons, in a nod to victims of domestic violence.
In Connecticut and around the country, advocates say the case has helped bring attention to the scourge and highlighted questions about how to improve the family court system.
“Jennifer Dulos’ experience is that which is experienced by so many survivors of intimate partner violence in the family courts,” said Karen Jarmoc, CEO of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “We hear about this all the time. It is cookie cutter.”
The 50-year-old mother of five from New Canaan vanished May 24. State police say Fotis Dulos killed her that day and enlisted friends to help cover it up. Fotis Dulos, who is under house arrest after posting $6 million bond, has denied any involvement in his estranged wife’s disappearance.
In filings in the divorce case, Jennifer Dulos said she was worried for her safety and that of the couple’s children, who are now living with her mother in New York.
“I am afraid of my husband,” Jennifer Dulos wrote in an a 2017 affidavit. “I know that filing for divorce and filing this motion will enrage him. I know he will retaliate by trying to harm me in some way.”
Lauren Almeida, the family’s nanny, told investigators her “first thought was that Fotis did something” after discovering Jennifer Dulos hadn’t shown up for a child’s orthodontist appointment. According to a police affidavit, Almeida and Jennifer Dulos’ friend Laurel Watts later contacted New Canaan police to report that a “mother of five was missing and that she was going through a divorce with a man that has threatened her in the past and owns a gun.”
Fotis Dulos, 52, denied his estranged wife’s claims and argued Jennifer Dulos was unfit to have sole custody of the children.
Warning signs in the case may have gone unheeded, Jarmoc said. Jennifer Dulos’ concerns “really didn’t seem to be viewed as a red flag in the court by the judge,” she said.
Jennifer Dulos’ emergency request for full custody of the children in 2017 was initially denied because “the plaintiff has not established by a preponderance of the evidence that there is an immediate and present risk of physical danger or psychological harm to the parties’ children,” according to court documents.
Jennifer Dulos was ultimately granted full custody less than a year later.
Nationally, more than half of killings of girls and women are related to intimate partner violence, according to a 2017 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Connecticut couple also had filed 300 motions in their divorce and child custody cases before Jennifer Dulos disappeared. State and national advocates say that reflects a need for judges to better recognize and address so-called “litigation abuse,” long stretches of drawn-out court motions and appearances they say can be their own form of abuse or become a possible warning sign for possible violence.
“We find that abusers often file multiple things in order to drag their ex-partner into court, to do that to harass them, to be near them, to cause them financial hardship and stress,” said Jarmoc, whose group is exploring legislative proposals that could lead to criminal penalties for unnecessary filings in family court.
Most family court cases in Connecticut are resolved in under a year and don’t involve hundreds of filings, Michael Albis, the state’s chief administrative judge for family matters, said during a July hearing about how the family courts could better handle cases involving domestic violence. He noted that new judges in Connecticut go through 14 days of training before they appear on the bench and that four are dedicated to handling domestic violence cases.
State Sen. Alex Bergstein, a Democrat from Greenwich, called Friday for new legislation that would require family court judges to first consider claims of domestic violence and child abuse when handling child custody cases and weighing 16 factors. The bill calls for holding an evidence-based hearing on the abuse claims.
“This would really increase awareness, focus and elevate the standards by which people’s lives are being determined,” she said.
Bergstein said she is also interested in pursuing legislation concerning litigation abuse, noting that Jennifer Dulos was her constituent.
Danielle Pollack, an ambassador specializing in family court reform with Child USA, a Philadelphia-based organization, said abuse “gets lost, it gets discredited” when courts look simultaneously at other factors when granting custody, especially claims of alienation.
“We’re helping states build their custody statutes in a way that puts the safety of the children first,” said Pollack, whose group helped to pass legislation in Louisiana and his currently on a similar bill in Pennsylvania. They’re based on a recent resolution passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. “Kids are still getting in these very dangerous situations.”