Simsbury advocate finds new meaning preventing elder and domestic abuse

Linda D. Garrow

SIMSBURY — At 50 years old, Karen Robbins has started anew in life, with a goal of preventing situations like the one she said she found herself in a few years ago.

Robbins, a longtime Simsbury resident, said that early in 2020 she discovered she was the victim of decades-long coercive control and financial domestic abuse by her estranged husband.

Last year, Robbins submitted testimony to the Connecticut General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee in support of Jennifer’s Law, a new law that expands the definition of domestic violence to include coercive control. The law is named for two victims of domestic violence, Jennifer Farber Dulos and Jennifer Magnano.

“Never did I think life would find me in a situation where my husband and the father of my children would secretly take measures over the decades to undermine my financial independence – all in an attempt to control and abuse me,” Robbins wrote in 2021. “I learned my ex had repeatedly stolen and misused my identity for personal financial gain dating back as far as 2002.”

Robbins said the acts left her responsible for at least $235,000 of credit card debt and liable for more than $700,000 of debt that her estranged husband secured against her home.

A graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Law, Robbins was admitted to the Connecticut bar in 1996, a status she has maintained each year by paying her dues, even though she wasn’t practicing law. Instead, like many other women at the time, she became a stay-at-home mom raising three children.

But now, finding herself on her own with three high school and college-aged children she is still raising, Robbins has found a way to make something out of her experience. In May, Robbins graduated from Western New England University’s law school with a master’s degree in elder law.

“It paralleled Jennifer’s Law,” Robbins said. “Elder law is hard. It’s not a happy topic. It’s tough stuff to plan and worry about what happens when you age and your parents age. But people need the guidance and the compassion and I hope to bring that to it now that I have the legal background.”

Before graduating, Robbins had gained employment at the law firm Marder, Roberson & DeFelice in Vernon, where she will now stay on, building up a client base for her elder law focus.

Specifically, though, Robbins wants to ensure none of her clients fall victim to the coercive control she said she was a victim of.

“Part of it that bothered me so much was…how can this happen,” Robbins said about her experience. “How can this possibly happen? I’m educated. I have a law degree. I’m surrounded by smart people. How does it happen? I had to completely start over. One of the things that became important for me…was making sure that others didn’t find themselves in the situation I am myself in.”

Robbins also wants to serve as a role model for her children — especially her daughter — even though they aren’t the sole reason she decided to put in the work over the course of two years to earn her master’s degree.

“My goal is not to rely on anything but my ability to help my family,” Robbins said. “I don’t want to say I did it just for my kids. The other option was to hope someone was going to fix it all for me and take care of us. But especially for my daughter – wait, you can do this. I didn’t know if you could do this at age 48. It was the unknown. I’ve always been in awe of people who at all different ages start new things. That’s why I had my daughter come to graduation to watch.”

Robbins’s other contribution — her testimony supporting Jennifer’s Law — is something she also felt compelled to do. She calls the passing of the law “huge as a first step.”

“They’re starting to see how it will be used,” Robbins said. “It adds coercive control. All of the academics knew that domestic violence…it had far more meaning than physical…but the courts didn’t acknowledge that. There was no language. There was no statute. If one were looking for a restraining order, it had to be physical. Whereas, if you were talking to others about whether you were under someone’s control, there was legal abuse, and financial abuse…there are all these things that weren’t covered.”

Robbins said that by sharing her story she’s also working to remove the stigma a victim of coercive control or any kind of domestic abuse might feel.

“I refused to be embarrassed by it,” Robbins said. “I was telling my kids — you don’t have to hide it, you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s your story. I don’t need to hide what happened. That’s where the testimony came from.”

Robbins’s divorce trial is still on hold, she said, and has been delayed by the pandemic. Proceedings are expected to restart in October.

“What I will be most excited for is when I can put my divorce behind me, so I can really advocate for both populations,” Robbins said.

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