In Connecticut and around the country, advocates say the case of Jennifer Dulos has helped bring attention to and highlighted questions about how to improve the family court system. Long before she disappeared, the mother of 5 told the courts that her husband was verbally abusive and that she feared for her life. In filings in the divorce case, Jennifer Dulos said she was worried for her safety and that of the couple’s children. Jennifer wrote in a 2017 affidavit “I am afraid of my husband. 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.” Fotis Dulos, 52, denied the claims and argued Jennifer Dulos was unfit to have sole custody of the children. They were involved in a contentious divorce and custody battle when she disappeared in May of 2019, almost 2 years after filing for divorce.
Though her body has not been found, authorities believe she was killed in a violent attack at her home in New Canaan. They suspect that Fotis Dulos had been lying in wait for Jennifer and attacked her when she arrived home after dropping her children off at school. Police allege that Fotis Dulos and his girlfriend Michelle Troconis went to Hartford, Connecticut, to dispose of 36 garbage bags containing items with Jennifer Dulos’ blood on them on the night that Jennifer disappeared. The two were charged with tampering with evidence and hindering prosecution in connection with the disappearance but both later made bail.
On January 7th, 2020, Fotis Dulos was arrested at his home and charged with capital murder, murder, and kidnapping in relation to the disappearance of Jennifer. His former girlfriend, Michelle Troconis, was also charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Fotis Dulos’s friend and former attorney, Kent Douglas Mawhinney was also charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Prosecutors believe both Mawhinney and Troconis worked with Dulos on his alibi for the day of Jennifer Dulos’ disappearance. Fotis Dulos committed suicide on January 28 2020. His former girlfriend, Michelle Toconis and friend, Kent Douglas Mawhinney both still face their charges in the disappearance. Mawhinney also faces charges of spousal rape.
Karen Jarmoc, CEO of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said warning signs in the case may have gone unheeded. Jennifer Dulos’ concerns “really didn’t seem to be viewed as a red flag in the court by the judge,” Jarmoc said. The 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 Karen Jarmoc, whose group is exploring legislative proposals that could lead to criminal penalties for unnecessary filings in family court.
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. State Sen. Alex Bergstein, a Democrat from Greenwich, planned to call for new legislation Friday that would require family court judges to give more weight to claims of domestic violence when handling child custody cases. “Unfortunately, the loss of her life has brought attention, increased attention to this issue. But this is an issue that is real and present, every day, in all parts of our state and in every community, and we need to address it head on.”
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 is currently working on a similar bill in Pennsylvania. “Kids are still getting in these very dangerous situations.”