Rebecca Hogue didn’t think it was abuse when her former partner Christopher Trent tried to keep her from seeing family or friends. 

“Looking back I can see how him secluding me was all part of his plan,” Hogue said in an interview with The Frontier from Cleveland County Detention Center. “He was very controlling over everything.”

And when she confronted Trent about a bruise on her 2-year old son Ryder’s ear, he made her feel guilty for raising the issue and said “boys will be boys.” 

Trent also didn’t want Hogue’s mother to visit their home and see her grandson.  

Ryder died on New Year’s Day 2020 after Trent threw him against a wall while Hogue was at work. 

A jury eventually found Hogue guilty of first-degree muder in Ryder’s death for permitting child abuse and a judge sentenced her to 16 months in prison.

Rebecca Hogue is pictured with her son Jeremiah Ryder Johnson. Courtesy

Hogue’s attorney claimed she didn’t know Ryder was being abused and that she was a victim of domestic violence because Trent had manipulated and controlled her. But a Cleveland County judge barred a domestic violence expert from testifying at Hogue’s trial because Trent never threatened or hit her. 

In Oklahoma, victim advocates say the state’s lax definition of domestic abuse harms women. State law requires a person to be threatened or physically abused before they can be considered a victim or seek a protective order in court. 

A bill with bipartisan support in the Oklahoma Legislature now seeks to expand the state’s definition of domestic violence to include forms of psychological abuse that advocates say are just as harmful. 

Senate Bill 1446, authored by state Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, and Rep. Carol Bush, R-Tulsa, would add coercive control to the definition of domestic abuse in Oklahoma, making it easier for victims to seek protective orders and report to police. The bill has already passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support on a vote of 9-1.

Coercive control is used by abusers to gain control over their victims through isolation, financial control or manipulation.

Six other states already have laws that specifically define coercive control as a form of domestic abuse and 31 additional states have similar statutes.

Hogue had been physically abused by previous boyfriends, including Ryder’s dad, so she thought she knew what domestic violence looked like. When Trent came into her life, she was happy to be with someone who didn’t hit her, and she said she didn’t think he would abuse her child.

Trent assured her he would never lay his hands on a woman, making her feel more comfortable around him, she said. He also expressed his desire to form a new family with her and Ryder. 

“All that just sounded like a dream to me,” Hogue said. “I can’t believe he was hurting my son.”

Cleveland County District Judge Michael Tupper told Hogue that he believed she was undoubtedly a victim of abuse, just not by Oklahoma’s legal standard. Tupper declined an interview request from The Frontier.

Lauren Garder, an Oklahoma City based counselor and domestic violence expert, was supposed to be the expert witness for the defense at Hogue’s trial but wasn’t allowed to testify.  She said victims often aren’t aware that controlling behavior can be a form of abuse and a warning sign of future physical harm.

“Coercive control is a pattern of behaviors designed to gain control over victims in ways that are degrading, isolating, and/or terrifying,” Gardner said. 

Floyd hopes her bill will help law enforcement and prosecutors develop a better understanding of different forms of abuse and take it into consideration when working with victims.

“My hope is that by having this in statute, first of all, it recognizes that it is a pattern of behavior, it’s not an isolated event, and then it can continue post separation, even if they break off the relationship,” she said.

Floyd authored the bill after conversations with advocates from the local Oklahoma City chapter of the YWCA, which provides crisis services for victims of domestic violence. 

Acts of coercive control “wear their victim down” to the point where they feel dependent on their abuser, making it harder to leave, said Angela Beatty, chief officer for domestic violence victim services at YWCA of Oklahoma City.

Criminalizing victims

Oklahoma’s limited definition of domestic violence gives women little protection against criminal prosecution when an abuser also harms their children, advocates say.  

“Basically what happens is if a woman is abused and then she’s convicted of a crime, the law does not consider her a victim of abuse,” said Bob Ravitz, Chief Public Defender for Oklahoma County. 

Under Oklahoma’s failure to protect law, victims of domestic violence can face criminal charges when an abuser also harms their children. The law allows caregivers to be prosecuted if they knew or reasonably should have known a child was being harmed — sometimes facing the same or even harsher punishment than the abuser. 

According to a study done by the ACLU of Oklahoma, 1 in 4 women convicted under the state’s failure to protect law received sentences longer than the man convicted of the abuse.

Andrew Casey, Hogue’s attorney, thinks that expanding the definition of domestic violence is a step in the right direction, but he doesn’t believe it would’ve helped in Hogue’s case. More extensive reforms are needed so victims don’t end up in prison, he said. 

Victims would be better served if the Legislature created more support services for women trying to escape abuse, Casey said. 

Ravitz believes that the new definition of domestic violence proposed by Floyd and Bush’s bill could create new ways for the state to incarcerate people instead of providing more services. Oklahoma already ranks third in the nation for incarceration rates.

“We’ve criminalized all sorts of conduct but do absolutely nothing to rehabilitate and change the behavioral patterns of males who are doing this,” he said. 

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