Domestic violence, as experts are learning and victims have known for a long time, goes way beyond simply “violence.” It also goes way beyond the statistics that estimate about 10 million people in the U.S. a year are victims of domestic violence.
Domestic violence is generally defined as physical assault, sexual assault, willful intimidation and other abusive behavior. But a major part of domestic abuse is that it almost always includes financial control, and also can mean devastating financial consequences for the victim. Some 94-99% of female domestic abuse victims are victims of financial abuse, sometimes called economic control. Control of finances stems from coercive control practiced by many abusers — a systematic pattern of power to keep a partner in line.
The destructive effects of financial control and abuse are far-reaching. Some 60% of women don’t report abuse. While much of it has to do with fear of being physically harmed, many also don’t because since they have no control over finances, they have no means of support without their abuser.
Once a woman leaves a relationship, her financial struggles often continue, since her ability to build a financial foundation, including a credit history, was likely hindered during the abusive relationship.
“Financial struggles don’t create or cause domestic violence — it crosses all socioeconomic lines,’’ said Kim Pentico, director of the Economic Justice Program for the National Network To End Domestic Violence. “But financial struggles create significant barriers to getting or staying safe. There’s some form of financial or economic abuse faced by up to 99% of the survivors. Economic factors exist within the violence.
“Many of these survivors just don’t have the financial ability to rent a hotel room. In a real sense, many women are being battered because they can’t afford to not be battered. They see it as a choice between being battered and homelessness.’’
Financial abuse and its effects should not be downplayed, either by the victim or by those who support her.
“(The victim) may experience all other manifestations of domestic violence, but an absence of physical harm may lead her to rationalize and accept unacceptable and abusive behavior,’’ wrote Dara Richardson-Heron, former chief executive officer of the YWCA. “The media, communities, and even loved ones often exacerbate this problem by dismissing this type of domestic violence by saying, ‘At least he didn’t hit you.’
“In addition to asking why she ‘doesn’t just leave,’ this rhetoric is high on the list of damaging things to say to someone experiencing domestic violence.’’
If you wonder whether you’re a victim of domestic, and particularly financial abuse, ask yourself if your partner:
- Keeps or discourages you from seeing friends or family members?
- Embarrasses or shames you with put-downs?
- Controls who you see, where you go and/or what you do?
- Prevents you from making your own decisions?
- Prevents you from working or attending school?
- Harasses you at your workplace?
- Controls your access to money?
If you are considering leaving an abusive relationship — or you have already left — one of your biggest concerns is likely the financial aspects. It may seem overwhelming, particularly if you haven’t had access to the household’s money, but there are many places to turn that understand your situation and are prepared to offer financial help for domestic abuse survivors.
Government agencies, churches and nonprofit agencies can provide safety, security and perhaps a financial escape, or information on how to pursue one. Many resources take into account the issues surrounding leaving, and take a multi-pronged approach that includes financial issues.
What Is Financial Abuse?
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one of the telltale characteristics of an abuser is the desire to control all the finances.
Specifically, some of the forms this control can take are:
- Demanding the victim quit a job.
- Applying for credit cards, getting loans or opening accounts in the victim’s name without their knowledge or consent. This sets up a debt trap for the victim, who ends up owing money she may not be able to pay.
- Forcing the victim to sign financial documents.
- Refinancing a home mortgage or car loan without a victim’s knowledge.
- Deciding when or how the victim can access or use cash, bank accounts or credit cards.
- Forcing a victim to give the abuser money, ATM cards or credit cards.
- Using a victim’s checkbook, ATM card or credit cards without the victim’s knowledge.
Victims often stay in a violent or otherwise abusive relationship because they don’t have the means to support themselves and/or their children financially, both short-term and long-term. This not only includes access to money, but the ability to stay afloat financially, including finding a job, paying for a place to live, getting a car or accessing other transportation, and more.
Financial control often doesn’t end when someone leaves an abusive relationship. Debt or bad credit scores can have an impact on financial stability in many ways, including finding a place to live, getting credit and more.
How Domestic Violence Victims Can Respond to Financial Abuse
The first step is to seek help from a trained domestic violence advocate. There are also many steps, both big and small, a victim of financial abuse can take:
- Avoid using credit and debit cards – the abuser can use that information to track you.
- Keep personal and financial records in a safe location.
- Leave copies of records with a friend or relative, and use a bank safety deposit box (one that is not accessible by the abuser).
- Keep an emergency evacuation box with copies of your family’s important records and documents.
- Have copies of car and house keys, extra money and emergency phone numbers in a safe place.
Preparing to Leave
The decision to leave an abuser is not one to be made lightly.
“All the ‘helpers’ — the friends and family — they so want her to leave and get away from him,’’ said Pentico. “It’s so important to understand that when survivors of domestic violence made an act of independence, their lethality rate increases by seven times. Her risk of dying increases.
“Most of the time when you hear about domestic homicides, she has made an act of independence, whether it’s by getting a protective order, by leaving him, by getting a job. That power and control in the relationship has been challenged. He’s going to do whatever it takes to get that back. She must be really careful because you can’t always equate leaving with safety. It can actually be more dangerous. It’s counterintuitive.’’
Calculate what it would cost to live on your own, and start setting aside money in a safe place, even if it is just a few dollars.
While you prepare to leave, be digitally safe — erase your search history (find it in your computer settings, or if you’re using a tablet or phone, use the private browser function). Change your passwords and keep the new passwords private and secure. Open an email address that only you can access and move key contacts to that account.
It’s important to build a credit history, or repair one, to have access to ways to get money, goods, housing and more. A financial abuse survivor’s access to credit is one of the most important stepping stones to gaining independence.
How can a victim gain control of their financial situation and, more important, ensure access to credit? If you intend to leave, there are things you must know.
You will need a good credit report, including a good credit score, to start a new life. Decent credit is essential to help rent an apartment, get a credit card, get a car if you don’t have one and get better rates on insurance. Start this process as soon as you start preparing to leave.
Credit history is tied to your Social Security number, not your name, something to remember if you plan to change your married name back to your maiden name.
If you don’t handle the family’s money, you must get a sense of what you and your spouse own and owe, especially learning in whose name those assets and debts reside. You might have to take a stealth approach to avoid flagging your intentions to your spouse. Write down information in a safe place. Visit the bank in person and inquire about accounts. While looking online for information, use a private browser window so your searches aren’t saved in the cache.
Some of these steps may not be possible for women who don’t have access to any of the household’s finances. But do as much as you can to build a better credit history. And, whatever else you do, pay your bills on time.
If you plan a change of address, let your creditors know, so that you’ll continue to get the bills you pay yourself, or the ones that are in your name.
Establish a New Credit Record
Establish a new credit record under your own name, especially if credit has been held jointly with your partner. If possible, you might consider turning joint credit cards, gas cards and retail accounts into individual accounts, although if your partner is controlling the finances, this may be difficult. If you are able to do it, it will mean not having to re-establish your credit should you file for divorce.
Get a Copy of Your Credit Report
Request a free copy of your credit report from one of the three major credit bureaus, Equifax, TransUnion or Experian. The easiest way is to call FREE Annual Credit Report at 1-877-322-8228 or go online to www.annualcreditreport.com. You can order a free report from all three credit bureaus at once, though it is better to space them out a few months. The three credit bureaus usually get the same information, so getting one every four months will help keep you abreast of what’s going on.
Check for Unfamiliar Accounts
Check the reports and make sure your partner didn’t open any lines of credit in your name. If there’s any evidence of error or fraud, dispute the information with the credit bureaus. Monitor your credit report often to see if it has been adversely affected by your partner’s actions. It will show if there is any shared debt that is being neglected, and can point you in the right direction when canceling joint accounts. Most financial institutions provide credit monitoring services, such as Privacy Guard, at low costs.
Make Copies of Important Documents
Make copies of important financial or personal documents, such as bank statements, birth certificates, marriage certificates and ownership documents for shared assets. It’s also helpful to have all original documents that list your Social Security number and passwords.
Make Necessary Changes
If your partner knows your information, you might consider changing your Social Security number. Change your passwords. Select new personal identification numbers (PINs) and passwords on all accounts, including email and benefit plans. Avoid using personal details that are easy to guess. Making these changes will prevent your partner from running up bills in your name or draining the accounts.
Establish Solo Accounts
Immediately set up a personal checking and savings account for yourself. Make sure the account is listed only in your name. Have statements delivered to a secure mailing address or email address, so the abuser won’t have access.
Protect Yourself from Debt
Pay off any balances on joint credit cards, so it will be easier to close the account and prevent an abuser from racking up debt. If you can’t pay it off, call the credit issuer and ask that your name be removed from the account. That will protect you from having to pay anything charged after leaving the abuser. If you have significant debt, seek help from a nonprofit debt consolidation company.
Financial Help for Single Parents
There are many resources available for single parents that can help with finding housing, food and child care expenses. Take a look at our Financial Help for Single Parents resource page to learn how to survive as a single parent with one income. This page includes federal, state, local and nonprofit programs, web resources and information about how to set up a one-income budget.
Many domestic violence survivors are able to get help from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps. Learn how to apply for SNAP.
Another food assistance program is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). a federal program aimed at making families self-sufficient. Learn more about TANF.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, more commonly known as WIC, is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is available through the state government. It provides supplemental food, health care referrals and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk. Learn more about WIC.
The NCADV, in collaboration with the National Endowment for Financial Education, has developed a financial education webinar series, free and available to the public. It can be found on the NCADV website.
NEFE is a foundation dedicated to helping all Americans acquire the information and gain the skills necessary to take control of their personal finances. NEFE partners with other organizations, like NCADV, to provide financial education, particularly to underserved individuals whose financial education issues are not being addressed.
The two organizations have also partnered on “Hope and Power for Your Personal Finances: A Rebuilding Guide Following Domestic Violence,’’ a manual that promotes self-sufficiency. It’s available in both English and Spanish and can be downloaded from the NCADV website.
The NCADV also partners with the Allstate Foundation Purple Purse as part of the longest-running national campaign focused on ending domestic violence through financial empowerment services for survivors. Allstate has invested more than $50-million to help more than a million survivors.
These programs make a difference. Research shows that individuals who participate in financial education programs are more likely to save money, understand consumer credit and establish a budget.
The programs teach budgeting, balancing a checkbook, keeping financial records safe and confidential, preventing identity theft, finding and maintaining affordable housing, getting a job, managing money, taxes, insurance, debt management and building good credit.
Financial education is often hindered by abusive partners, but it’s essential to break the cycle of violence. Financial matters are complicated when compounded with the need to seek protection from an abusive partner.
“Financial education is something we all need and it’s a piece that removes one of the barriers that ensure safety,’’ Pentico said. “But we can’t control his violence. If she learns about finances and rebuilds her credit, then he shows up to her house with a gun, that doesn’t help anything.
“But if access to money gets her further and further away, if it puts her in a building with more security, those measures can help. I think you have to be careful in saying financial education can make women safe. That implies she has control over his behavior, which she doesn’t.’’
If you have credit card debt, talk to a credit counselor at a nonprofit credit counseling agency and find out what your options are for debt relief. If you can’t pay your electric bill, get help from a government, non-profit or your utility company.
What Is Crime Victim Compensation?
Because victims of domestic violence often suffer financial stress and emotional trauma — in addition to recovering from violence and abuse, there are costs of medical care, counseling and replacing lost income — there is help available through the crime victim compensation program in your state.
The first compensation program was created in 1965 in California. Nine other states had programs by 1972. Today, compensation programs nationwide are paying about $500 million annually to more than 200,000 victims.
Most of the money comes from offenders, usually a funding mechanism through fees and fines charged against people convicted of crimes. Meanwhile, federal grants account for about 35% of the funding.
About 33% of the claims are filed by domestic violence victims. Maximum benefits average $25,000, but some states can offer more. Each state operates under its own law, but all programs have the same basic criteria. Generally, the victim must report the crime promptly and cooperate with police and prosecutors. They must also submit a victim compensation application in a timely manner.
The cost or loss can’t be covered by insurance or another government benefit program.
Each state has its own criteria through the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards. A complete list is found at http://www.nacvcb.org/index.asp?sid=5
Resources for Financial Abuse Survivors
Here are some resources for victims of financial abuse. They not only provide education and other support, but also links to other resources:
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence – http://www.ncadv.org
National Endowment for Financial Education – nefe.org.
Women’s Institute for Financial Education – https://www.wife.org/.
The Association for Enterprise Opportunity – https://aeoworks.org/.
Your Money Matters: Tax Information for Survivors of Domestic Abuse – http://www.irs.gov (search for publication #3865)
Social Security Administration’s Website for Women – https://www.ssa.gov/people/women/
Assistance for College Students
One big step to financial security is to get a degree and certificate – something else that costs money. But there are also resources for those who are survivors of domestic abuse who want to further their education.
Some scholarships available for domestic violence victims and their families are:
Angel Scholarship – for students who have been impacted by domestic violence.
Break the Silence About Domestic Violence – scholarship, which provides $1,000 for high school and college students whose lives have been impacted by domestic violence.
The David Scholarship – provides up to $1,000 for men between 16-25 who have overcome hardship.
The Ruth Scholarship – provides up to $1,000 for women between 16-25 who have overcome hardship.
Scholarships for Women – a website that’s a clearinghouse for scholarships and grants for women, has links to education financial assistance programs across the U.S. that may be targeted for a specific region.
Nonprofit Programs for Domestic Abuse Survivors
Here are some nonprofit programs that help victims of domestic violence:
National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) – ndvh.org
National Dating Abuse Helpline (1-866-331-9474) – loveisrespect.org
Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center (1-866-879-6636) – 866uswomen.org
National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-422-4453) – childhelp.org
National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673) – rainn.org
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) – suicidepreventionlifeline.org
National Center for Victims of Crime (1-202-467-8700) – victimsofcrime.org
National Human Trafficking Resource Center/Polaris Project (1-888-373-7888) – polarisproject.org
National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (1-510-465-1984) – nnirr.org
National Coalition for the Homeless (1-202-737-6444) – nationalhomeless.org
Futures Without Violence: The National Health Resource Center on Domestic Violence (1-888-792-2873) – futureswithoutviolence.org
National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health (1-312-726-7020, ext. 2011) – nationalcenterdvtraumamh.org
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