American victims of domestic violence — about 10-million women and men each year — must endure physical assault, sexual assault, willful intimidation and other abusive behavior.
However, many experts say financial abuse is the No. 1 area that triggers a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another.
Controlling the money is a huge reason why one person establishes the extreme control that leads to abuse and violent behavior.
Conversely, fear of financial ruin often is the rationalization for the other partner to remain in 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 percent 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.’’
This page will explain the dynamics of financial abuse, while sharing information about resources and nonprofit programs that can help victims who want to escape. It will show how a domestic violence victim can gain access to credit. It will explain a potential benefit that might be unknown — crime victim compensation.
Financial abuse doesn’t have the same graphic image as physical abuse, but its damage can’t be overstated.
“(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.’’
Domestic Violence Statistics
The statistics on domestic violence in America are stark.
- On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner.
- About 33% of women (and 25% of men) have been victims of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.
- On a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines.
- Domestic victimization correlates to higher rates of depression and suicidal behavior.
- Only 34% of people who are injured by intimate partners receive medical care for those injuries.
- One woman is fatally shot by a spouse, ex-spouse or dating partner every 14 hours.
The frequency and severity of domestic abuse can vary. The constant is one partner’s consistent efforts to maintain power and control over the other. It can result in physical injury, psychological trauma and even death. The physical, emotional and psychological consequences can cross generations and last a lifetime.
Experts say domestic violence intensifies over time. Abusers become more aggressive and controlling as the relationship continues. It could begin with actions that seem harmless, but it often escalates into extreme control and abuse.
Physical and sexual assaults — or threats to commit them — are the most apparent forms of domestic violence. Those actions clearly make others aware of the problem.
But regular use of other behaviors make up a larger scope of abuse, instilling fear of future violent attacks. They lead to control of the victim’s life and circumstances.
Some of the ways this happens include:
- Keeping or discouraging the victim from seeing friends or family members.
- Embarrassing or shaming the victim with put-downs.
- Controlling who the victim sees, where they go or what they do.
- Preventing the victim from making their own decisions.
- Preventing the victim from working or attending school or harassing the victim at either.
Then there are systematic economic factors, leading to financial abuse.
What is Financial Abuse?
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one of the red-flag or telltale characteristics of an abuser is the desire to control all the finances.
Barriers that keep a victim from escaping a violent relationship include lack of means to support themselves and/or their children financially, while having a lack of access to cash, bank accounts or assets.
Financial abuse is when one partner takes control of or limits access to shared or individual assets, while limiting the earning potential of the victim, who becomes financially isolated. It fits into the larger strategy of power and control.
Some of the forms it can take:
- Demanding that the victim quits a job.
- Applying for credit cards, obtaining loans or opening accounts in a victim’s name without their knowledge or consent. In other words, setting up a debt trap.
- 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.
Some victims might feel they are unable to leave an abusive partner — or forced to return to an abusive partner — for economic reasons. There could be barriers to economic self-sufficiency, such as struggling to find a job or a place to live due to debt and poor credit scores.
According to the NCADV, between 94-99% of domestic violence survivors experienced some form of financial abuse.
How Domestic Violence Victims Can Respond
After seeking help from a trained domestic violence advocate, there are numerous tactics for victims of financial abuse.
- Avoid using credit and debit cards because that allows an abuser to track the victim’s whereabouts.
- Keep personal and financial records in a safe location.
- Leave copies of those records with a friend or relative. Also, 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.
- If you are considering leaving your abuser, calculate what it would cost you to live on your own, and consider starting to set aside your own money in a safe place, even if it is just a few dollars.
The Decision to Leave
The decision to leave an abuser is not one to be made lightly, according to Pentico.
“All the ‘helpers’ — the friends and family — they so want her to leave and get away from him,’’ Pentico said. “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.’’
Financial Help for Single Parents
There are numerous resources available for single parents to help with housing, food and childcare expenses. Please 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.
Food Assistance from SNAP: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
Many domestic violence survivors are able to get from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps. Learn how to apply for SNAP.
Gaining Access to Credit
A constant story for victims is the fear of being homeless or living in poverty if they left. When some victims escape, they later find ruined credit scores, legal issues and that they are drowning in debt.
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.
The first thing to understand is that you must maintain a good credit history. You will need a good credit report to start a new life. It’s essential to help rent an apartment, obtain a new credit card and get better rates on your insurance.
Start this process immediately. Alert creditors if there is a change of address so bills will continue to be received from all joint accounts and no late fees are charged. Don’t miss any payments.
Remember that women who drop their husband’s name and use their maiden name will not erase the credit history established under their married name. Credit history is tied to your Social Security number, not your name.
You need to establish a new credit record under your own name, especially if all previous credit was held jointly with your spouse. You might consider turning existing joint credit cards, gas cards and retail accounts into individual accounts. If you do that, it will not mean having to re-establish your credit should you file for divorce.
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 in between. 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 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 are any shared debts that are being neglected and can point you in the right direction when canceling any joint accounts. Most financial institutions provide credit monitoring services, such as Privacy Guard, at low costs.
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 need 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.
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.
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. That 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. Meanwhile, before leaving, put away whatever money you can without the abuser noticing. You might need a cushion.
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 non-profit debt consolidation company.
The NCADV, in collaboration with the National Endowment for Financial Education, has developed a financial education project. It includes materials called “Hope & Power For Your Personal Finances: A Rebuilding Guide Following Domestic Violence’’ to promote self-sufficiency.
Copies can be downloaded through the following link:
Please note: these materials may take several minutes to download because of their size. You will need a PDF reader to open them. If you do not have one already, download the free Adobe Reader here.
The NCADV also provides training and technical assistance to domestic violence programs and other community organizations. It 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 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, while cooperating with police and prosecutors.
- Submit a timely victim compensation application.
- Have a cost or loss not covered by insurance or another government benefit program.
- Have not committed a criminal or wrongful act that caused or contributed to the crime.
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
Financial Abuse Resources
Here are some resources for victims of financial abuse:
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence; http://www.ncadv.org
- National Endowment for Financial Education; nefe.org. It’s a foundation dedicated to helping all Americans acquire the information and gain the skills necessary to take control of their personal finances.
- Women’s Institute for Financial Education; wife.org. Provides financial education for women seeking financial independence.
- Your Money Matters: Tax Information for Survivors of Domestic Abuse; irs.gov (search for publication #3865).
- Social Security Administration’s Website for Women; ssa.gov/women/
- The Wise-Up Curriculum; wiseupwomen.org. Created by the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor, it targets Generation X women by providing an online financial education curriculum.
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
- National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (1-800-537-2238); nrcdv.org and www.vawnet.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