Economic Abuse and Domestic Violence
Many victims of domestic violence are subjected to economic abuse in their relationship. Economic abuse takes various forms, such as controlling all the money in the relationship, identity theft, accumulating debt in the victim’s name, and keeping the victim from gaining or keeping employment.
Economic abuse is but one tactic that abusers might use, usually in conjunction with many others, to abuse their partner. Withholding money and doling out an allowance can be an integral aspect of the overall power and control exercised by an abuser. One consequence of this tactic of abuse is that it threatens one of the most important things that a victim needs to escape abuse: financial independence and self-sufficiency.
To learn more about economic abuse in the context of domestic violence, see the Q&A.
This Q&A was conducted with Dora Galacatos, Executive Director of Fordham Law School’s Feerick Center for Social Justice and Matt Schedler, Senior Staff Attorney CAMBA Legal Services.
Q: What is economic abuse and what are the various forms that domestic violence victims experience?
A typical example of this sort of economic abuse is illustrated below:
Ms. A is a victim of economic abuse. She is in her early sixties, Spanish-speaking and works as a hospital aide. Ms. A always paid her rent on time and had lived in her apartment for seventeen years. Ms. A’s abuser lived with her but they were not married. The abuser did not work, was emotionally abusive, and he had taken over all of the household finances – claiming to be paying all of the bills. One day, Ms. A arrived home to find out that she was being evicted. She discovered that the abuser had been stealing her income and amassed over $10,000 in rental arrears and $6,000 in utility arrears. The abuser had also kept all bills and housing court notices from Ms. A. Ms. A had to borrow money from friends and relatives, but was eventually able to pay her rental arrears. After she was able prevent eviction, Ms. A thought her financial trouble was past her. Unfortunately, Ms. A later discovered that the abuser had also stolen her identity, opening at least one credit card account in her name. After this discovery, Ms. A began experiencing extensive debt collection. Frustrated and scared, she decided to file for bankruptcy, notwithstanding the long-term impact on her credit. In addition, Ms. A exhibits symptoms associated with PTSD.
A: A recent report used a federal definition: “making or attempting to make an individual financially dependent by maintaining total control over financial resources, withholding one’s access to money, or forbidding one’s attendance at school or employment.” This definition is somewhat narrow and should include economic abuse through consumer credit, as Angela Littwin argues in her seminal article, Coerced Debt. Economic abuse can take many forms, including:
- Amassing debt in the survivor’s name and ruining their credit
- Accessing credit reports illegally
- Mortgage and tax fraud
- Controlling household finances, by tracking spending to the penny, doling out an “allowance,” and denying access to bank accounts
- Stealing money (including wages and benefits)
- Preventing a survivor from gaining financial literacy or workforce training
- Sabotaging school or employment
- Selling a survivor’s personal identifying information
Q: What are the consequences of economic abuse?
A: Economic abuse can have long-lasting psychological and economic consequences:
- Preventing a survivor from getting education or employment reinforces economic dependence and makes it difficult to establish economic self-sufficiency.
- Lack of access to household finances prevents some survivors from gaining essential skills important for economic self-sufficiency. Survivors may be susceptible to scams and financial products that prey on economically distressed and unsophisticated consumers, such as payday loans and debt relief companies.
- Survivors who experience economic abuse through consumer credit may end up with considerable debt and ruined credit. Poor credit prevents consumers from securing housing and employment. Domestic violence advocates report that damaged credit often prevents survivors from renting apartments, particularly in areas with low vacancy rates.
- Economic abuse and debt collection can compound the physical, psychosocial and mental harm already suffered by survivors.
Q: What protective measures can a victim take?
A: Any steps taken to address economic abuse should first be evaluated from the standpoint of safety in consultation with a trained counselor. Depending on the individual survivor’s safety risks, potential steps include: placing a “fraud alert” or security freeze on credit reports; changing PINS and passwords on accounts (but note that abusers can retrieve information through spyware); monitoring credit reports; calling creditors of joint accounts to stop being liable for new charges (the survivor remains liable for prior charges); and establishing separate bank accounts. In extreme cases, a survivor might consider applying for a new social security number; this step, however, may have complicated repercussions and should be evaluated carefully.
Q: What resources are available for victims and service providers?
A: There is a growing recognition that economic abuse can play an integral part of domestic violence. The Feerick Center’s DV Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office (CLARO) Pilot Project is seeking to enhance and expand consumer debt assistance to survivors. The Financial Clinic has been a leader in developing tools for and delivering training to domestic violence service providers to address the needs of survivors’ financial lives. The Task Force on Domestic Violence and Economic Justice (DVEJ) has provided critical leadership and coordination in New York City on economic abuse and related issues as has the D.C.-based Center for Survivor Agency and Justice on a national basis.
For other information and resources, visit Consumer Rights for Domestic Violence Survivor Initiatives.