Advocates Say Financial Abuse is Domestic Violence, Too

Financial abuse is on the rise, especially in areas with high unemployment where families are under increased financial strain.

By Brianna McGurran

Cecilia Gastón’s client didn’t have cuts or bruises when she came to the East Harlem Violence Intervention Program to get help. But her partner hurt her in a different way.

“When she hands out lunch money for the kids, he takes it,” said Gastón, director of the East Harlem-based Violence Intervention Program. “So part of her safety planning was, maybe you can pay the school directly.”

Domestic abuse is not limited to verbal harassment or physical violence, advocates say. Financial abuse – when a partner controls money in a relationship or ruins a victim’s credit – is on the rise, especially in areas with high unemployment where families are under increased financial strain. And organizations across the city are working to let victims know that there’s a way out.

“About 90 percent of the women that come to us have had financial abuse of one kind or another,” said Gastón. “It’s much more pervasive than people assume.”

Abusers can forbid a victim to work outside the home, run up credit card debt on the victim’s credit card or claim the victim as a dependent on the abuser’s tax return without consent. Some victims don’t even know they’ve been financially abused until it’s too late, Gastón said.

“It isn’t until you actually pull the credit report that you see someone listed a card in your name, or you signed a document you didn’t know you signed,” she explained.

Victims of financial abuse face unique obstacles because of safety concerns, said Erika Sussman, director of the Center for Survivor Agency and Justice in Washington, D.C. Survivors are sometimes too scared to take the first step of finding out their credit history, she said, because credit bureaus require survivors to list a permanent address when applying for a report.

“They fear that by offering up their address, their abusive partners will be able to access their credit reports and find them,” she said.

And the economic downturn hasn’t helped, Sussman said. In a 2009 study by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, 73 percent of domestic violence shelters said they had seen an increase in abuse because of financial issues at home.

Higher unemployment rates and home foreclosures made it more difficult for victims to save money to leave their abusers, Sussman added.

“They have fewer resources so can’t engage in certain strategies: gathering up the money to relocate, gathering money to buy a new car,” she said. “It created a much more daunting picture in terms of their ability to find safety.”

But advocates in New York City are working hard to help survivors become self-sufficient. Stefan Hench, assistant director of services at The Financial Clinic, trains financial coaches to work with survivors of domestic violence at the Brooklyn Family Justice Center, run by the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence. He and his coaches have helped women file for bankruptcy, negotiate down their debt and submit amended tax returns.

“Some of these issues have good remedies and some of these, unfortunately, still do not,” he said. “Even in the most mild example, it could cost many, many hours and lots and lots of paperwork to get this sorted out.”

Though daunting, fighting financial abuse is one of the most important ways advocates can help victims take back control of their lives, said Grace Perez, coordinator of the Brides’ March, an annual domestic-violence awareness event.

“It is way, way up there in the reasons why women stay in abusive relationships,” she said. “In my years of service I’ve heard many women say, if only they had help with the financial side, that they wouldn’t think twice about leaving.”