The Deadly Form of Abuse No One Is Talking About
From withholding money to precluding women from working, financial abuse is an insidious manifestation of domestic violence and equally as dangerous.
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Trigger warning: True instances of psychological and physical domestic abuse.
When *Carmen’s husband, Frank, sensed she was thinking about leaving him, he made a decision. He told Carmen that she and their kids were cut off from his health insurance. Carmen had heart problems and battled breast cancer. Frank knew her pre-existing conditions would make her own insurance astronomically expensive. She begged him to keep her and the kids on his insurance plan, and offered to pay for her part of the premiums. He refused. Today, she’s not sure whether he will really take her off the insurance, or it was just a threat. She is afraid to ask him.
Carmen is now starting divorce proceedings, has primary custody of their kids, and is working regularly. In the meantime, the couple still shares a checking and savings account. Carmen says Frank regularly withdraws money for his own expenses and leaves around $60 in grocery money for the kids for the week.
Money wasn’t their only problem, but it held a tremendous amount of power. “It’s one of the reasons I didn’t leave for years. He made our debt my fault,” says Carmen. “Everything goes back to the original injury, the narcissistic injury…‘You’re spending too much’; ‘You’re not on my insurance because you left me’; ‘You took the kids from me.’ All roads lead to that place unless I agree to get back together. It’s all about punishing me.”
Carmen’s situation is not only common, but it points to a larger problem we don’t often talk about when examining domestic abuse cases: Financial abuse keeps victims trapped.
Despite its prevalence in these scenarios, very little data exists about domestic financial abuse. A 2008 Michigan State University study of 103 domestic abuse victims found that 99 percent of them suffered from financial abuse. A 2012 Rutgers University study found that 94 percent of 120 domestic abuse survivors suffered some type of financial abuse (also called economic abuse). The participants’ ethnicities spanned the gamut, and most of them were poor. Additional studies have found that there is an association between poverty and domestic abuse, but that poverty is not the cause or the sole factor. In fact, a different study found that women who earn 65 percent or more of household income are more likely to be targeted by psychological abusers.
“You need to widen the lens. A lot of people think of financial abuse as pertaining to women who are of lower socioeconomic status or means. It runs the gamut,” says Kit Gruelle, a domestic violence advocate and abuse survivor.
The truth is, abuse doesn’t discriminate. One in four women and one in seven men experience severe physical abuse at the hands of an intimate partner in their lifetime. Half of both men and women have experienced psychologically aggressive behavior in the relationship. Bisexual men and women are more at risk than other sexual identity demographics.
Domestic abuse also occurs across racial lines. Out of female domestic violence victims surveyed by the Centers for Disease Control, 47.5 percent are American Indian/Alaska Native, 45.1 percent are non-Hispanic Black, 37.3 are non-Hispanic White, 34.4 percent are Hispanic, and 18.3 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander.
What all of these cases have in common is that financial abuse is omnipresent.
“I would like financial abuse to be talked about more,’” says Tarsha McCallum, senior director of shelters for Safe Horizon in the Bronx, New York. “It needs to be discussed so people can identify what’s happening to them. It happens to everyone.”
Financial abusers employ a wide range of tactics, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence. These include stalking or harassing the victim at work, maxing out the victim’s credit cards, drawing out or manipulating divorce proceedings, hiding assets, forbidding a victim from working, stealing their paychecks, controlling all of the victim’s finances down to the penny, writing fraudulent checks in their name, and more. Often, the victim has been made financially dependent on the abuser, making it much harder to leave.
“It’s a gradual process,” says McCallum, who works primarily with survivors who have few resources once they escape their abusers. “You may be in a relationship where someone is generous. Then later, you’re relying on that money, and they start to pull that money away. Then, they start to call you names. They say, ‘Here’s my money, you need me now.’ The abuser becomes more abusive.”
Abusers may also sabotage the victim’s employment in an attempt to make the victim more dependent. “There is financial abuse that is less obvious. And this may be the bulk of the cases we see,” says Bari Z. Weinberger, founder of Weinberger Divorce & Family Law Group of New Jersey. “The abuser gives the victim a black eye and so the victim can’t go to work. When this happens enough, the victim may lose their job and their income—becoming even more reliant on their abuser. This is financial abuse. In the same way, the abuser may be stalking their victim, which is a domestic violence crime. The victim is afraid to go to work over this and loses their job. This is financial abuse.”
On the other side of the economic spectrum, an abuser might leech off the victim and convince her that he is entitled to everything she has.
In an ordeal that lasted seven years, Charles was financially dependent on his girlfriend, an affluent doctor named Millie.
“It was a slow process. When we met, he said he just moved back to the country from living overseas, and so was looking for a job and temporarily living with a friend,” Millie says. “He was sweet and attentive and moved in very fast. Then it became obvious that he was not going to look for any jobs.”
When Millie tried to kick Charles out of her house after years of physical and psychological abuse, he capitalized on a state law which said that he was technically a tenant, and therefore Millie had to pay for his expenses to move—she couldn’t just throw him out. She tried multiple times to pay for his move, even once giving him $5,000 in cash, which he spent on hotel rooms and drinks for other women.
Millie spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Charles all told. Throughout these proceedings, he threatened Millie and her children with violence. After years of terror and violated agreements, Millie altered her deed and put the house in her kids’ names in order to sever Charles’s legal connection to the property.
“He believed he was above the law and that he could kill me and my kids,” says Millie. “I never thought it would happen to me.”
“Why don’t you just leave?”
Victims are often asked why they don’t leave abusive relationships. The truth is, leaving is often harder than staying. They are cut off from finances, and often the prospect of moving into a shelter, and uprooting their lives and those of their children, seems scarier to victims than staying with their abusers.
Victims are also psychologically trapped by prolonged effects of the abuse. It takes a victim on average seven attempts to leave an abuser before they finally do, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
“While they’re being financially abused, they’re being psychologically abused,” says McCallum. “They believe they have nothing and will never be anything. If you hear that long enough, you’re going to believe it, especially because this person said they loved you, and at one time they treated you well.”
Shame is a powerful force that keeps victims stagnant. Shame from themselves, their families, and courts that will judge them, according to McCallum.
“The shame is that this person that I love is hurting me, and I still love him, or her, or my partner after they’ve been hurting me,” McCallum says. “I don’t want to tell anyone. I don’t want to look bad. I don’t want people to think I’m a bad parent.”
Also: leaving doesn’t stop the abuse. Abusers often retaliate. Gruelle described a case she worked in which a woman separated from her husband, and he proceeded to enter her garden every night to turn on her sprinkler spigots. The result was a $600 water bill for the victim.
“These are people who have power, and who feel entitled to power who perceive they’re losing that power. They will do anything,” Gruelle says.
Retaliation often plays out in family court. One woman named Lydia said that when she and her now-ex-husband, Bill, got a divorce, he was making a lot of money, yet fought every attempt to pay child support. He ran up an astronomical legal tab for Lydia, who had a very limited income.
“It’s this person who is seeing how much they can push you, how much they can control you, how damaged you can get. And then they say ‘I never did anything to you’ … and we say ‘well, it’s his right to go to court.’”
Lydia said that Bill would threaten to take their kids, or he would dangle full custody in front of Lydia as a prize, only to rescind it or impose outlandish conditions. At the end of it all, Lydia was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt from legal fees. The court proceedings lasted several years. She received full custody of her kids, but her husband only had to pay nominal child support despite his high income.
“You have to be this wall of stoic rock. Everything is burning, I’m on fire, no worries, I’ll take three jobs, four jobs,” said Lydia. “I know plenty of moms who sell plasma and do these crazy side things when all it would take is an official judge to say ‘Stop being a jerk,’ but they don’t.”
“We’ve expected victims to rearrange their lives because of the controlling tactics of abusers,” Gruelle said. “The abuser is the problem. We tell victims to ‘go to a shelter.’ We don’t look at the abuser and say ‘stop, you’re breaking the law, we’re going to hold you accountable.’ We still reflexively blame victims.”
For a victim to press criminal charges specifically for financial abuse, the abuser must commit a crime like fraud, grand larceny, mischief, theft or property damage. Otherwise, financial abuse is vaguely bundled in with other charges like harassment, trespassing, stalking and assault with few clear parameters of its own.
On a federal level, the Survivors’ Empowerment and Economic Security Act ensures employee benefits for domestic abuse victims and prohibits employer discrimination against them. Still, up to 60 percent of victims lose their jobs due to their abusers’ actions, such as stalking.
In some states like California, New York, Texas, and Florida, courts can deny “Vexatious Litigation,” which is repeated court action used to harass, subdue, or deplete a defendant of funds. It’s not nationwide, however, and it looks different in each state. A judge may also decide to hold the abuser in contempt or issue economic sanctions against him.
Women were allowed to own property beginning in 1881. Domestic violence was systematically treated as a household matter until the 1960s, and police officers were seen as peacemakers more than law enforcers in these cases. Domestic violence felony courts did not exist until the 1990s. There are no federal criminal laws protecting spouses from financial abuse when it comes to shared property, funds, or businesses. Common law generally mandates that if spouses share their property, either party can do whatever they want with it.
However, this is changing courtroom by courtroom. The Iowa Supreme Court called it criminal embezzlement when one spouse misappropriated shared property or funds without his spouse’s consent. Under New York penal law, it is considered larceny if a spouse withholds a jointly owned piece of property with the intent of denying it to their spouse. Yet, an Arizona appeals court ruled in one case that a husband could not be brought up on burglary charges after he broke into his jointly owned home and sexually abused their daughter.
In New York, Justice John Leventhal presided over the first domestic violence felony court. And in 2007 in New York’s Supreme Court appellate division he successfully fought for property rights for abuse victims. For example, if an abuser picks up a TV that he owns with his wife and throws it against a wall and destroys it, he can be charged with criminal mischief, which wasn’t the case previously.
“It’s going to take years to change this attitude of male entitlement,” said Justice Leventhal. “Until then, the courtroom is the emergency room for society’s ills. It’s all we have.”
Rebuilding from the rubble.
Victims who have no resources are encouraged to go to shelters and apply for public financial assistance. They might lean on Family Justice Centers or nonprofits to get back on their feet. But this process can be grueling.
“You have to find daycare … you have to find these resources, ask for help, be able to get the help, advocate for yourself,” McCallum said. There are so many things that come with being independent that domestic survivors have to work through.”
There can be reverberations through victims’ lives for years. For example, domestic violence victims experience a higher rate of identity theft because the partner has access to their personal information, said Andy Collado, an advisor at the Financial Clinic in Brooklyn, which provides advisory services for low-income customers and abuse victims.
The abuse can set victims back years in their financial confidence, and some remain in danger. “Access is a big issue for financially abused,” Collado said. “They may not have access to the Internet or a laptop, or they can’t get away and walk into a bank. One of the most important things to do as a financial coach…is getting a good communication structure down. For some people it’s ‘You can never call this number, you have to send an email to here.’… We have to get them in a position where they feel strong enough to leave, and in many cases that breaks down to money… some people stay in these relationships because they don’t see how they can make ends meet.”
The help financial abuse victims need varies by case. Some are more willing to start over, and learn new financial literacy skills, while others just need to pay their bills that month. The cycle of financial dependence is what keeps victims tethered to their abusers.
“They have to be tired and see a way out and want a way out in order to get out,” says McCallum, who shares some incredible success stories. One young immigrant was being financially abused by a boyfriend while she was working on her status. She got out, and is now a citizen. One disabled child had her benefits stolen by a physically abusive family member. She and her mother now have their own apartment.
All of the women quoted in this article got out. Carmen almost went to a shelter, but she was lucky to have a friend loan her money to sublet an apartment. She sees a very long road to divorce, but she said she’s ready.
“I thought getting on my feet was going to be quick,” said Carmen. “It’s a very slow process, and I accepted that.”
*All subjects’ names have been changed.
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