Domestic violence can also take the form of economic abuse
This story was originally posted by The 19th on Aug 10, 2021.
Katie Stager’s husband almost killed her when she tried to leave. She suffered more than 30 stab wounds and was hospitalized for about 10 days. Her body recovered after a year of rehabilitation, but her finances weren’t as strong.
In the early years of her marriage, Stager struggled to afford diapers and contacted Catholic charities and food banks to feed her two young daughters. Her husband, who managed the household’s money, used his income as an office manager for the costs of household utilities – or so she thought.
“He was buying hot rods and motors for his hot rods, dogs and things that we really couldn’t afford,” Stager said.
When the relationship ended, she realized that he had racked up thousands of dollars in debt for unpaid bills. He also took out a credit card in his name and was in debt about $ 20,000.
It was also abuse. Financial abuse, according to Lauren Johnson, assistant professor of social work at Temple University, is controlling or coercive behavior that shatters the material life of a victim of domestic violence: creating astronomical debt, not allowing access to income or harass someone at their job until they are made redundant. While the psychological and physical impact of domestic violence keeps survivors in abusive relationships, financial abuse creates cycles of struggle, a constant effort to rebuild credit or find a job after years without work that can bring someone back. ‘one to an abuser.
After Stager officially divorced her husband in 2012, this financial burden fell on her, becoming a daily reminder of what she had been through.
Forms of economic exploitation such as forced debt, job sabotage and unilateral financial decisions in a marriage are “very difficult to prove and rarely prosecuted,” said Laura Russell, director of the Struggle Unit. Against Domestic Violence at the Legal Aid Society. She explained that it is difficult to prove, for example, that the debt in your name is not yours, or that it was not a mutual decision to have one person to manage the money. Changing the way courts view economic exploitation, she said, begins with recognition in law.
The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 was a revolutionary law that improved legal and community responses to domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment by allowing grants to state, local and tribal organizations. VAWA has been reauthorized three times since 1994, most recently in 2013 under President Barack Obama.
In 2019, the House voted to re-authorize the law for five years, but then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell never introduced it. The House voted again to reauthorize this March, but the Senate has yet to take it back. On July 30, nearly a dozen Democratic senators, including Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, issued a letter asking Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to re-authorize the act.
Russell said she and other lawyers and advocates wanted a mention of economic abuse in VAWA and looked forward to the passage of the 2021 reauthorization in the Senate. The 2021 version includes the long-awaited definition of economic exploitation as “behavior that is coercive, deceptive or unreasonably controlling or restricting a person’s ability to acquire, use or maintain the economic resources to which they are entitled”. The House passed the 2021 reauthorization in March, and is hopeful it will pass through the Senate.
“By granting this recognition, it allows those of us at the state level to make the case that VAWA recognizes [economic abuse], then you should too, ”Russell said. “It’s a first step, and I think it’s a necessary step.
Russell said the 2013 version of VAWA – the last reauthorized version – helps with some of the components of economic exploitation. Someone who continues to lose their job because their intimate partner harasses them at work would have been recognized in the 2013 version because the harassment is recognized. Or, because VAWA provides money for legal services, people who cannot afford a lawyer due to financial abuse would have access to funds. However, she said recognizing economic abuse as a separate form of domestic violence, specifying it in text, allows lawyers to strengthen cases by citing VAWA. It can also serve as a benchmark for domestic violence organizations that may not understand what economic exploitation is.
Defining economic abuse in legislation won’t necessarily help survivors get out of forced debt or regain financial stability, Russell said. Nonetheless, she hopes it will provide a foundation to build on, as financial well-being is key to leaving an abusive relationship and establishing an independent life.
“The kind of common characteristic of financial abuse is that of control, an abuser trying to exert as much control as possible over someone’s life,” said Andrea Hetling, a professor at Rutgers University who published many articles on domestic violence. “Financial abuse is a very effective way to do it. If we don’t have financial freedom, it’s really hard to function in our society, and going into debt on someone’s behalf, having a bad credit history, are really, really hard hurdles.
These barriers can stand the test of time. A 2013 article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Interpersonal Violence said that tactics such as destroying someone’s credit, building up debt, or harassing a partner at work to get them fired are entrapment methods that can last even after someone escapes an abusive relationship. The survivor may be immune from continued emotional or physical harm, but forced debt, for example, can build up for years after an abusive relationship ends.
“You can be separated and be in different states, and the [abuser] could still accumulate money in your accounts, ”Johnson said. “Trying to prove that it’s not your debt becomes extremely difficult. So on the one hand you can’t have money, and on the other hand you could owe tons of money.
As for Stager, she assiduously paid off the debt her ex-husband had accumulated for years after leaving him. She said she negotiated with some companies, but just got attached and paid others. There was, she explained, no other solution at the time.
But if the new version of VAWA passes, experts and advocates say, it could lay the groundwork for future solutions.