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Economy & Labor , US

She escaped her husband’s physical violence – but economic ties kept them connected for years

by Carly Stern August 3, 2023

Co-published with The Guardian

The bankruptcy lawyer spread all of Jean’s debts across the table. She pored over each document, trying to swallow her shame. The papers documented more than $140,000 that Jean and her ex-partner owed creditors.

It was June 2021. Jean, who the Guardian and Fuller Project are identifying by her middle name to protect her identity during ongoing divorce litigation, had separated from her husband two years earlier. She had already been granted a domestic violence restraining order in Alameda County, California, after experiencing what she describes as physical, emotional, mental, and sexual abuse. But in the meantime, shared loans and expenses between Jean and her ex-partner had been piling up. Since Jean was the account holder on most of their credit cards, she was beholden to the bank. Declaring bankruptcy seemed like her only hope for a fresh start. 

“I was basically [financially] worse off than when I started working at 16,” Jean said. 

The financial system has become an important new frontier in the fight against intimate partner violence. More than nine in 10 survivors of an abusive relationship experience economic abuse, according to the US National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 

More than half of survivors surveyed by FreeFrom, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit and a leader in the space, said harm-doers had accessed their bank account, monitored it, withdrawn from it or otherwise controlled it — all considered forms of economic abuse. Survivors reported having less than $300 they alone could access, on average. In a separate study from the Allstate Foundation, nearly eight in 10 survivors identified not having enough money as a primary barrier to leaving an abusive partner.

“Financial institutions are not the ‘bad guys’ here, but folks are abusing their infrastructure,” said Amy Durrence, director of systems change at FreeFrom.

Regulators are taking note. Countries like the UK and the state of New South Wales in Australia have already expanded domestic violence legislation to include “coercive control” — patterns of behavior that abusers use to dominate partners and limit their freedom. 

Dialogue around economic abuse is beginning to gain steam in the US as well. California is one of a few states that has expanded its legal definition of domestic violence to include coercive control, and a new law effective in July prevents creditors from collecting on a debt if a survivor can demonstrate that it was coerced. But other legislation introduced in the state last year, which would have created online training for financial institutions to learn how to detect and respond to economic abuse, didn’t make it through the legislature.

“Imagine taking on enormous credit card debt, or worse, taking on a mortgage against your will. This is a fast track to financial ruin,” said California State Senator Dave Min, who authored the bill against collecting coerced debt. “We cannot allow survivors of domestic violence no way out of a situation that is not their making.”

As the legislative branch in the US slowly catches up, nonprofits have long worked to fill the gap, with organizations like FreeFrom distributing cash grants to survivors. Advocates also are focused on helping legislators and banks better understand what economic abuse consists of, hoping to instill the basic literacy necessary before institutions can make broader shifts.

Jean had disclosed to her credit card company that she was a survivor of domestic abuse, but this didn’t change her situation. “They said, ‘I’m so sorry,’ but they didn’t do anything about it,” she said. “They don’t care what’s wrong with my personal life. They just want me to pay my bills.”

Financial exploitation can take many invisible but insidious forms. It could consist of damaging a partner’s credit by starting a business or opening a credit card in their name without their knowledge, said Judy Postmus, dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work. 

Some people prevent their partners from going to work, harass them at work, or behave in ways that lead someone to lose a job and income. Another common tactic is to maintain complete control over someone’s financial accounts. The CDC has estimated that intimate partner violence costs women survivors nearly $104,000 over their lifetimes.

“People can be out of the relationship for 20 years but still be having problems recovering their credit score,” Postmus said.

Economic abuse also can be concealed behind a facade of wealth.

“We know there’s a whole range of places where this is happening, but it’s not as easy to spot as broken bones and bruises,” said Moo Baulch, a domestic violence expert and advisor who has worked with Australia’s largest bank, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, to implement programs that support survivors.

“There are rich, affluent women who’ve got five cars in the driveway and have a beautiful summer house, who are living — to all intents and purposes for everybody on the outside — a beautiful, privileged life,” Baulch said. “But if they are not allowed to put petrol in their car, or have to account for the number of miles in their car when they drive it down and drop off their kids at the private school, or if they don’t have any access to money because all of the money is tied up in a financial family trust,” she said, then they cannot meet their basic needs.

Before Jean’s marriage, she worked for a nonprofit and lived paycheck to paycheck. She and her partner moved in together in 2013, marrying the following year. He had a family trust that purchased their house, and not paying rent reduced her expenses. 

Some people prevent their partners from going to work, harass them at work or behave in ways that leads someone to lose a job and income. (Illustration by Susie Ang for The Guardian)

She left her job after having a child in 2015. “I was nervous about the lack of having my own money, and the balance of power,” she said. The trust fund deposited money into her husband’s personal account, but Jean was responsible for paying household expenses. 

“I would have to ask him to put money into our shared account for me to pay the bills…for our credit cards, for our health insurance, our electricity,” she said. 

He began withholding funds as their relationship grew increasingly fractured.

“I felt like a child,” she said, but she didn’t identify this behavior as a specific type of abuse. “At the time, I just felt like it was controlling, it was just a relationship problem. It was just a disagreement on how finances should be dealt with.”

Legislative initiatives in the US are in the early stages, but financial institutions in other countries can provide a beacon to follow. The finance and banking sector in the UK has updated an industry-wide Financial Abuse Code of Practice that nearly 40 brands have signed onto, and some UK bankers are trained on how financial exploitation is a tactic of domestic abuse.

In Australia, Baulch has played a part in training private sector teams that provide support to survivors and detect red flags of economic abuse before their customers rack up significant debt. Baulch helped the Commonwealth Bank of Australia develop trauma-informed responses when customers were using messaging features of banking platforms to harass and maintain contact with ex-partners who had cut off other forms of communication. 

Say someone pays a friend back on a mobile financial platform — you “might send them 50 bucks through your app and you say, ‘Thanks, Moo, had a great night,’” she explained. “Our team found… a whole load of really small transactions going between two accounts with abusive messages in them.”

The messages they found ranged from overtly threatening to more subtle, she said, like a string of one-cent transactions with a single word in each that together formed a litany of violent messages.

In the United States, FreeFrom offers a national-level cash grant program for survivors through a safety fund that provides cash with no strings attached. It also administers a savings match program to help survivors build emergency savings over six months. Data from 2020 show that more than half of grant recipients spent money on food, and nearly one in three used it for utilities or household items.

Recipients told Freeform that this financial cushion made it easier to leave unsafe situations or pay emergency expenses without contacting their abusers. Similar programs providing grants and savings matching for survivors have been rolled out by other nonprofits in San Francisco and Kansas.

At the same time, the organization is pushing for broader systemic change with its “safe banking” guidelines, a set of 11 recommendations that any U.S. bank could implement to better protect customers being subjected to abuse. Key points include implementing enhanced fraud protections on survivors’ accounts, allowing them to open new bank accounts with alternatives to disclosing their address — which may need to be kept secret — and offering flexible repayment plans so people don’t further damage their credit while paying off debts.

These guidelines could have been a lifeline for Jean when she had barely any income and was buckling under debt. 

“I’m still not as far along as I would like to be toward my goals of financial stability when I compare myself to other people, or when I compare where I am now to where I thought I would be 20 years ago,” she said.

But she now has a new job she loves, and dreams of moving to another state closer to family so she can start a fresh chapter. Though she remains mired in divorce litigation, she clings to the hope this will be finalized soon, allowing her to truly begin again. 

“I will definitely be celebrating,” she said, “like throwing myself a party or going out dancing with my friends.”

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