Address Barriers That Exist for Victims to Ensure Ongoing Safety and Financial Security
In reviewed cases, victims faced multiple barriers to economic stability which essentially trapped them in the abusive relationship. Many victims experienced economic abuse in addition to the physical and emotional abuse inflicted on them by the perpetrator.
Economic abuse occurs when one person in the relationship restricts the other person’s access to financial resources. Economic abuse takes many forms including employment- related abuse which occurs when the abuser prevents a victim from earning money. Abusive tactics perpetrators have employed include: preventing the victim from looking for jobs or attending job interviews; hindering the victim from attending her job; demanding the victim quit her job; and harassing the victim at work (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2015). This kind of employment sabotage can result in unemployment or underemployment, which can undermine the economic independence of victims.
For victims who are employed, domestic violence often has a negative impact on the victim’s on-the-job performance. It is not unusual for an abuser to harass the victim at work, by showing up in the workplace or with frequent phone calls, text messages or emails. These disruptions may cause her to lose her job, in turn reinforcing her dependence on the abuser for financial support. The victim may also lose time from work as a result of injuries or court appearances, which can adversely affect her professional standing. Employers who view these absences as unacceptable may fire the victim. Even if an employer allows time off for these issues, it may come at the expense of the victim’s pay, if she does not have sufficient or flexible leave.
It was difficult to quantify the impact or presence of economic abuse in cases reviewed by the Project because it is not often documented in police reports or court records. However, examples of financially abusive behaviors by perpetrators were commonplace. In reviewed cases, abusers frequently stalked, harassed and threatened victims at their places of employment. One victim’s employer revealed the perpetrator often visited the victim at work and called her constantly, causing her to request that the receptionist screen her phone calls. Another victim’s coworker shared how the abuser often called their office and harassed the victim. Still other perpetrators harassed the victims’ colleagues directly, often accusing a male coworker of having an affair with the victim. There were also several examples of a perpetrator disabling and destroying a victim’s vehicle, effectively preventing her from leaving and forcing her to rely on him for transportation or to fix the vehicle.
Access to a car or public transportation is a major factor in being able to obtain safety and self-sufficiency when leaving an abusive relationship. Transportation is essential to maintaining employment, caring for children, and accessing helping services such as domestic violence programs and the legal system. This is especially true in rural areas, where limited or no public transit services exist.
Other forms of economic abuse involve the abuser preventing the victim from accessing existing funds or sabotaging the victim’s credit history. Acts limiting the victim’s financial access, or those which force the victim to incur significant debts, can have long-lasting impacts on the victim’s financial future and may adversely impact ability to establish housing and other important resources independent from the abuser. These acts include:
- forcing the victim to turn over money earned through their own employment
- controlling the victim’s access to debit or credit cards
- ordering the victim to be on a disproportionately small budget compared to household earnings or expenses
- limiting when or how the victim can access or use cash, bank accounts or credit cards
- demanding the lease/mortgage or assets be in the abuser’s name
- using the victim’s checkbook, debit card or credit cards without the victim’s knowledge
- overdrawing accounts so the victim is unable to provide for household expenses
- applying for credit cards, obtaining loans or opening accounts in a victim’s name without their knowledge or consent
- forcing the victim to obtain loans or to sign financial documents
Limited financial resources can be the single greatest barrier to leaving an abusive relationship. One survey of domestic violence shelters revealed 74 percent of victims reported having stayed with an abuser longer, due to financial reasons (Mary Kay, 2012). In cases reviewed by the Project, many victims delayed leaving or were unable to leave abusers because they lacked the financial means to support themselves and their children. National research has indicated more than 50 percent of survivors stay with the abusive partner because they do not feel they can support themselves and their children (Sullivan, et.al. 1992). In reviewed cases, 71 percent of victims were raising minor children at the time of their death.
For victims with children, the impact of economic abuse can be even greater; victims may stay and endure abuse in order to provide shelter and food for their children. In reviewed cases, many abusers were not paying child support. In some circumstances, this lack of financial support was due to the victim’s fear that requesting support would put them at further risk. Others had requested support, but the relief was either denied by the judge or the abuser was non-compliant with orders.
Gwendolyn and Jim shared a teen son and had been separated for many years. Jim did not provide support for their son with any sense of regularity. Gwendolyn took Jim to court and the judge issued an initial order requiring Jim to contribute financially. Jim pressured Gwendolyn to drop the case, demanding she take care of it before he had to return to court. When the case continued to move forward, Jim grew increasingly angry at Gwendolyn, telling her he was unable to pay. He began to try to convince her he was sending money in other ways, but over multiple attempts, the funds never materialized.
One morning, Jim called Gwendolyn to again tell her he had sent money and she could go pick it up at Western Union. He asked her questions about her whereabouts and those of her children. Gwendolyn told him she was on her way to work and the children were headed to school. As Gwendolyn exited her home to go to work, Jim jumped out and attacked her, tasing her and causing her to fall to the ground. Jim straddled her, aimed his gun at her head and said, “Didn’t I tell you to drop that child support case?” Jim shot Gwendolyn multiple times in her head and chest. The incident was witnessed by one of Gwendolyn’s children who, unbeknownst to her, had missed the school bus.
At the time of their death, 77 percent of victims in reviewed cases were employed. However, despite employment, many felt they were unable to support themselves away from the abusive relationship. Victims who were employed were not usually allowed to be in control of their finances. One financially abusive boyfriend would “hang around” the victim when she cashed her paychecks; he became violent when she would not give him her money.
It is important to note that in reviewed cases, more victims than perpetrators were employed at the time of the homicide. The stress that unemployment or underemployment may have caused in perpetrators’ lives may have escalated their use of violence. Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell’s research compared men who killed their female partner with abusive men who did not kill their partner and found unemployment was the most important demographic risk factor for homicide. In her study, the abuser’s lack of employment was the only demographic risk factor that significantly predicted harm to the victim (Campbell et al., 2003).
For victims who wish to flee an abusive relationship, the process of leaving can be very expensive. Acquiring and setting up a new residence is costly when factoring in rent, utility deposits, moving expenses and costs associated with furnishings and living essentials. Victims who are married and/or share children with the perpetrator may be taking on additional legal fees for divorce or child custody proceedings. Victims with minor children who were dependent on the abusive parent for childcare may have additional costs after separating from the abuser and, if employed, the victim may be ineligible for social supports such as childcare assistance programs.
Economic abuse is a powerful tool because it limits the victim’s mobility and options. By maintaining control of a victim’s access to financial resources, an abuser ensures the victim will face economic hardship if they leave the relationship. The job loss or lack of employment resulting from the abuser’s tactics contributes to victim isolation and reduces the likelihood that supportive coworkers or employers will intervene in the abuse. Further complicating the issue, financial abuse is often not seen as domestic violence. Individuals experiencing economic abuse may not identify as victims and may not reach out to helping resources. Many forms of economic abuse are not against the law, leaving victims with few options for civil or criminal recourse against a financially controlling abuser.
Factors beyond direct financial abuse by the perpetrator also impact victims’ ability to obtain ongoing safety and financial security. In reviewed cases, it was not uncommon for victims to face additional environmental barriers or systemic issues such as:
- an absence of safe and affordable housing options
- limited or no access to public transportation
- lack of childcare
- employment which fails to provide a living wage
- high health insurance premiums
Addressing these issues from a policy standpoint will provide victims of domestic violence with opportunities for longer- term financial stability imperative to achieving lasting safety, whether they leave or remain in the relationship.
When a victim wants to leave an abusive relationship, they often have no place to go. Many victims in reviewed cases sought refuge with family and friends, but these were usually short- term solutions which lacked stability. Only 14 percent of victims in reviewed cases stayed in a domestic violence shelter. Domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness among families in the United States (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2012). Lack of affordable housing and long waiting lists for rent-assisted or transitional housing mean many women and children are forced to choose between abuse at home or homelessness.
Poverty is another burden which adversely affects victim safety. Domestic violence happens at all income levels, but low-income women are more vulnerable to its effects because of a lack of resources and opportunities. Because it takes a tremendous amount of financial resources to leave an abusive relationship, experiencing domestic violence can make the journey out of poverty nearly impossible (Davies, 2002). Poverty is a gendered issue as much as domestic violence is and, overall, women in the workforce are paid less than their male counterparts. They are more likely to take part-time work and drop out of the labor market altogether to raise children or take care of ailing family members. Moreover, the jobs women are socialized to obtain often yield lower financial rewards.
The impacts are even greater for women of color who, due to historical inequities in distributions of wealth, redlining and systematic educational disparities, are more likely to live in poverty and low-income neighborhoods than White women (Gill & Lovelace-Davis, 2016). Likewise, for immigrant women, the barriers to financial stability are exacerbated by language barriers, cultural bias which may affect the hiring process and, in some cases, uncertain legal status.
Victims often earn below what is considered a living wage, or the minimum income necessary for someone to meet their basic needs based on where they live, a factor which contributes to keeping them at an economic disadvantage. In most locations, the government-mandated minimum wage employers are obligated to pay their workers is lower than what could be considered a living wage.
Efforts have been made in recent years to push states to increase their minimum wage above the federal minimum and require all jobs to meet the living wage threshold for their region. Georgia legislators have not carried that torch. In fact, according to information released by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, wages in 2017 in Georgia remained mostly stagnant (Tharpe, et.al, 2013). Data shows the median wage for all Georgians remains below the wage level of Georgians prior to the Great Recession of the late 2000s (Tharpe, et al., 2013).
STEPS GEORGIA CAN TAKE TO ADDRESS BARRIERS THAT EXIST FOR VICTIMS TO ENSURE ONGOING SAFETY AND FINANCIAL SECURITY:
- Bolster economic supports for domestic violence victims and the poor. Increased emphasis on services and strategies supporting long-term economic stability and well-being are imperative to victim safety. This may include increasing wages, supporting the creation of new jobs for the unemployed and underemployed, and adequately funding programs supporting working parents, including subsidized childcare and transportation. Equally important is the development of policies to help employees who are domestic violence victims safely maintain their employment.
- Ensure housing protections for victims of domestic violence are in place and observed. Local landlords, property managers and housing authorities should be trained on domestic violence and relevant state laws protecting victims’ housing rights.