Recession Increasing Domestic Violence, Decreasing Victim Options

For victims of domestic abuse, recession stress can increase the danger they face at home. At the same time, financial hardship makes it more difficult to leave. It's the kind of dilemma Cathy N lives every day.


"I would love to get a divorce and move on with my life. If I knew I could walk into that courthouse and walk out with my house and my kids--and without my husband--I would do it. But the thought scares me because I could lose more than I would gain. The financial part--trying to make it on my own--it's impossible," Cathy tells me as we're sitting in the office of one of her allies at Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland.

Cathy, 36, has known her husband, who I will pseudonymously call Hank, for most of her life. They started dating when she was 17 and he was 25. Cathy gave birth to their first daughter when she was twenty, got married at 23. The couple had a son, another daughter, then a set of twins, followed by a second set of twins.

Cathy faced the reality of what her life had become two years ago--after a drunk and pointlessly enraged Hank kicked her across the living room while she was six months pregnant with their youngest twins. Though Hank's verbal abuse and emotional control had been relentless throughout their relationship, physical violence had been rare.

For years, Cathy had convinced herself that managing Hank's moods and alcohol abuse was her responsibility as a wife. But when their oldest daughter started showing symptoms of serious emotional distress two years ago, Cathy had to discuss their home life with a counselor. Recognizing the harm caused by her husband's alcoholism and anger, Cathy began to re-discover her inner strength. After her husband's next violent attack, she gathered her will to stand up for herself and her children.

With her face "busted" and nose bloodied from being kicked in the back and knocked into a coffee table, Cathy called the cops. "They put him in the car and took him away," she recounts with some relish. She pressed charges, filed for a protective order, and got a court ruling that Hank would be responsible for mortgage and car payments. Hank had to stay away from the house for 9 days, but there was no serious consideration of him leaving for good. Cathy needs him.

"Only reason he is there is for the mortgage and for the kids. Otherwise, I'd've told him it's over," she explains. "I would love to ask for a divorce but I'm afraid they'll tell me I can't keep the house or I won't be able to take care of the kids. My main priority is those children."

Hank's sentence required supervised probation, regular urine screenings to test for alcohol, AA meetings, and counseling. The judge warned Hank that one more violent incident would lead to jail time, though Cathy thinks her aunt's more personalized threat had just as much effect.

Cathy has been sleeping on the couch in the living room for the past two years. Hank keeps to the bedroom most of the time, occasionally emerging to get food from the kitchen, which he takes back into his room to eat, alone, in front of the TV. He's still on probation, though now unsupervised. The week before Thanksgiving, he was laid off.

As an employee of his family's paving business, Hank has always been accustomed to a seasonal work schedule. But this year, slow business made the end come a month early. To compound the financial stress at home, it came at a time when the couple had already fallen a couple of months behind in their mortgage payments.

The pressure got to Hank. A couple weeks ago, he told Cathy in frustration: "I just want to go to the bar and get drunk."

"The possibility that he might start drinking again is always in the back of my mind," she says. A fall off the wagon could transform Cathy's home environment from a tense to a dangerous one. But if he loses control again, Cathy says, she will kick him out and find a way to make it on her own.

She has two sets of twins under the age of three. Cathy's mother, who lives with them, requires supervision for diabetes. Cathy doesn't have many options for the notion of getting a job--even if there were jobs to be gotten in her area. She wouldn't have many options of trying to catch up on the mortgage if she kicked out Hank and didn't get a job. She doesn't have many options. Period.

It's a dilemma that domestic violence professionals see too often. According to Connie Sgarlata, assistant executive director of Family and Children Services of Central Maryland: "A big fear for domestic violence victims is about their dependency, which becomes worse during a time of joblessness. Fear about leaving is the fear of not being able to support themselves. Fear of the unknown is common. With the perception of the economy as it is, that makes overcoming that fear an even bigger challenge."

While the recession has made it harder for victims to leave their abusers, it can also lead to greater violence. Solid statistical analysis of the recession's impact on domestic violence won't be available for a year or more, but I've been told by professionals in many states that the frequency and severity of abuse they've been seeing has increased significantly.

Brian Namey, communications director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, reports that his organization has been receiving similar feedback. "Anecdotally, we've been hearing of shelters across the country being maxed out to capacity, also that the frequency and severity of abuse is getting worse."

Except in rare cases, like some of the sensationalized incidents of familicide this year, financial stress does not create domestic abuse. One DV counselor in Indiana describes the recession as "fuel to the flame of domestic violence."

As Sgarlata explains: "Stress related to the economy is increasing stress at home. As stress increases at home, the tendency for violence increases. "

Namey agrees: "We know the economy does not create abuse, but it makes it worse. While shelters across the country have increased demand for beds, at the same time resources from the government and from corporate donors are down. Demand is up, support is down."

Family and Children Services of Central Maryland got a little financial assistance from federal stimulus money earlier this year, but have been alerted that their funding will take a hit from the county's pending budget cuts. For Sgarlata, her fear of the unknown lies in not knowing how much.

If you or someone you love is a victim of domestic abuse, there is help available. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).