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The Abuse that Leaves No MarkFor survivors to escape—and recover from—abusive relationships, they need more than just a place to go: They need financial empowerment.

Why don't you just leave?

Leslie Ramirez Photo: Whitten Sabbatini

When Leslie Ramirez’s daughters were young, she told them to get an education, find a job, and save their money. “Because one day,” she said then, “I want you to see a pair of shoes at the store and buy them without looking to see if you have enough money in your account.”

It’s the same lesson Ramirez teaches students in her financial empowerment class, many of whom are Hispanic women in abusive relationships. The course, which she teaches in Spanish, is based on a financial empowerment curriculum created by The Allstate Foundation as part of its Purple Purse program, which aims to empower victims of domestic violence and financial abuse. She goes to teach whenever she gets a call from WINGS, a Purple Purse nonprofit partner and advocacy agency that provides shelter, mentorship, and counseling to domestic violence victims.

Ramirez usually teaches in a small, windowless room. And when she can, she finds a classroom with two doors: one to enter and one to serve as an escape route from abusive partners, if necessary. It’s happened before; she once shuffled a student through the back door while the student’s abuser waited out front. The class frequently changes locations, going from one suburban Chicago community to the next—for her students’ safety and for her own.

When Ramirez describes the class, she sits up straight and projects her voice, gesturing while she talks about credit, budgeting, and documentation. It’s easy to see why women are drawn to her classes: Ramirez is warm, expressive, and funny. But her most valuable tool is her own experience with domestic violence and financial abuse.

“When I give one of my classes, I usually start by telling them a little bit of my story,” she says. “It helps because I’m not just talking from a textbook standpoint. I’m talking from experience. And when they tell me I don’t understand, I can look at them and say, ‘I do.’”

The abuse began when Ramirez and her then-husband moved to the United States from Guatemala, where they’d started a family. He first became physically violent when she confronted him about the people he was spending time with—specifically, the women. “The way he put it,” she says, “there were a lot of temptations here in the United States that he didn't have in Guatemala.”

Years of infidelity and abuse followed. Ramirez did her best to maintain a semblance of normalcy for her daughters: She bought them a TV to distract them from the fighting, and when she anticipated an assault, she sent them to their aunt’s house. After one of those assaults left her fearing for her life, she went to a shelter for the first time. There, advocates interviewed her about the abuse and photographed her injuries: the bruises on her back, a knife wound on her arm.

For Ramirez, those pictures were the hardest part. “You would think that being hit was the worst,” she says. “It’s not. It’s coming to the reality that you’re letting someone into your secret.”

Like most domestic abuse survivors, though, Ramirez returned home to support her daughters. There was only a brief period of calm—the “honeymoon phase,” as she puts it—before the abuse started again.

Leslie Ramirez and her daughters Photo courtesy of Leslie Ramirez

She left for the last time when her former boss discovered her injuries while celebrating one of Ramirez’s work accomplishments. “My whole back was bruised,” she says. “When [my boss] hugged me, I flinched, and she took me into her office and asked what was going on. That’s when I finally started doing everything I needed to move out of my situation.”

Ramirez once again went to a shelter—one facilitated by WINGS, the same organization through which she teaches financial empowerment classes now. Within a few months, Ramirez had left her husband and found a new apartment. She left her job, too, because she wasn’t comfortable with him knowing where she worked, and she started contracting for Allstate.

One in four women and one in seven men in the U.S. have experienced intimate partner violence, which has contributed to more than half of the country’s homicides among adult women. Financial abuse affects up to 99 percent of those victims, and it’s why many stay in abusive relationships.

Financial abuse is the restriction or sabotage of a victim’s economic agency. For instance, abusers might keep strict, unilateral control over household finances. They might also neglect bills or run up credit card balances, ruining the victim’s credit in the process. And in cases of employment sabotage, abusers actively impede the victim’s ability to find or keep a job.

When Ramirez talks about the financial fallout of her abusive relationship, her voice catches: “He ruined me,” she says.

She estimates her husband worked for two of the 16 years they were together. While she struggled to support their daughters—sometimes the family’s cell phone service was cut off, and she occasionally had to negotiate rent payments—her husband was running phone bills upward of $5,000. He took out credit cards in her name without her knowledge, and he used her credit to buy a luxury car for a woman with whom he was having an affair.

It wasn’t until Ramirez filed for divorce that she discovered the full extent of her husband’s financial exploitation. Though she’d been separated from him for some time, she was legally responsible for the debt he’d incurred—whether or not she knew it existed. Her credit was destroyed.

“I literally saved the stack [of documents] to remind me every day of the hell that I went through,” she says, holding her hands six inches apart to illustrate the height of the stack. “When I showed my lawyer, he said, ‘You have to file bankruptcy.’ I just sat there and said, ‘Why am I being punished for something I didn't do?’”

  • 99%

    Up to 99 percent of domestic violence victims experience financial abuse.

  • 14%

    One out of seven men have experienced intimate partner violence.

  • 25%

    One out of four women have experienced intimate partner violence.

For Ramirez, each step toward financial security posed a new challenge. First, she had to replace her daughter’s birth certificates; though Ramirez was born in the United States, her daughters were born in Guatemala, and she could only obtain their birth certificates there. Her then-husband had also torn up her social security card, which was yet another document to replace. In all, she spent thousands of dollars she didn’t have obtaining and replacing the necessary documents to get their lives in order. Fortunately by then, Ramirez was working as a contractor at Allstate, where she stayed until November 2018.

“When I was hired at Allstate, it was one of the best things that could have happened to me at the time,” Ramirez says. There, she had the flexibility to travel to Guatemala to obtain her daughters’ birth certificates. And, once she was hired on full-time, she discovered that Purple Purse partnered with WINGS, the agency from which she’d sought help not long before. She trained to teach the curriculum there, which included taking the Purple Purse financial empowerment curriculum herself.

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About the Renewal Project

This story is made possible by Allstate and part of The Renewal Project, a series featuring the work of organizations committed to supporting local communities. For more stories of renewal taking place across the country, visit TheRenewalProject.com, and to subscribe to the Renewal newsletter, visit TheRenewalProject.com/subscribe.

Purple Purse was founded in 2005, and The Allstate Foundation has worked to break the cycle of domestic violence through financial empowerment ever since. The Foundation works closely with the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) and agencies across the country to raise awareness and much-needed funding for domestic violence programs. With the Purple Purse Moving Ahead financial empowerment curriculum, which Leslie uses in her classes, The Allstate Foundation has helped more than 1.3 million survivors regain their financial independence.

In a 2010 paper, Dr. Judy Postmus, professor and associate dean at the School of Social Work at Rutgers University, reviewed the effectiveness of Purple Purse and financial empowerment programs like it. “We found that women who got the curriculum had much better financial outcomes than the control group, who did not get the curriculum,” Dr. Postmus says about the study. “Their financial knowledge, their financial self-efficacy—or their confidence in their ability to manage money—improved, and that change held up over time.”

In addition to the course, Allstate combats domestic violence by supporting employee and agent volunteerism across the country. Moni Garza, a corporate relations manager at Allstate, facilitates partnerships between Allstate agency owners and domestic violence shelters and organizations in their areas. “We rally together under these critical initiatives that people aren’t often talking about,” she says. “So when agents and employees learn about Purple Purse and its impact on survivors, there’s a lot of pride.”

Adaias Souza, a local Allstate agent based in Massachusetts, recently helped facilitate a toiletry drive for a family domestic violence shelter in his area. His experience has exposed him to the indiscriminate reach of domestic violence. “Before I started working with [the shelter], I had a stereotypical vision of what the domestic violence survivor looked like,” Souza says. “I’ve met women who are Harvard graduates and authors, I’ve had stay-at-home moms and professionals and all kinds of people. That to me was a big lesson: It can happen to anybody.”

Recognizing Financial Abuse

Financial abuse can be hard to recognize. The Allstate Foundation Purple Purse program provides the following questions to help victims identify whether they’re being financially exploited.

Does your spouse:

  • Steal money from you or your family?
  • Force you to give access to your money or financial accounts?
  • Make you feel as though you don't have a right to know any details about money?
  • Refuse to include you in important meetings with banks, financial planners, or retirement specialists?
  • Forbid you to work? Or to attend school or training sessions?
  • Overuse your credit cards? Refuse to pay the bills?

Abuse doesn’t discriminate, but there are factors that make immigrants particularly vulnerable in abusive relationships. As a first-generation Guatemalan-American woman, Ramirez is familiar with the social, cultural, and logistical circumstances that can complicate an immigrant domestic violence victim’s escape. Her awareness informs how she teaches the Purple Purse course to her students, who are mostly Hispanic or Latina and often born abroad.

In addition to threats of deportation from their abusers—threats that might be unfounded, but are frightening nonetheless—many immigrants are unbanked, meaning they aren’t served by traditional financial institutions. Immigrants may be unbanked for a number of reasons, Dr. Postmus says, such as not having formal banking systems in their home countries that translate to U.S. banks, or not having the funds to open accounts in the first place.

Ramirez’s students encounter all of these barriers to financial security. To introduce them to the banking system, she’s encouraged her students to open safety-deposit boxes, and she’s negotiated with banks to waive the fees associated with doing so. She also ensures that her students have the necessary documents on hand, sometimes spending a whole class session helping them make copies for safekeeping. One of these sessions resulted in a student realizing she had a green card when she previously thought she was undocumented.

“It changed her whole life,” Ramirez says. “She was able to leave an abusive relationship she didn't want to admit she was in. We were able to open an account for her. I was able to get everything done for her in a matter of days.”

Ramirez adds: “I check up on that person once in a while. She's thriving.”

Though they still have difficult moments, Ramirez and her daughters, who are now 25 and 28 years old, are thriving, too. About a year ago, her youngest called her during a shopping trip—she’d just bought a pair of shoes.

“Oh, I cried. I cried because I couldn't believe she remembered,” Ramirez says about the call. “Only me and her understood what that meant to me—that she was trying to tell me ‘I’m financially stable. I’m good.’ And I think that’s one of the most rewarding things I could ever have as a mother.”