When domestic violence becomes a national conversation, it’s often only after the curtain is pulled back on an otherwise respected, high-profile celebrity. The ensuing uproar makes headlines for a few days, maybe weeks, and then fades back into news-cycle obscurity. But for the millions of victims of domestic abuse—more than one in four women in the U.S., according to the Department of Justice—these headlines ignore a less-visible, longer-lasting damage wrought by their abusers: financial abuse.
By blocking or controlling access to financial assets, abusers can coerce their victims into staying with them or coming back if they try to leave, locking them into a cycle of abuse. In fact, “lacking financial knowledge or resources is the number one indicator of whether a domestic violence victim will stay, leave, or return to an abusive relationship,” according to the Allstate Foundation’s Purple Purse, a fundraising and public awareness campaign.
“Financial abuse, whether you’re talking about ruining her credit, getting her fired or hiding the money, is just as effective in controlling an abuse victim as a lock and key,” Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told The Huffington Post.
Financial abuse is insidious: It can first appear as a considerate offer to take care of the bills, or a casual request to borrow money. But it escalates until the abuser has full control of every bank account, credit card, and paycheck, which means that even if victims escape, they could have no way to rent a new apartment, find a job, or care for their children.
Unfortunately, it seems that while the majority of abusers have discovered that truth, the rest of society has yet to catch up. A 2014 survey commissioned by the Allstate Foundation found that while 98 percent of domestic-violence victims also experienced financial abuse, 78 percent of Americans had not heard about financial abuse as it relates to domestic violence.
That’s partly because financial abuse is harder to identify than bruises and scars, and less likely to make headlines. But it leaves its victims helpless and without resources for years, both during the abuse and, if the victim can leave, even after it.
Financial abusers go as far as ruining their victims’ credit scores by taking out loans in their names, or harassing them at their workplace until they lose their job and their own source of income. Nearly eight million days of paid work are lost to domestic violence every year, according to the Urban Resource Institute. Survivors have recounted being prevented from going to job interviews, or being forbidden to even look at bank statements or bills. And the pure, everyday stress of being trapped in an abusive relationship doesn’t allow much space for financial planning or education.
“When you’re living in abuse, planning and goal-setting is so foreign to your life,” Jenisee, a survivor of domestic abuse, told the Allstate Foundation. “You need to get through today. You can’t think about what is happening tomorrow, let alone three years from now, five years from now, what’s in your 401k.”
As a result, escaping an abusive relationship often means losing financial security as well as the means to regain it. As Nathaniel Fields, president and CEO of the Urban Resource Institute told Forbes, the dilemma often becomes: “Either risk staying in an abusive relationship, or risk becoming homeless and facing poverty.”
So for victims who want to become survivors, financial empowerment programs can make the world a little more manageable and financial independence a realistic goal. A 14-month study conducted by the Rutgers University School of Social Work showed that domestic abuse survivors who completed an extensive financial curriculum along with standard domestic-violence services showed significantly improved financial literacy, attitudes, and behaviors than survivors who didn’t go through the curriculum. The women who completed the training also reported feeling safer, freer, and more independent.
The Allstate Foundation, along with offering such a curriculum, also provides grants to nonprofits across the country that empower survivors with such tools as job training, financial literacy, and micro-enterprise initiatives. And its awareness efforts, including partnering with Emmy-nominated actress Kerry Washington, are vital to addressing an issue overcast by heavy social stigma: More than three in four Americans believe that media coverage of domestic violence is inadequate.
According to Tom Wilson, Allstate’s chairman and chief executive, it’s incumbent on businesses and employers to lift that stigma and acknowledge that the terrors and consequences of domestic abuse don’t necessarily end when the relationship does. “We need more businesses to step up and play an active role in protecting women,” he wrote in an op-ed on CNN.com, “Wherever possible, businesses should take into account extenuating circumstances such as domestic violence when considering credit histories and ratings.”
When we can finally establish a comprehensive, accessible network of support and resources for survivors of abuse, escaping an abusive relationship will no longer subject victims to poverty, financial insecurity, or persistent fear. If survivors can learn to navigate the labyrinthine financial world independently, the rest of the world may not seem as daunting.
“Nowadays, there are so many resources available to women,” Michele, a survivor of domestic violence, told the Allstate Foundation. “I would tell somebody nowadays, ‘Don’t waste 10 years of your life like I did. Stand on your feet, empower yourself, find the resources that are out there, and use them.’”