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‘He Took Control Over Everything.’ Financial Abuse and How it Contributes to Women’s Homelessness in LA
Power over resources is another form of domestic abuse
thumbnail_abuse financial FINAL-1.jpg
(Illustration by Alborz Kamalizad)
(Illustration by Alborz Kamalizad)
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    • We’re talking to survivors, homeless service providers, and experts to explore the little-known connection between domestic violence and homelessness. To do so, we’ve:
    • Reported on the lived experiences of Southern California women surviving abuse and homelessness
    • Examined where the social safety net has failed them
    • Talked to advocates who are finding ways to keep survivors out of homelessness in the first place.

Towards the end of 2011, Daisy fell in love with a co-worker. It was a whirlwind romance. When she got pregnant, he urged her to come live with him so he could “take responsibility.”

It seemed good. They were building a family together. But after moving in, Daisy says he became violent. (We are not using her full name to protect her identity).

When Daisy was seven months pregnant she said he pushed her on a flight of stairs. He started drinking in excess, spending his whole paycheck on alcohol. “By the weekend, his money will be gone and I’m like, ‘OK, this is not normal’,” she recalled.

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‘He Took Control Over Everything’: Financial Abuse And How it Contributes To Women’s Homelessness

When Daisy became pregnant with a second child, her partner convinced her to quit her job. They lost the childcare they had secured for their first baby, and he promised to step up to care for the family. So it made sense — at the time. It’s a decision many people make when raising a family, but Daisy describes staying at home full time as digging her own grave.

“I didn't realize what I was getting myself into, because at least with work, I had that little income,” she said.

“He took control over everything like, the debit cards, the bank accounts,” Daisy said. “Or sometimes if he didn’t want to pay the phone bill, I wouldn’t have a phone.”

Instead of taking care of her and the kids, he withheld access to cash, overdrew her bank account, and racked up debt in her name.

Once Daisy was financially dependent on her abuser, escape seemed impossible.

Fleeing With $10 In Her Pocket

Daisy survived years of emotional and physical violence. She also suffered from financial abuse — the control of someone through resources. It’s a big reason victims feel like they can’t escape an abuser, and why survivors are forced into homelessness once they do leave. Someone can enter a relationship financially independent, and leave with no money or belongings and nowhere to go.

When Daisy finally felt her life was in danger and fled with her two young daughters, she only had $10 in her pocket.

“Money can solve problems,” said Amy Turk, CEO of the Downtown Women’s Center in LA’s Skid Row. “If you had money, you could go live in a hotel or arrange your own different housing situation, but frequently all those resources get controlled by the abusive partner.”

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DV Cherry Final.mp4

It’s not talked about as much, but financial abuse goes hand in hand with domestic violence. It occurs in 99%of abusive relationships.

“We worked with someone who was the sole breadwinner in their family, but every week their harm-doer would walk with them to pick up their paycheck, and then walk them to the bank and wait there while they cashed their paycheck,” said Sonya Passi, CEO of Free From, which supports survivors of financial abuse.

“As soon as they left the bank, the harm-doer took all the money,” Passi said.

“We worked with a survivor who said she needed money for tampons and the harm-doer said, ‘by my calculation you have six days before your period so I know that you're lying to me.'"
— Sonya Passi, CEO Free From

Abusers can control their victim’s spending in ways that impact their entire life, said Passi, who offered this example: “We worked with a survivor who said she needed money for tampons and the harm-doer said, ‘by my calculation you have six days before your period so I know that you're lying to me. No, you can’t have the money.’”

Fear is the driving force behind most of these situations. According to Passi, abusers punish victims for not doing what they’re told, and intimidation can be physical and psychological. It might even be a threat to hurt one’s children, or take them away. These tactics compel victims to hand over cash or credit cards, or unwillingly sign loan documents so an abuser can build debt in the survivor’s name.

Passi said more than half of all people who escape these relationships don’t have access to a bank account.

Five Signs Of Financial Abuse

  • Control of Bank Accounts And/Or Access To Cash

It’s common for partners to share resources, including bank and credit card accounts, but money should not be used as a means of control and punishment. This abuse includes: Having bank cards and identification taken away, or the bank is told not to allow access to accounts. Cash might be withheld and unreasonable allowances set. The victim is cut out of financial decisions.

  • Control Over Employment

It’s not unusual when one person in a relationship stays home to care for the kids, or for some other reason. But some abusers ban their partners from earning an income and forbid them from holding a job. Others use coercion to pressure a victim into quitting their job, or harass them at work until they have to quit.

  • Surveilling Spending

Most banking is done online now, so it’s common for partners to share accounts, passwords, and other sensitive information like a social security number. But the privilege of digital access should not be used as a tool to cause harm. Intimate partners often have knowledge of each other's spending, but it's a form of abuse when one partner surveils the other’s behavior with the intention of control.

  • Keeping Secrets About Finances

It’s not uncommon for one person to take responsibility for managing the finances, but even then there should still be a healthy amount of openness and honesty. Be aware if one person in a relationship lies about household earnings, expenditures, and account balances.

  • Racking up Debt and Ruining Someone’s Credit

Partners commonly share credit cards and take out loans together, but be aware if money is borrowed without knowledge or consent. Abusers might take advantage of knowing personal information and open lines of credit in one’s name. It’s a common form of fraud. They also might use intimidation to force a signature on a loan.

Cherry Morse is a survivor. She was denied access to cash, bank accounts, credit cards, even her own tax refunds, by her abuser. She said when she tried to hold down her own job, he would follow her and watch her while she was at work.

“He also called my boss and started telling him things that were not true about me so that my boss would fire me.”
— Cherry Morse

“He also called my boss and started telling him things that were not true about me so that my boss would fire me,” said Morse. She quit multiple jobs because she was too exhausted from enduring abuse, or she didn’t know how to explain the bruises on her face.

Like Daisy and so many other survivors, Morse desperately wanted to leave. But she saw no way out without access to any money.

Maricela Rios-Faust hears this a lot. She runs the domestic violence organization Human Options in Orange County. She says no one wants to be in an abusive relationship but, for many, the only other place to go is the street. “They're often put in a situation where they have to choose between being safe, or risking homelessness,” she said.

Morse said after a particularly violent attack when she was pregnant with her fourth child, she thought of taking her own life as a way out.

“But I couldn't kill myself, because I was thinking about my kids,” she said. “I love my kids and I am the best person to take care of them.”

Recovering From Financial Abuse

How We Reported This Series

After Daisy fled her abuser, she lived in emergency and transitional shelters for domestic violence survivors for nearly two years.

It wasn’t an easy transition. To stay in the shelters, she had to have some sort of income. As a sponsored resident of the U.S. (she's originally from El Salvador), Daisy didn’t qualify for public assistance, so she started crafting cards to sell to shelter staff. It soon grew into a small business, and she became the manager of an online store called Gifted that the advocacy group Free From runs to help create job opportunities for survivors.

It was a similar journey for Cherry Morse. She now also works at Gifted and is taking business courses. She’s working on launching a company of her own where she can apply the entrepreneurial skills she’s learned.

It took years and a lot of resolve, but with support from providers at domestic violence shelters and nonprofits like Free From, not to mention a whole lot of hard work and perseverance on their parts, Daisy and Morse said they’ve been able to get their financial independence back. They have both paid off the debts accrued in their names and have built up excellent credit scores.

Here are a few steps that helped them:

  • Understand the cycle of abuse

It’s important for survivors to recognize how power and control has been used against them. For Daisy and Morse, counseling and group therapy helped them disrupt the cycle of violence and lay the groundwork for emotional healing and economic recovery. Most importantly, understanding more deeply how intimate partner abuse works helped them recover self confidence and renew a belief in their own abilities.

  • Build financial literacy

Managing debt and repairing credit takes time and effort. Daisy and Morse said workshops and financial mentoring helped them learn the skills to both pay back substantial debts and achieve really good credit scores. And in another step towards financial independence, both women worked on their entrepreneurial skills with help from Free From, including branding and business licensing.

  • Community with other survivors

It can be really hard to talk about financial problems, and even harder to be open about surviving abuse. Daisy and Morse said participating in peer-to-peer groups with other survivors allowed them to get financial advice from people who understood their struggle. In addition to building support and friendship, they said they got practical tips to help build their own wealth.

Do You Need Help?

Passi says financial institutions need to play a bigger role in protecting victims of intimate partner violence. Her group Free From conducts trainings with banks so staff can identify financial abuse and what to do when they see it. The organization is among groups pushing for stronger legal protections against financial abuse likesafe banking laws, debt protection for the coerced, and legal assistance. And every domestic violence organization is calling for the renewal of the federal Violence Against Women Act.

Ultimately, survivors need more support through funding for temporary financial assistance, transitional housing, affordable counseling services, and career and entrepreneurial development. While support is limited, the groups that are at work show that when given an opportunity, survivors can regain financial stability and thrive.