When most people think of domestic violence, they think of physical abuse—black eyes and broken bones. But there is another form of abuse that is more difficult to spot, advocates for battered women say: financial abuse.
“The whole dynamic of an abusive relationship is about power and control, so often it’s economic reasons that keep women with their abusers,” said Hillary Douin, counselor at the Howard Area Community Center in Rogers Park. “They have no housing, employment or resources, so if they leave they would be homeless.”
Some examples of financial abuse include prohibiting the victim from getting a job, taking the victim’s wages, or withholding bank records and account information. It is a subtler tactic that domestic abusers use to exert control over their victims, advocates say.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and advocates are highlighting the issue of financial abuse. Some warn that financial abuse is even more prevalent than physical abuse.
“If a person wants to maintain power and control, they will use a variety of tactics. Most times, that’s not physical violence,” said Vickie Smith, CEO of the Illinois Coalition against Domestic Violence. “The credit issue is probably pretty huge because we don’t notice it until much later.”
At a recent domestic violence awareness rally in downtown Chicago, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D- 9th) warned attendees of a new type of financial abuse.
“An increasingly common form of abuse is efforts to ruin the victim’s credit rating and force the victim to apply to payday lenders with absolutely no hope of being able to repay the loan,” said Schakowsky.
In some instances, victims escape an abusive relationship only to realize that once they are on their own they cannot pass a credit check and must take out cash advances and secure loans. They try to buy a car or rent an apartment with low credit ratings and find themselves in situations where they cannot become self-sufficient.
In some cultures, it is common for a man to act as the head of the household, so the victim might mistake financial abuse for normal behavior. However, advocates say that domestic violence affects all races, genders and socioeconomic classes.
“We find that financial abuse isn’t necessarily culture-related,” said CarolAnn Peterson, adjunct professor at the University of Southern California School of Social Work. “Most abusers control finances because no funds means no way of leaving.”
Peterson advises those struggling with abusive situations to stay a few steps ahead of the abuser. “We tell victims to find a way, if possible, to stash money with trusted family, friends or coworkers.”
The Allstate Foundation in suburban Chicago is one of the few corporate foundations that focus on financial abuse. Allstate launched the Purple Purse campaign four years ago as a fundraising program with a focus on financial empowerment for women.
In collaboration with the National Network to End Domestic Violence, Allstate has created a two-part curriculum with resources for community outreach advocates and financial planning modules for survivors of abuse.
“Domestic violence, in general, is being talked about more than ever,” said Kyle Donash, spokesman at Allstate. “When we talk about ‘Why did she stay?’ the No. 1 reason is financial abuse.”