Trapped in a pandemic: Domestic violence and financial abuse

“What you may not know is that 65% of all murder-suicides are perpetrated by intimate partners, which is shocking and terrifying,” Gretchen Shaw, deputy director of the survivor-led National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), stated during Consumer Action’s “Domestic violence and financial abuse during COVID-19” webinar on Oct. 6, which was attended and watched by 689 viewers. Shaw was one of two speakers at the webinar, including attorney Maclen Stanley, who specializes in pursuing claims of sexual assault, sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

Published: Thursday, November 05, 2020

Consumer Action’s Linda Williams kicked off the webinar by introducing both speakers and pointing to a survey revealing that 75% of women in domestic violence shelters reported staying with their abuser longer that they knew was wise due to financial concerns. (The number one reason victims stay with abusers is the inability to afford to get or stay safe.)

The “key thing” about domestic violence? It’s about “maintaining power and control,” Shaw said, emphasizing that domestic violence is a “conscious choice” on the part of one person to abuse another. So, what’s making perpetrators choose to abuse, and at a much higher rate during the pandemic? Since the pandemic began, Stanley explained, there has been a 10-15% increase in calls to the police regarding domestic violence.

Stanley explained how the many negative psychosocial effects of COVID-19 in particular have caused the “perfect storm” of heightened abuse, including increases in divorce (traffic has jumped by about 25% on websites describing “how to divorce”), substance misuse (including alcohol abuse) and unemployment.

“Domestic violence is like a weed,” Stanley described. “It needs very little to grow.”

Indeed, statistics show that domestic violence rates always increase during stressful times, like the holidays. And there are higher rates in both the amount and severity of violence when national disasters and crises occur—for instance, after hurricanes, tsunamis and…pandemics. Sadly, the pandemic violence also is not just more common, but also more severe, with an unusually high number of stabbings and blunt force trauma injuries to the chest—the type of serious physical harm that is correlated with a 900% greater chance of the abuse resulting in an eventual homicide.

And, of course, pandemics lead to isolation, which makes it easier for abusers to abuse. “Now, isolation is socially imposed...state sanctioned even,” Stanley said. “Abusers don’t even need to try to isolate, it’s already happening for them.” Quarantine mandates also lead to what Stanley described as “forced togetherness.” The typical routes for asking for and obtaining help—visiting friends and family, fleeing to domestic violence shelters—have been shut down (due in part to concerns over spreading infection).

Furthermore, numerous studies have proven that domestic violence is much more likely in households with economic stress, in particular. Researchers have discussed how this phenomenon can get particularly bad when the male partner is the one who has lost his job. “The failure to provide for the family, the failure to be the breadwinner,” can “threaten the masculine identity,” Stanley explained. “And in order to regain control in a relationship, abusers will resort to violence in order to ‘gain the upper hand’.”

Of course, alcohol inhibits one’s ability to regulate existing aggression, and as the nation has stayed at home, alcohol sales have skyrocketed—according to one study, by over 240%! Additionally, due to concerns with in-person contact, there have been declines in mental health appointment attendance, which play an important role in helping victims to leave abusers and providing stressed individuals with tools to handle anger without resorting to substance abuse or violence.

Terrifyingly, throughout all of this, gun sales have quite literally been exploding. “In homes where there is a gun and domestic violence is present, victims are 400% to 500% more likely to be killed with that firearm,” NCADV’s Shaw explained, before outlining what, exactly, constitutes the types of financial abuse and coercion that can trap victims in relationships with angry gun-owners.

The list may surprise you. Financial abuse isn’t just denying a partner access to family income. Examples of financial abuse include: applying for credit cards or loans or opening accounts in the partner’s name without their approval and then racking up debt, not paying it down or defaulting on loans (also known as “coerced debt”); forging a partner’s name on checks and other financial documents; making them account for every expenditure; refusing to pay home utilities; stopping child support payments; stealing and using your partner’s credit card; and dragging an ex through extensive and costly family court or divorce proceedings. Refusing to provide available health insurance or assist with childcare, and damaging property that requires costly fixes, are also roundabout ways of abusing a partner financially. Often, abusers end up ruining a victim’s credit, making the victim even more dependent on them, since no one will rent the victim an apartment, issue them a car loan, etc.

It’s hard to leave an abuser when you’re also the victim of financial abuse, particularly today: Shaw pointed out that 100% of service providers have reported that survivors are having challenges with money and resources specifically due to the pandemic. And survivors themselves have referenced the new financial challenges brought on by COVID-19: 40% have mentioned concerns about receiving their stimulus checks, which may be necessary in providing the financial resources to leave an abuser, and many have had difficulties finding a bed at crowded and underfunded domestic violence shelters.

So, what can be done about the horrors of financial (and physical) abuse? Survivors should work with a domestic violence advocate to create a financial safety plan. Shaw repeatedly instructed anyone experiencing domestic violence to reach out to the free and very confidential National Domestic Violence Hotline. One should also consider transferring existing financial assets (or putting new assets) into a bank account that the abuser cannot access and isn’t even aware of; closing jointly-owned accounts; terminating all old leases/utilities; freezing credit and setting up fraud alerts; and getting new PINs, among other suggestions. Shaw also recommended reaching out to the Center for Survivor Agency and Justice, which she described as doing “fantastic work” around combatting coerced debt. Finally, you can find your state NCADV coalition here for more local support.

Consumer Action’s “Domestic violence and financial abuse during COVID-19” is part of our ongoing COVID-19 Educational Project and made possible with support from Wells Fargo. Find the recorded version of all Coping with COVID webinars here.




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