For Jodi, an American woman who lives on the East Coast of the United States, financial abuse was the precursor to a protracted eight-year struggle with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, during which she sifted through the ruins of her tattered finances.
Moving into a shared apartment with her romantic partner – rather than being a step towards a stronger union – proved instead to be one of the most disastrous decisions of her life.
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“The signs were subtle at first and progressed with time, but they were there all along,” Jodi, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, told Al Jazeera. “If I had known what to look for and what questions to ask, I could have saved myself lots of heartache.”
But Jodi didn’t know, which enabled her abuser to chip away at her financial independence to keep her bound to the relationship.
“I couldn’t leave because from the very beginning, everything was in my name. After all, I was the one that had the good credit and a high income,” she said.
Jodi narrowly escaped with her life after a particularly rough evening of heavy drinking, during which her abuser began turning her house, which she had paid for herself, upside down.
“It continued to escalate, coming to a head in the middle of the night when I was awakened by the sound of him trashing my house before he came after me with a kitchen knife,” she said. “I fought back, called the police, and luckily I lived to tell the story.”
Jodi’s experience is not uncommon. Abusers often destroy their victim’s economic independence in order to control them and make it financially difficult to leave. And the repercussions of financial abuse can continue to follow those who break free of their abusers. But there are organisations out there that offer help – and in the US in October, they have been ramping up their outreach efforts as the country marks National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Financial abuse is a situation that the US legal system still does not quite know how to handle. A study last year by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows that the consequences of financial abuse are not the main priority when addressing the safety and wellbeing of victims.
“Why are there statutes on financial abuse, but attorneys and judges don’t care?” asked one survivor who was interviewed for the study. “They say the last person in court had their face smashed in, so financial abuse isn’t a big deal. [But] it is the precursor!”
Signs of real trouble
Financial abuse is a hidden threat in almost all domestic violence situations, but knowing the signs can empower people from all walks of life to be on guard.
Barring victims from making their own money – also known as “cutting the line” – is one of the most obvious signs. Other tactics abusers commonly use include making it difficult for victims to hold down a job, attend job interviews or seek job training; destroying their victim’s credit; controlling access to bank accounts and other financial instruments; putting victims on a restrictive “allowance”; identity theft and even withholding child support.
Kim Pentico, director of the Economic Justice Program at the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), said the array of abuse can leave victims navigating a morass of negative financial impacts.
“It’s so tricky and pervasive, and it’s invisible most of the time,” said Pentico.
NNEDV also works on public policy, such as chronicling the prevalence of financial abuse, informing the US Congress about it through reports and surveys, and advocating for victims on key issues, especially housing.
“We do economic justice work and general capacity building … we provide training and technical assistance,” Pentico said.
That training enabled Jodi to rebuild her financial life, one transaction at a time.
Fighting for empowerment
The lingering effects of financial abuse continued to plague Jodi after she left her abuser.
“My credit was ruined, I had huge debt, and zero income,” she said. “Eventually, I had to do things I never thought would be necessary, like declare bankruptcy, default on student loans, use food stamps and apply for Medicaid.”
Starting from scratch was not easy. But Jodi got back on her feet with help from nonprofit programmes such as NNEDV and the Allstate Foundation Purple Purse, which has provided over 1.7 million financial abuse victims with job training, small business help and financial education.
Another programme, People’s Place, gave her training and educational support.
“The curriculum is a comprehensive financial lesson plan designed to empower survivors to become financially independent,” Allstate Foundation Senior Program Officer Ellen Lisak told Al Jazeera.
US tennis champion Serena Williams, among others, has worked with the Allstate Foundation to educate the public about the warning signs of financial abuse.
But the struggle to combat the problem is still an uphill battle. Purple Purse has found that 78 percent of people do not know financial abuse is real.
According to Pentico, traditional views on gender roles are also a barrier to education and awareness.
Years of financial and emotional abuse taught Jodi about the power of reaching out, building connections, making a plan, and mustering the courage to take the first step to leave.
She advises victims and survivors to take control of their futures in several ways.
“It’s still difficult for me to trust. I learned to look hard and look twice before getting into a dating relationship. I learned to ask questions, look for signs, take the flags seriously, and set firm boundaries,” Jodi said.
“Luckily, I am now ready to move on with someone who gets it.”
Jodi believes anyone can survive financial abuse with the right help.
“You’re stronger than you think,” she says. “And more importantly, you’re worth it.”