WASHINGTON -- M.A. has no bruises or scars from the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband. That is, unless you look at her bank account.
“My husband was in total control of the money,” she told The Huffington Post at a conference on financial abuse Wednesday. “At times, he let me have a debit card but he would tell me where and when I could use it. Other times, he would borrow it and 'lose' it, leaving me with nothing. I couldn’t drive. I had no money to call a cab. I was stuck.”
M.A., an immigrant from Russia who asked to be identified only by her initials out of concern that using her real name might jeopardize her immigration status, married an American and moved to rural Pennsylvania. She wasn’t a U.S. citizen, couldn’t work and soon became completely isolated.
Her husband would leave her at home all day with their young children and an almost bare pantry. She said he stalled on beginning the process for her citizenship, which required a $1,600 fee that she didn’t have. She had no health insurance, and her husband would not add her to his. She is now in significant debt from hospital bills for the birth of their two children.
Two years ago, with no financial resources, she fled the untenable situation. She was homeless until she found a local domestic violence shelter. There, she took part in a program on financial education, which she said helped her recover from years of financial abuse, taught her how to become financially independent, and provided her with access to essential resources.
“I know so much now,” she said. “Maybe one day I’ll buy a house.”
While financial abuse doesn’t dominate headlines like, say, a man burning down his girlfriend’s house or a homicide attempt, experts said the tactic used by batterers to control and isolate their partners is one of the top reasons why many victims are unable to escape abusive relationships.
“Financial abuse, whether you’re talking about ruining her credit, getting her fired or hiding the money, is just as effective in controlling an abused victim as a lock and key,” said Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “If your credit has been ruined, you can’t get an apartment. If you’ve been fired twice because your abuser harasses you at work, you can’t get a job. Women are literally being forced, because of financial dependency, back into abusive relationships.”
Domestic violence advocates have long emphasized the importance of financial independence as a key step to leaving abusive relationships. Now, promising new research proves just how effective financial education can be in helping survivors become economically secure.
On Wednesday, the Rutgers University School of Social Work released the results of a 14-month study that evaluated the most commonly used financial education program for domestic violence survivors in the U.S., called the Moving Ahead through Financial Management Curriculum.
Developed by the National Network To End Domestic Violence and the Allstate Foundation, the decade-old program teaches survivors how to handle the financial challenges of ending an abusive relationship, and offers resources for navigating credit scores, loans, mortgages and child support.
The randomized, controlled study looked at 457 domestic violence survivors from seven states and Puerto Rico, and compared women who had completed the financial curriculum with those who received standard domestic violence services.
The study found women who received the financial curriculum significantly improved financial literacy, attitudes, intentions and behaviors, and reported less financial strain than the women who did not receive the training. On every single financial variable, the women who received the training did significantly better over time than the women who did not.
Additionally, women who completed the training reported a nearly 10 percent higher quality of life than those who did not receive it, and reported feeling more safe, independent and free.
Judy Postmus, an associate professor at Rutgers who conducted the study, said the results prove the financial empowerment program makes a big difference in the lives of survivors.
“This curriculum gives women more confidence in their abilities to manage finances and more skills,” Postmus said. “You can infer that this curriculum could have an impact in helping these women leave abusive relationships, or help stop them from returning.”
She stressed that many abusers deliberately destroy their partner's credit, and that takes time and effort to fix.
"If you know your partner's name, Social Security [number] and your partner's mother's maiden name, you can pretty much do whatever you want. Open up credit cards, open up businesses, run up debt in your partner's name," Postmus said. "The sad part is, legally, if you’re married, there's nothing you can do about it. You're just as responsible for that debt."
The results of the study were presented at a conference on financial abuse, where more than 150 domestic violence specialists gathered to receive training on the financial curriculum and swap stories on what's working in their states. Over the past decade, 1,700 advocates across the country have been trained to offer this specific financial curriculum to survivors in their local communities.
Kim Pentico, the senior economic justice specialist at National Network To End Domestic Violence who trains advocates, said perceptions on financial programs for survivors are beginning to change.
In the past, Pentico said, offering financial education was seen as “icing on the cake,” a nice service when there was extra time and funding. But now, it's being recognized as a core service.
“Advocates are catching on that many survivors are seeking shelter because they can’t afford to be anywhere else,” Pentico said. “They don’t have the financial services to fly to a parent’s house or rent a hotel room. In a sense, many women are being battered because they can’t afford to not be battered.”
Pentico said that for many domestic violence survivors with low income, the biggest challenge to financial empowerment is feeling like they have nothing to work with.
"They think, 'How can I manage nothing?'" Pentico said. "But the curriculum gives them a peek inside the financial world and shows them how financial services and banks see them, and how to make the most of it."
One especially telling observation, shared by a domestic violence advocate from Kentucky, underscored the importance of financial education in today's credit-dependent economy.
"Abusers have always been financially controlling, but recently abusers are forcing their victims to apply to payday lenders with absolutely no intention of ever paying back the loan, forcing their victims to obtain student loans and then working to sabotage her education, and forcing their victims to put all credit card debt and loans in her name while putting all assets in his," the advocate wrote in a comment read aloud at a panel discussion.
"In the past, domestic violence victims would leave with nothing but their children and the clothes on their back," the note concluded. 'Now they leave with crushing debt."
This post has been updated to protect the identity of its sources.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.