The Face of Financial Abuse


 In Virginia, new digitized technology is creating more opportunities for abusive partners to maintain power and control through financial abuse. Image by Noah Petersen. United States, 2018.

 In Virginia, new digitized technology is creating more opportunities for abusive partners to maintain power and control through financial abuse. Image by Noah Petersen. United States, 2018.

When Jeanette Dey Andrews talks about her husband, her hands shake and eyes roam. She pauses between thoughts, and speaks slowly and quietly.  Her husband is the reason she lost her 70-acre family farm, and why she has no stable retirement plan. He is the one who racked up their family’s debt and refused to help pay it. He is also the one who once threatened her with a gun.

Still, Andrews did not view her husband as abusive until just two years ago, after he had already died and their 35-year long marriage had ended. It was only during a meeting with her local domestic violence shelter, listening to other survivors tell their stories, that she looked around and thought, “Wait, that’s me.” Until then, she had just thought that he was “mean.”

During their marriage, she was able to survive the physical violence, but just like thousands of other victims across Virginia, she had no idea how to escape financial abuse, a form of intimate partner violence in which the perpetrator uses finances to establish control in a relationship–a problem that is evolving with the introduction of new digitized technology.

Financial abusers exploit their partners through a variety of methods, including limiting their ability to work, maintaining control of all property and savings, forcing them into coerced debt, and sabotaging their employment. The ultimate goal, though, is always to limit the autonomy of their partner–who is almost always a woman.

And even though her husband has been dead for nearly three years and his physical threat is gone, Andrews still confronts the effects of his financial abuse every time she gets a call from a debt collector.

Andrews married her husband in 1981, and they built a house on property she already owned. They had two children, she inherited her family farm, and some years their combined income topped six figures. She thought they were “fully prepared to succeed.”

Then they began to spend: on new cars, their son’s out-of-state college tuition, parties for her husband’s social fraternity, and on his increased drinking. They took out one mortgage on her property, and then another on a different house they owned.

He was also getting angry, and taking it out on her and the children, sometimes physically.      

Andrews and her husband were living beyond their means, but she expected him to earn a promotion, and with her income, she felt comfortable–until her husband abruptly approached her one day in 2004 and said that he wanted to “divide everything.”

Andrews asked if he wanted a divorce, and while he never said yes, he wanted to separate all their property and assets. So she packed and left with her daughter to the house in Hampton, where she taught and her daughter enrolled in college online.

"After that, he stopped supporting the family–he stopped supporting us. Before then, we had had everything together,” Andrews said. “Then he wanted his own checking account. And he wanted money that he was gonna just have for himself…  everything was based on having that money, and when we didn't have it anymore, or when I didn't have it anymore to put it towards everything we owed, everything started deteriorating."

Nearly one in every four women experience some form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime, and while financial abuse plays a role in 99 percent of domestic violence situations, only 22 percent of Americans report having heard much about it, according to the Allstate Foundation Purple Purse Program.

“When you’re thinking about [abuse] in the terms of anger, you’re going to think about physical violence. Things like financial abuse and purposely isolating someone–those are cold, calculated things. Those are things you have to think about doing and implement a plan to do,” said Kat Dillon, events coordinator at the Shelter for Help in Emergency in Charlottesville, VA. “The biggest misconception is that intimate partner violence is about anger, and it’s not about anger, it’s about power and control.”

Abuse affects women across class and race boundaries, and individual forms rarely occur alone, meaning that survivors often face a combination of physical, psychological, financial, and emotional abuse. Although financial abuse does not involve physical violence, it limits the victims' ability to survive independent from their partners, forcing them to choose between living in poverty and living in abusive relationships.

“We’ve had women come to us for help, and they roll up in a brand new BMW and a new fur coat on, and they don’t have a cent to their name, because the abuser pays for all of these things, but they’re his, and he keeps them,” Dillon said. “At the end of the day, abusers are good at hiding abuse.”

Newly digitized technology is generating more opportunities for financial abuse in Virginia. Abusers use tools like credit scores, online banking, direct deposit, and spyware to monitor and control their partner’s finances, creating challenges that limit survivors’ autonomy.

“The technology piece is just really a concern, for a lack of a better word,” said Dana Harrington Conner, who teaches at Widener University School of Law in Delaware. “We know now that it’s a lot easier to track, monitor, stalk, engage in harassment–whether that be physical or psychological abuse, which can be just as damaging.”

Ruined credit scores damage almost every area of a survivor’s finances, preventing things like opening a bank account, applying for a loan, leasing a vehicle, purchasing a home, finding a job, and buying a phone.

Abusers target their partners’ credit through a variety of methods, forcing them into unwanted debt, using their financial information without permission, and refusing to make payments on debt left in their name. And because intimate partner violence erodes boundaries present in normal, healthy relationships, identity theft becomes easier: financial information on a phone is two thumbprints away.

“In this day and age, you can’t really live without a phone,” said Rachel Widenhouse, the volunteer coordinator at the Avalon shelter in Williamsburg, VA. “Financial abuse is a lot easier these days because everything is electronic, and passwords can change. People can be locked out of an account and [they] don’t often have hard cash on [their] hands.”

Advocates say that this kind of abuse makes leaving an abusive relationship, which is already often extremely dangerous, even more difficult. Escaping usually requires multiple attempts, and after fleeing, survivors rarely have a stable source of income. Without access to basic needs like food and shelter, victims struggle to re-establish themselves independently. Damaged credit scores limit their ability to maintain both of those.

"We used to say that survivors were escaping with just the clothes on their back, but now they're escaping with just the clothes on their back and crushing debt," said Kim Pentico, the director of economic justice at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Domestic violence support services exist in most counties in Virginia, but they are often used as a last resort, and even then, survivors are at the mercy of the strength of their public programs.

“When you’re a caseworker at an emergency shelter, you’re usually faced with women who don’t have that support system. They don’t have family, they don’t have income,” Widenhouse said. “If they’re in our shelter, it’s because they can’t afford to be somewhere else. Nobody wants to come to a domestic violence shelter.”

Survivors who lack support, the networks necessary to escape or who struggle to find work after leaving, are often drawn back to the same abusive partner they tried to escape.

"We [are] hearing from survivors: 'I have to return because of finances. I have to choose between living in my car and living in an abusive relationship,'" Pentico said.

After two years, Andrews’ husband retired after an operation to his neck and asked her to sign a document that would give him all his retirement money upfront, which also meant that she would receive none of in the future. He stopped making payments on their debt, and because much of it was in her name, she inherited the burden.

"I felt like it was fine that he shouldn't provide for me. I agreed to [sign the paper], because I didn't even think I would deserve anything. That's really troubling to me, and I hate to say that, but I think it needs to be said because women agree to a lot of things because they don't think they deserve anything more than what they are getting," Andrews said. “I had income, but by that time, we had so much debt, we were so far behind, and he wasn't paying anything.”

She learned that he kept her out of his will on a phone call to the insurance company, while preparing for the funeral: “I couldn't believe it ... I had no idea of the extent of his hatred for me.”

He left her nothing but foreclosed property, ruined credit, and crippling debt.

Andrews is now fighting in court for an elective share of the house he last lived in while they were still married.

In Virginia, survivors of financial abuse, face specific challenges when navigating the legal system after leaving an abusive relationship.

Even though economic control is among the five pillars of domestic violence recognized in the Virginia legal code, it is not a criminal offense.

Given that survivors rarely escape with access to income and savings, they have few options when it comes to court representation. While Virginia Legal Aid provides free representation to survivors, their offices are financially strapped and struggle to meet the demand. The Charlottesville-Albemarle County area, for example, which is widely considered one of the best equipped Virginia legal jurisdictions for domestic violence cases, has only two lawyers who provide pro bono representation for survivors. Rural areas rarely have any available.

"There's legal aid offices in most communities which are amazing, but they're horribly underfunded. Legal Aid attorneys have payment rates that no private attorney would ever find acceptable," Pentico said.

Survivors can represent themselves, but then they face the challenges of an unfamiliar court system, especially when the abuser often has access to more financial resources and can hire an experienced attorney.

During hearings, the presence of abusers inside the courtroom can also intimidate and retraumatize survivors, which discourages them from offering testimony on the stand, said Dillon.

Protective orders (POs) can mandate financial support, but given the brevity of their hearings, judges are often to reluctant to require it. Full PO hearings usually last under an hour, compared to divorce settlement discoveries, which take an entire day.

Because POs only address threats or acts against someone’s safety, financial abuse alone is insufficient, and unless victims can prove they are in physical danger, they have no legal support to exit an abusive relationship.

“When my clients are filling out paperwork for a protective order, I usually tell them to start with the most recent incident, and within the most recent incident, touch on the physical abuse first,” Whitney said.

Many victims end up remaining with their abusive partners, not because their situation is safe, but because they simply have no other options, said John Zug, the circuit court clerk for Albemarle County, VA.

And according to Zug, this keeps them in a relationship that could get even worse: “Women die in the hands of the person who said that they love them more than anything else.”

Andrews is surviving, on her retirement money, Social Security, and Air Force Reserve pension. Her credit is ruined, but she has managed to keep open checking and savings accounts and has learned how to live on the income she has.

She remembers watching old Richard Pryor sketches before realizing what was happening to her family:

"[Pryor] talks about his father, saying 'My dad–he was punching me in the chest so hard that it caved in on his fist,' and we all laughed, but that's the same thing that my son had."

She still drives her same old truck, wears a knitted rainbow scarf, uses purple reading glasses, and spends her days writing in her journal. Being a former Sunday-school teacher, she also enjoys studying her Bible, or as she likes to point out, “Bibles, with an ‘s.’”     

"Money runs through everything in your life. You can give an account of who you are and what you did through your bank account…”

She stops and laughs.

“I think God might be an accountant."