Financial abuse occurs in 99% of domestic violence cases, so why aren't we talking about it?

Warning: This article discusses domestic violence and abuse.

When Mildred D. Muhammad‘s husband found out she was planning to divorce him, he took the money she needed to file the papers, threw it on the ground in front of her, and told her to pick it up “like a dog” if she wanted to leave. She picked up the money, she tells HelloGiggles, because she couldn’t afford to stay in the marriage any longer. Many people know of Muhammad’s story or, at least, her ex-husband’s: He’s the man who became the D.C. sniper, leading the killings of ten people, and he had planned to kill her last. Today, Muhammad is safe from this terror, and, as a global keynote speaker on domestic violence and an international expert speaker for the U.S. Department of State, she’s sharing her story as a survivor of domestic abuse in order to help others. In particular, she discusses the critical need for awareness of one form of domestic violence: financial abuse.

According to Deborah J. Vagins, the president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), financial or economic abuse is a form of domestic violence in which the abuser uses money or other financial tools to exert control in the relationship. With stay-at-home orders in place amidst the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, every aspect of domestic violence is exacerbated, and research by the Center for Financial Security shows that 99 percent of domestic violence cases involve financial abuse.

We spoke with Muhammad and Vagins to understand what this abuse looks like, how it could be playing out during the pandemic, and what options there are to help victims and survivors find safety.

What does financial abuse look like in relationships?

The NNEDV explains that financial abuse may be subtle or overt—but, in general, it “includes tactics to conceal information, limit the victim’s access to assets, or reduce accessibility to the family finances.” Vagins gave a long list of tactics that abusers use to gain financial control over a victim, including “withholding funds for the victim or children to obtain basic needs such as food or medicine.”

Muhammad, who recently shared her story on a bonus episode of the podcast Monster: D.C. Sniper, experienced this tactic firsthand during her 12-year-long abusive marriage. She tells us that her husband would give her a strict allowance for groceries—exactly $100, for example—and forbid her to go over this budget. “When I spent $100 and 1 cent, I was berated terribly,” she says. “If I spent $99 and 99 cents, everything was okay, but I had to bring the receipts to show what I spent the money on.” This is because Muhammad’s husband didn’t want her to have any of her own money to spend. He didn’t want her to be able to do anything without being dependent on him.

Vagins shared that other tactics of financial abuse include: sabotaging a victim’s employment opportunities by stalking or harassing them in the workplace, cutting up their work clothes or keeping them up all night so that they fail at work, running up large amounts of debt on joint accounts, making all of the household or financial decisions, ruining the victim’s credit score, and refusing to pay the bills to help support the family.

These forms of abuse are not only about controlling the victim while they’re in the relationship but also ensuring that there’s no way out of it. “[Financial abuse] is one of the most powerful methods of keeping a survivor trapped in an abusive relationship and deeply diminishes the victim’s ability to stay safe after leaving an abusive partner,” Vagins says.

Why isn’t financial abuse more widely understood?

When stories of domestic violence are broadcast on the news, they rarely mention financial abuse. “We concentrate more on the abuses that will get the attention of society,” Muhammad says. This means stories focused on physical violence, where there are bruises or scars to show for the abuse. Muhammad, a certified consultant for the U.S. Department of Justice, reports, however, that 80% of domestic abuse victims do not have visible scars to show for the many forms of non-physical abuse they endure, including financial abuse.

Financial abuse is also often left out of the conversation about the barriers that victims have to escape their situation of abuse. The National Domestic Violence Hotline states that it takes a victim of domestic abuse seven times to leave an abusive relationship for good. The NNEDV reports that “financial abuse is often cited by victims of abuse as the main reason that they stayed with or returned to an abusive partner.”

This was very much the case for Muhammad. “[Abusers] will do everything to make sure that you don’t leave,” she says. When she tried to leave her husband for the last time, he called the landlord and said he would no longer be paying rent, changed the password on the bank account, emptied out the funds, hid the keys to her car, and—on top of all of that—took her children and ran for 18 months. “I didn’t know where they were, and I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “The landlord was getting ready to evict me. I had no money to try to get anywhere.”

How is financial abuse worsening during the pandemic?

Under any circumstances, victims and survivors of domestic violence are at risk, but the current crisis raises the stakes even higher. “When survivors are forced to stay at home or in close proximity to their abusers more frequently, an abuser can use any tool to exert control over the victim, including the national health crisis, like COVID-19,” Vagins says. “The abusive partner may feel more justified and escalate their isolation tactics during this pandemic. Perpetrators often act with impunity because they think victims cannot leave, and that has really become exacerbated in this situation.”

With so many individuals experiencing pay cuts, job losses, and overall financial strain, abusers can further exploit a victim’s dependence. Abusers may be taking hold of stimulus checks or unemployment funds, using the money on themselves, and refusing to buy food or money for the home. The increased financial strain may also make it more difficult for victims and survivors to compile funds to help them escape when it’s safe to do so.

For those who are still employed and attempting to work from home, abusers could still be finding ways to sabotage their work. Muhammad gave a few examples of what this might look like, tapping into her own experience of working from home for years during her abusive marriage. She explains that an abuser may make it impossible for the victim to do their work by doing things like hiding their work phone, disrupting the internet connection, or neglecting to watch the children so that the responsibility falls on the victim.

How can victims and survivors stay safe during the pandemic?

Muhammad wrote the e-book Being Abused While Teleworking as a resource guide for victims and survivors of abuse who are trying to work from home while being quarantined with an abuser. She gives advice, like encouraging victims and survivors to keep their microphone and video on during conference calls and meetings so that others can be witness to the abuse, and also recommends keeping work materials by the door so that victims can quickly flee the situation if needed.

To give victims and survivors more financial independence, Muhammad stresses the importance of stowing away small amounts of money—$5 to $50 from every paycheck if possible—into a savings account or onto a debit card. This way, victims and survivors can have money to put toward a hotel room or their first month of rent when they’re able to leave their abuser.

Even though shelters and physical services may not be available right now, Vagins wants to urge victims and survivors to utilize online resources like the National Domestic Violence Hotline and NNEDV’s coronavirus resource page.

“It’s important for [victims and survivors] to know that they are not alone and that we do not want COVID-19 keeping people from seeking resources,” Vagins says. “Despite all the challenges, help is still available.”

How can others help?

As financial dependence is one of the main things keeping people in abusive relationships, financial support is strongly needed to help victims and survivors get out and find safety. Vagins urges those who are able to donate—not only to NNEDV but also to their local domestic violence service providers. NNEDV’s 12th Annual Domestic Violence Counts Report found that, in a single day, 11,441 requests for services—including emergency shelter, housing, transportation, child care, legal representation, and more—went unmet because programs lacked the necessary funding. The Allstate Foundation recently provided NNEDV with $500,000 to establish a coronavirus immediate response fund, which made it possible for the organization to give over a hundred emergency grants to domestic violence programs across the country that needed it most. Vagins says she hopes other companies will follow because the need for funds is so great.

On the individual level, aside from donating funds if possible, Vagins urges friends and family members to stay connected to those in situations of domestic abuse. She says that if you create a safe space for victims and survivors to communicate, they may feel comfortable sharing how they’re feeling, and you can direct them to online resources if you can. Most of all, though, “it’s important in a time of social distancing that people know that they have a lifeline,” she says.

If you are a survivor of domestic violence and need help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). You are not alone.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, HelloGiggles is committed to providing accurate and helpful coverage to our readers. As such, some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, we encourage you to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments, and visit our coronavirus hub.