Boosting violence survivors' bank accounts and self-esteem
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Erica cried when she realized her ex-husband's ongoing financial abuse meant she'd have to defer going back to school for a year. But her tears lasted just 45 seconds before she pulled herself together and refocused.
"I picked myself back up and said, 'OK, this is where we're at right now,'" she said.
The mother of three was one of nearly 1,200 participants last year in an economic empowerment program offered by the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. The combination of counseling, a matched-savings program and other support has boosted not only her bank account, but her self-esteem and ability to bounce back from setbacks.
"There's so much embarrassment and shame and frustration and the feeling that this person is just putting you in a tiny box. So when someone connects and is saying, 'Not only I'm going to help you, I'm going to help you thrive in the world,' that literally changes the outlook of anyone," said Erica, who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because her agreement with the crisis center requires her to keep confidential the services she is receiving.
Studies suggest nearly all domestic violence cases involve financial abuse, which can include restricting a partner's spending, blocking access to bank accounts, racking up debt in the partner's name and other controlling behaviors.
It's often a key barrier to leaving an abusive relationship and an obstacle to achieving independence afterward. That has led to efforts across the country to look beyond immediate safety needs of victims to the skills they need for long-term economic security.
"What's so dangerous about financial abuse, and what isn't as visible to people, is that for someone who is being financially abused, their resources and access is completely cut off," said Marie Linebaugh, the coalition's program director. "It makes it more challenging for survivors to leave, and once they leave, it's harder for them to maintain that independence and not go back."
In contrast to other programs that are limited to cities or counties, New Hampshire's program is statewide and includes specially trained AmeriCorps workers who help participants with financial safety plans and budgets and support them as the rebuild their credit and save money.
Thanks to a partnership with Bank of New Hampshire, those who open savings accounts see their savings matched dollar for dollar. For additional safety, bank statements are sent to the coalition's office instead of homes.
Funding for the matched savings programs comes from the Allstate Foundation, which also provides the curriculum for the financial literacy classes and has invested more than $60 million to help more than 1.3 million survivors nationwide since 2005.
Linebaugh acknowledges that some parts of the curriculum — tips on saving for retirement or buying a house — don't fit participants who are struggling to scrape together one month's rent and a security deposit.
So the AmeriCorps workers are encouraged to tailor their support and meet survivors where they're at. If someone says, "Budgets scare me; I don't even want to talk about it," the response might be, "Let's not call it a budget. Let's call it wants versus needs. Let's bring it down a little," Linebaugh said.
Of the 1,176 survivors who participated in at least one component of the project, just under 100 participated in the matched savings program. That included a woman who had carefully saved money anticipating she'd need to pay rent when her abuser went to jail, only to learn from her landlord that she was about to be evicted because the rent hadn't been paid in months.
"That was news to her," Linebaugh said. "With the money she had saved up, we enrolled her in the matched savings program, and she worked out a deal with the landlord. If we hadn't had that program in place, she very well could have lost her housing."
Lindsay Cota-Robles, director of marketing for Bank of New Hampshire, said it was an easy decision to partner with the coalition. With branches spread throughout the state, participants don't have to travel far, she said.
"Convenience plays a role," she said. "We want to help the coalition make it as easy as possible for people to get back up on their own feet and become financially stable."
Erica, who divorced several years ago, said her ex-husband had full control of their finances but did a poor job managing money and prevented her from working.
While she always has been good at budgeting, she said, she found other parts of the curriculum invaluable, including brainstorming sessions with other women.
She continues to face problems with alimony and child support but recently launched StrongHer, a fitness program that combines trauma-informed CrossFit classes with self-defense instruction.
The program emphasizes safety and resiliency, two things she knows something about.
"I have my goals and a plan," she said. "There are so many positive things coming down the pike that I look at this and say, 'I'm just no longer willing to be controlled by his financial stuff.'"