According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, there is virtually a 1:1 correlation between domestic abuse and financial abuse. Survivors often name financial constraints as the one of top reasons for their decision as to whether to leave an abusive partner. What’s more, financial abuse is often the first sign of domestic abuse and is used as a gateway to other types of abuse. Even though the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 became then-Senator Biden’s landmark legislative achievement, the bill did not include one mention of economic abuse.
That changed this year. In March, Democrats voted to reauthorize the VAWA, which has languished in Congress due to the efforts of Senator Mitch McConnell. However, the most important update in this year’s version is the official inclusion of a legal definition for economic abuse.
The amended legislation defines Economic Abuse as “behavior that is coercive, deceptive, or unreasonably controls or restrains a person’s ability to acquire, use, or maintain economic resources to which they are entitled, including using coercion, fraud, or manipulation.” This includes attempts by an abusive partner to restrict a victim’s access to anything financial or exerting undue influence for the purpose of exploiting an existing legal agreement, such as power of attorney, guardianship, etc.
While brief and preliminary, the inclusion is vital as it provides lawyers, who represent victims of abuse, with the ability to cite VAWA in a way that strengthens their cases. More definition is needed, however. Forms of abuse like coerced debt, career sabotage, and unilateral financial decision-making are “very difficult to prove and rarely prosecuted,” according to the Domestic Violence Unit at the Legal Aid Society. In the case of coerced debt claim, for example, it is difficult to show evidence that debts incurred in someone’s name in fact belong to that person, or that the decision to take on the debt was a mutual decision.
None of the three major credit bureaus are required by statute, at any level, to employ special protocols to assist victims of financial abuse. Any assistance they provide comes under the general heading of “identity theft.” Any debts that are created in the name of a financial abuse victim will remain the responsibility of said victim. A damaged credit profile could prevent that person from being approved for a lease by a prospective landlord.
For Shanna Wilder*, a licensed professional counselor in Plano, Texas, who has worked with victims of domestic and financial abuse, this is one example of where the revised bill comes up short: “Adding a legal definition for financial abuse is an important first step, but things are moving too slowly. Victims need help NOW. We also need financial institutions, credit bureaus, and law enforcement to have their own versions of internal training, and that is only likely to happen when it is imposed by statute.” She explains that financial abuse “rarely a separate issue,” and is almost always accompanied by other forms of abuse, i.e., emotional, sexual, etc.
The current version of VAWA has yet to be taken up by the Senate, despite numerous pleas made to majority leader Schumer by members of his own party.
Jeff Williams, MBA
CEO, Little Woods Capital Advisors, LLC.
*If you would like to contact Shanna Wilder, she can be reached by phone at (972) 251-0313, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit her website https://www.friscosextherapist.net