Economic Empowerment Strategies for Women
Understanding Financial Abuse & Safety Planning
Module One: Understanding Financial Abuse
Financial abuse is a common tactic used by abusers to control and isolate women. It can have long term and devastating consequences. Because the experience of abuse is different for every woman, this module addresses what women from varying backgrounds may experience when trying to overcome financial abuse.
The module also provides information to consider before ending a relationship with an abusive partner including strategies to protect your safety. It does not have all the answers, but it is a start.
Also, please note that the information in this curriculum is intended to be general advice for individuals involved in an abusive relationship. However, not everyone’s situation is the same. So, if you need specific advice regarding your particular situation, you should contact a support worker, financial adviser or lawyer.
The objectives of this module are:
- Recognize the signs of a financially abusive relationship.
- Recall how to keep safe after ending a financially abusive relationship.
- Explain the financial impact of separation, divorce and child support.
- Describe some of the consequences of disclosing abuse.
- Explain the challenges to maintaining your privacy and changing your identity in regard to financial abuse
Financially Abusive Relationships
What is Financial Abuse?
Financial abuse often begins subtly and progresses over time. The aim of financial abuse, as with other forms of abuse, is to gain power and control in a relationship. Financial abuse along with emotional and physical abuse, manipulation, intimidation and threats are all aimed at getting and maintaining control over another person. The purpose is to trap them in the relationship.
Financial abuse is a tactic used to control relationships by preventing access to money or other financial resources. It might include:
- Controlling how money is spent
- Withholding money or “giving an allowance”
- Withholding basic living resources, medication or food
- Not allowing their partner to work or earn money
- Stealing their partner’s identity, money, credit or property
- May justify behaviour as cultural.
Almost all couples have arguments about money. However, in financially healthy relationships, couples successfully negotiate their wants and needs in the following ways:
- Both partners have access to financial statements and information although one partner might manage the day-to-day finances and bill paying,
- Couples identify when they have different values about money and negotiate joint financial goals;
- Couples set plans to meet joint goals and stick to them;
- Couples recognize and respect that decision-making is equal regardless of who earns more income for the family;
- Each partner has access to money on their own without having to ask for permission or hide their spending;
- Financial decisions are made jointly between partners; and
- Both partners have access to money and knowledge about where and how money is spent, and neither partner is deceitful.
These are the elements that appear in happy, productive and loving relationships. A true partnership does not include any facet of financial abuse and includes open dialogue, communication, and agreement to all financial matters.
What does financial abuse look like?
It’s important to know that financial abuse can happen to anyone regardless of their income, education or independent success. Despite great diversity, survivors face similar struggles, challenges and conflicts as they try to care for their families, secure work, find affordable housing and create long-term assets.
To help you determine whether or not you are in a financially abusive relationship, ask yourself these questions. Does your partner:
- Steal money from you or your family and force you to give access to your money or financial accounts?
- Make you feel as though you don’t have a right to know any details about money or household decisions?
- Make financial or investment decisions that affect you or your family without consulting or reaching agreement with you?
- Refuse to include you in important meetings with banks, financial planners, or retirement specialists?
- Forbid you from working or attending school or training sessions?
- Overuse your credit cards or refuse to pay the bills?
- Force you to file fraudulent tax claims?
- Prevent you from obtaining or using credit cards or bankcards?
- Withhold physical resources including food, clothes, necessary medications or shelter from you?
- Force you to work in a family business for little or no pay or refuse to work to help support the family?
- Interfere with your performance at work through harassing activities like frequent telephone calls, emails or visits to your workplace?
- Force you to turn over your benefit payments or threaten to report you for “cheating” on your benefits so your benefits will be cut off, even if you aren’t cheating?
- Force you to cash in, sell or sign over any financial assets or inheritance you own (e.g. bonds, stock or property)?
- Force you to agree to power-of-attorney in order to be able to legally sign documents without your knowledge or consent?
If you find yourself answering yes to one or more of these questions, you may be in a financially abusive relationship. Recognizing this may be very difficult, but there is help available. You are not alone. Please continue reading this resource for strategies that can help you understand and empower you to regain control over your finances.
If you determine you are in an abusive relationship, the first call to action is developing a plan that will keep you and your family safe. Remember that Remaining safe is of the utmost importance during this difficult time.
Working with an advocate or victim service worker is also critically important. An advocate can be a professional working at a local women’s centre, family support service, transition house, or immigrant service agency. If you are not currently working with a community worker, you can contact PovNet website at www.povnet.org or call the victimLINK at 1-800-563-0808 (call no charge, 24 hours a day). Some advocacy organizations provide more support than others do; however, most advocacy services try to help women to self- advocate (advocate for themselves as much as possible).
What should you do if you are being financially abused?
Step One: Evaluate your personal confidence level regarding finances.
First, work on understanding how your experience of dealing with financial abuse makes you feel about your ability to manage finances. You might not feel confident in your ability to manage your money. However, understand that your abuser probably wanted you to feel this way so that he could maintain his power and control over you and your finances. With education, assistance and support you can become a successful money manager and work toward setting and achieving your own financial goals.
Financial safety planning is critical whether or not you choose to leave an abusive relationship. Although there is no perfect way to ensure your safety, you can take steps to decrease the chances of your abuser harming you or your family.
Step Two: Gain information about your assets and liabilities.
It is a common strategy for an abusive partner to hide assets and information about bank accounts and debts. Consider safe ways of doing some investigative work to find financial documents and make copies of these documents to hide in a safe place.
If possible, make photocopies of information about his income, such as any pay stubs, tax returns, company records and ledgers, bank accounts, investments, and RRSPs. Possible safe places include opening a safety deposit box to store documents for safe keeping without telling your partner or storing copies at a friend or family member’s house.
It’s also important to have copies of other critical documents stored in a safe place, such as Social Insurance numbers (SIN) (for yourself, children and your partner), your marriage certificate, birth certificates and CareCard numbers, bank statements and credit card statements.
Documentation regarding joint property can also be very helpful, particularly if you decide to leave the relationship. Photographs can often be more helpful than extensive lists, so consider taking photographs of any joint property. Take pictures that help to confirm the property was at your residence by including children, family or friends in the photographs.
Step Three: Begin saving money immediately.
Another common control tactic used by abusers is to not allow the victim to have any money on their own. Consider finding a way to save some cash for yourself for emergencies or if you need to escape the relationship on short notice. This can be a challenge, but it is something many survivors have been able to accomplish by using all their resources.
One strategy is to save change from purchases and save it in a safe place or secret bank account. Another possibility is having raises or bonuses from work deposited directly into an account that your abusive partner is unaware of (make sure to have bank statements sent to a special PO Box or safe address). Be creative and utilize your strengths and resources to ensure cash flow for yourself and your children.
Also, consider taking at least half of the money in your joint checking and saving accounts immediately upon leaving. However, remember that abusers frequently increase in their efforts at power and control if the partner is leaving.
Many women survivors of violence who have had to flee their home report being surprised to discover their partner immediately drained any joint bank accounts. This tactic is a purposefully attempt to get women to return and can be a very powerful method of regaining control. Taking at least half of the money is a way of protecting yourself and ensuring that you have the means to take care of yourself and your children. If you are hesitant to do this, remember that you can always deposit it back. Taking care of yourself and any children is top priority.
Step Four: Seek financial independence, one step at a time.
Consider opening your own checking account and applying for a credit card. Having a personal checking account and one credit card in your name ensures that you have your own personal credit history. Also, remember to change the signature authority on any joint accounts so that both of you must sign for any transaction to occur. One way to do this is by setting up your bank account in the following way: “Jane Doe and John Doe”, rather “Jane Doe or John Doe”.
These are only four basic steps to help prepare you to leave your abuser.
Again, we highly recommended seeking the help of an advocate for additional guidance and instruction as you prepare for personal and financial independence.
In addition to these four basic steps, as well as seeking help from an advocate, you may also want to consider filing for a protection order.
This is especially important if you have experienced threats or feel that you are in danger.
SAFETY PLANNING TIPS
- Be careful as you gather documents and store the information in a safe place. Abusive partners may set traps in files to detect if someone has accessed them.
- Consult a domestic violence advocate and an attorney. Good legal and safety advice is essential.
- Avoid mediation when at all possible due to safety risks.
- Establish a safety plan if you’re required to attend a meeting where your partner will be present. Include plans for before, during and after the meeting.
- Change or put additional passwords or PIN codes on your utility and credit card accounts to prevent your partner from illegally accessing or changing your accounts.
In addition to the strategies previously shared, there are other things to keep in mind while seeking independence from your abuser. Some of these issues are outlined below:
Home and Shelter Concerns
- Consider limiting your housing search to private property owners rather than larger property-management firms, if you’re concerned that your abuser may use a credit report to locate you while you’re in hiding.
- Private property owners often use proof of credit history provided at the time of application rather than checking with a credit bureau. Larger property management firms often use a credit bureau.
- Supply a copy of your credit report for housing applications instead of having a potential landlord check your credit report to avoid an abuser from discovering your new address.
- Protect your contact information from being shared by finding a roommate who will agree to have the utilities listed in her name.
- Find out how much of your personal information is available on the Internet. Use free and fee-based websites such as www.google.com, www.canada411.ca , www.whitepages.com to search for your phone number and address.
- Be cautious about completing any applications online or using the Internet to communicate with your landlord or mortgage company.
- Information sent over the Internet can be intercepted or monitored. To protect your privacy, fax the information or send it by mail.
- Set up a news alert on www.google.com that will notify you whenever your name, address or phone number are published on the Internet. Google archives about four billion Web pages!
- Contact victim service worker or an advocate to learn more about technology safety and privacy strategies.
- Consider providing a photograph of your abuser to your employer’s security personnel and reception.
- Make arrangements with security to be escorted to and from the parking lot or to public transportation.
- Provide company security personnel and your supervisor with a copy of your protection order.
- Screen your telephone calls.
- Consider changing your work schedule and travel patterns to and from work.
- Save threatening e-mails, voice mails, letters and gifts. If you choose to use the legal system, this evidence will be helpful. If you have a protection order, document your experience to help prove that your partner or ex-partner is violating that order.
Contact the VictimLink at 1-800-563-0808 or an advocate in your community for information, support and guidance to help you move forward and gain financial independence.
Safety Planning and Legal Options
There are legal steps you can take to protect your safety.
A protection order is a court order signed by a judge that prohibits an abuser from contacting, threatening, stalking or harassing. There are different names for these orders. They may also be referred to as “protective orders”, “restraining orders” or “protection from abuse orders.” A protection order can remove your abuser from your home; prohibit your abuser from coming to your home or place of work, or contacting you by phone or email.
Peace bond is a kind of protection order, that tells your abusive partner that he must “be of good behaviour and keep the peace” for up to 12 month. This means that he must not harass or threaten you. A peace bond can contain a no contact order in which case neither of you should contact one another. To apply for a peace bond you need to go to the Provincial Criminal Court and ask that a Justice of the Peace issue a peace bond against your abusive partner. When you apply for a peace bond there will be a hearing in front of a judge. If you are granted a peace bond at this hearing, it is important for you to get a copy and keep it with you at all times. Also, give a copy of the protection order to your children’s school or daycare. The peace bond applies across Canada for up to a year and you can apply for another one after that year.
Restraining Order in an order a judge makes in family court using the Family Relationship Act. A restraining order tells the abuser that he cannot harass or threaten you.
Usually an application for a restraining order in family course must be combined with an application for custody, and some judges will not grant the restraining order unless they are combined. Keep a copy of the restraining order with you and your children at all times. Also, give a copy of the protection order to your children’s school or daycare.
Orders of protection can be an important tool for safety, but they do not ensure safety or access to economic resources but are not the right choice for everyone. Again, to decide if an order of protection is a good option for you, contact an advocate in your community. Trained advocates can help sort through the pros and cons of obtaining an order (including whether or not it will trigger immigration and deportation actions). This can help you to make the decision that is right for you. Remember, protection orders are available regardless of immigration status. They can serve as evidence for abused women who are seeking legal immigration status. Attorney or specially trained advocates are most successful in obtaining protection order. Also, abusive partners who violate protection orders may affect their own immigration status.
For more detailed information about Protection orders contact VictimLIK or PovNet.
Before you separate:
If you are not married and thinking about ending a relationship with your partner, you may discover that you aren’t covered by laws that pertain to married couples.
- Make an inventory of items that each partner brought into the relationship. Be sure to gather any documents or receipts you can use to prove ownership.
- Document joint financial matters, including loans, insurance policies, retirement plans and debt.
- Discuss how you will distribute jointly owned property, if you separate.
- If you rent property, determine whose name is on the lease. Whoever is named on the lease is legally responsible for the rent payments.
- Are you or your partner named as a beneficiary on one another’s life insurance policy or retirement account? If your living arrangement ends, remember to remove your partner’s name as beneficiary. Also, be aware that your name may also be removed as your partner’s beneficiary.
After you have Left :
There are legal steps you can take to protect your financial safety.
Crime Victim Assistance Program
The Crime Victim Assistance Program offers financial assistance to help with some of the costs and services needed to assist in recovering from or coping with the effects. This is money that the government gives to people affected by violent crime, their immidiate family members, and some witnesses recover from the effects of violent crime.
Benefits which may be available include:
- medical, dental and prescription drugs;
- protective measures;
- replacement of damaged or destroyed eyeglasses, clothing, disability aids;
- income support or lost earning capacity;
- transportation and related expenses;
Assistance is available whether or not a perpetrator is charged. But, there must be a police report.
You have one year after the crime report to the police to apply for these benefits. You can get an application from the police, an advocate, or a victim service worker. If you have more questions, contact the Crime Victim Assistance Program at 604-660-3888 (in greater Vancouver) or at 1-866-660-3888 (call no charge elsewhere in BC).
Even if you leave your family home to go to a safe place, you may be able to get an order later from a judge saying that you have the legal right to stay in the home with your children. This is called the exclusive occupancy order. You will need a lawyer to go to court with you to get this order. Legal aid will not provide a lawyer for this type of issue unless you are in danger or your safety is at risk. Besides exclusive occupancy orders, may consider getting a restraining order, see protection order section in this manual for more information.
Accessing Emergency Money
If you have a place to stay for now but do not have enough money, contact the income assistance (welfare) office in your area at 1-866-0800 (call no charge 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) and apply for hardship assistant. This is emergency money that you can get quickly until you apply for regular income assistance. If you need money for food, shelter, or medical needs tell the worker that you need emergency assessment. When you apply for income assistance, tell them that you are leaving an abusive relationship and you will not be required to do a three-week job search. If you have difficulty with your application, speak to an advocate or victim service worker.