What to Do When Domestic Abuse Is Financial, Too

“I’m very blessed that I can see out of both my eyes,” says Kalyn Risker Fahie. Nearly ten years ago, her left eye-socket was shattered by her longtime ex-partner and father of her oldest child. A titanium implant now holds her eye in place.

It was the first — and only — time he hit her. But she said there had been signs of violent tendencies, like the time he burned all the clothes and jewelry he had bought her. She just hadn’t recognized those as abusive tendencies.

It wasn’t until Fahie left the relationship soon afterward that she realized her ex’s abuse was not only emotional and physical, but also financial. While in the relationship she had been looking for a second job and had submitted her resume to numerous companies. She says she didn’t get any calls during the time she was with him — or so she thought. Calls poured in once she left. “I believe he withheld phone calls from jobs for me,” she says.

In addition, she was unable to hold on to the job she had because of her eye injury. She experienced double vision, and her doctor would not give her clearance to return to work. She had to quit.

Fahie is one of tens of millions of women — and men — in the United States who have experienced abuse at the hands of an intimate partner. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men are victims of abuse by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

The physical, mental, and emotional consequences are well known. Less so are the financial costs of domestic violence.

Her ex’s abuse was not only emotional and physical, but also financial.

Over 90 percent of domestic violence victims who are employed experience problems at work. Each year, collectively, victims lose a total of 8 million days of paid work, and up to 60 percent lose their jobs due to abuse, according to the coalition.

For companies, billions of dollars are lost because of reduced productivity, missed work days, and increased health care costs. Employed or not, many women stay in their abusive relationships — particularly if they have children — because they are financially dependent on their abusers. And many suffer from economic abuse, a form of mistreatment that happens when one domestic partner forces the other into extreme dependency by restricting access to economic resources, limiting victims’ ability to support themselves.

Once she was back on her feet, Fahie, who lives in Detroit, got a job in the human resources department for an HMO at a local hospital. Working closely with employees gave her an even broader view of the impact economic abuse has — from entry level positions to the vice president’s office.

In 2007, she founded Sisters Acquiring Financial Empowerment (SAFE), an organization that has helped more than 2,300 Detroit-area women escaping abuse. When Fahie first started SAFE she focused on helping survivors find jobs. Over the years, the organization has evolved to provide a host of services that help survivors get on their feet, like training programs and workshops on personal finance, budgeting, entrepreneurship, and safety planning. Fahie said the program’s approach has gotten statewide and national attention, and could be a model for other cities.

This interview has been lightly edited.

Zenobia Jeffries: What are the signs of economic abuse?

Kaylyn Risker Fahie: It doesn’t start off as harsh. It could be the type of thing where you really feel like this person is being helpful. He’s like, “I have better credit,” “I have the resources to do this,” “I’m better at handling money.” So you feel like this person is actually being supportive and loving.

Sometimes it’s not until you’re ready to go that you look around and realize, I don’t have money. I can’t take the car. I don’t have anywhere to go because he’s threatened my friends and family so they’re scared for me to go over there. So everything is taken away and you don’t realize what a hostage you’ve been until you’re in that situation.

And let’s say you have children together. Now the abuser is saying, “I’m the one with the job and the house. They’re not going to give you the kids if you live in a shelter.” Those kind of threats keep the victim hostage and restrict their ability to go.

What made you focus on economic abuse, rather than mental, emotional, and physical abuse?

My personal and professional experiences. It was so hard for me financially after the abuse, and there weren’t many resources available. The counselor my daughter and I went to suggested I get a job at McDonald’s. There’s nothing wrong with McDonald’s, but she didn’t take the time to ask me about my skills or work experience.

“Paid sick time is crucial for survivors, and could mean the difference between life and death.”

Also, my experience as an HR professional. Two things happened: A woman who had put in her resume called me. She said, “I don’t know what to do. I’m in this situation. I’m just trying to get my own place and get out of this situation. I’ll do anything. I’ll do housekeeping.” The second, I had to call an employee into my office about her job performance — she was absent a lot. She shared with me that she was being abused. So, [I saw] how it economically affected the survivors, the families, the children, and how it rippled beyond the survivors to the co-workers and company as a whole.

Is there a correlation between the lack of economic support for women and their families and domestic violence?

Most definitely. Women stay with their abusers because they have nowhere to go, or so their children can have somewhere to lay their heads. I wrote an op-ed about how paid sick time is crucial for survivors and could mean the difference between life and death. Forty-three million Americans don’t have paid sick time. That would allow survivors to take time to seek help and leave their situation without risking their financial security.

Does economic abuse happen on its own, or do the other types always accompany it?

I’ve heard people’s testimonies where it’s been just economic abuse, but typically it comes with other components because the person that controls your money might be controlling in other ways. And this manifests itself on every socioeconomic level — from very wealthy women all the way to people who live below the poverty line.

What is the most important thing for women suffering from this form of abuse to know or do?

I suggest they call the hotline, or connect with a domestic violence program — nationally or locally — that does economic abuse work.

“It’s about one person wishing to have complete power and control over the other person.”

It definitely requires some real planning — things you can start to do to save money to the side while you’re still in the house. [You can] open up a secret checking account that doesn’t have a paper trail that comes back to the house.

Make sure you have access to your social security card and driver’s license, so if you leave you’re able to have access to economic resources. If you don’t have your ID or kids’ birth certificates, it makes it harder to get resources that you may need, including housing.

Try not to tell anyone that you’re thinking about doing this, because fatalities occur. Domestic violence is not about lust, it’s not about somebody snaps. It’s about one person wishing to have complete power and control over the other person. And so at the point where the abuser feels they no longer have power and control over their victim — things often escalate.

Sometimes recovery can take a while. It’s not immediate. This didn’t happen overnight, so it’s going to take a minute. But with a program and resources there to support you, it’s possible.