The coronavirus outbreak has coincided with a surge in domestic violence calls, launching what some have called a “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence across the world.
KERA looked at the heightened violence in Tarrant County, which has seen more intimate partner violence homicides since March than it did in all of 2019, and chronicled life in a domestic violence shelter when the pandemic hit North Texas through the experience of one survivor.
As part of KERA’s One Crisis Away series, which explores financial instability, reporter Christopher Connelly and editor Courtney Collins discussed the way that many victims of domestic violence are confronted with poverty when attempting to leave their abusers, because of economic abuse that coincided with violence in their relationship.
Warning: This story features accounts of domestic violence. If you’re experiencing abuse or partner violence and need help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or you can chat with an advocate on their website. SafeHaven of Tarrant County's crisis hotline is 1-877-701-7233, and resources are available on their website.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Courtney Collins: Financial abuse or economic abuse is something advocates are intimately familiar with. How exactly do abusers use money to control their victims?
Christopher Connelly: Folks who work in the domestic violence field have this tool that they use called the Power and Control Wheel. Basically, it shows all the different tactics that are commonly used by abusers to keep victims under their thumbs. It includes violence, but it also includes threats, manipulation, coercion and intimidation.
Kathryn Jacobs is the head of SafeHaven of Tarrant County, which runs domestic violence shelters and provides a whole range of services for survivors and also works to rehabilitate offenders. She said violence is just one tool for abusers.
“Domestic violence is about power. It's about power and control. It's one person who has power over another person. It's one person whose world is getting bigger and someone else's world is getting smaller,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs says controlling somebody’s finances is a key tool for abusers to limit their partner’s independence. If your husband or boyfriend won’t let you get a job, you don’t have cash of your own. Victims often have to ask for money from their abuser or they might be given an allowance, which might be withheld as punishment. He might take a victim’s money or earnings, or deny her access to shared bank accounts or credit cards.
Collins: One of the women you talked to, we referred to her simply as “Jasmine” to protect her identity. She fled her abusive husband years ago, but while that freed her from his violence, she said he set about ruining her financially. How, exactly, did he do that?
Connelly: Before she left, Jasmine didn’t work outside of the home. She was the caretaker for seven children, and her then-husband controlled the money throughout the dozen years they were married. If she needed groceries, she had to ask him for money. She didn’t have access to their bank accounts, so when she left, she said she only had $78 in her pocket.
Then, after she left, he continued to affect her life through finances. First, he sold the family business, sold all the family’s possessions, drained the family bank accounts and left the country.
That left her struggling to take care of their kids on her own. She and the kids stayed with friends. They moved around a lot.
Her ex-husband has withheld child support and refused to give her money she should’ve gotten in the divorce. After he came back to the U.S., he harassed her clients for the business she’d set up to support herself. He harassed the friends who took care of her youngest kids while she worked. He even reported her car stolen.
It was relentless, and it was tactical.
“Basically, in his head, he said, ‘If I make life impossible for her, she's going to come back to me.’ This is how he still thinks up 'til now,” Jasmine said.
Eventually, Jasmine was able to get an apartment for her and the children, but under the financial strain that he was causing, she fell behind on the rent and they were evicted. She brought the kids back to him and was living in her car in February. After he beat up her son, she took the kids and checked into SafeHaven’s shelter.
Coronavirus comes in here, too: In March, she was waiting for a court date where she was hoping that the judge was going to order her ex-husband to give her all of the money that he owes her for all of these years that he's been withholding it. That court hearing was canceled because of coronavirus concerns, and still hasn’t been rescheduled.
Collins: Housing is a big issue for domestic violence survivors. Can it be the difference between going back to an abusive partner, or staying away from him?
Connelly: One of the things SafeHaven does is a transitional housing program, because, of course, you have to have somewhere to go if you’re going to leave a home where your abuser lives. But a lot of survivors might not be able to sign a lease without a third party to vouch for them.
A lot of survivors don’t have resources for a down payment, or a job history that’ll make a landlord feel like they’ll be able to pay the rent or be good tenants. Abusers can wreck their victims’ credit scores. Also, a lot of survivors have evictions on their records, like Jasmine does.
SafeHaven also does job training and provides legal help for their clients.
Collins: How does coronavirus fit into this?
Connelly: So, again, abusers use every tool available to maintain power and control, that’s how it works. Kathryn Jacob from SafeHaven said that coronavirus becomes another tool used by abusers.
Their caseworkers and crisis hotline operators are hearing about abusers using the pandemic to restrict their partner’s movements even more than usual. It becomes a threat – as in “If you don’t do what I want I’ll put you out on the street and you’ll get COVID-19” or they’ll say “If you go out, you’ll get sick, and then you’ll come back and make all of us sick, so you can't leave the house.”
Also, if a victim’s abuser has control of her bank account, she’s not going to get her stimulus check. Allenna Bangs, the chief of the Intimate Partner Violence unit at the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office, said she’s seen that happen in cases where her office is prosecuting abusers.
“We had defendants who had access to the bank account of victims who are in shelter, or have moved to grandma’s, and the stimulus check came in and now the abuser has taken it all. Meanwhile, the victim still has the kids and still needed it,” Bangs said. “And so we've litigated that in a way that we never thought we would have to.”
This is one of several complications from coronavirus that they’re having to sort through to prosecute abusers.
A note on language: Throughout this conversation, male pronouns are used to describe abusers, in a general sense, and female pronouns are used for victims and survivors because that is the most common dynamic: men abusing and battering women. However, men are also victims and survivors of abuse, women can be abusers, and folks across the gender spectrum can be abusive, or be abused. Domestic abuse is as prevalent in same-sex relationships as in heterosexual ones.
One in three Texans had experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetimes, a greater rate than the national average, according to a 2011 University of Texas-Austin prevalence study. Researchers found 38% of women and 27% of men they surveyed had survived some sort of psychological abuse, coercive control and entrapment, physical violence, stalking and sexual violence. Most abuse does not get reported to law enforcement.
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