‘My partner cleared out my bank account and left me thousands in debt’

Often misunderstood and unrecognised, financial abuse was not the most-talked about form of abusive behaviour but as Marisa Bate reports it forces many women into poverty and despair. Now, at last, banks and the government are taking it seriously

‘We met when I was only 19. I was very insecure about how I looked, so when somebody came along and was willing to call me their girlfriend, I couldn’t believe my luck.’ What Rosie*, 31, didn’t know then was that she was about to enter a five-year abusive relationship that would leave her with PTSD, needing reconstructive surgery – and financially devastated.

 Throughout her violent and emotional abusive relationship, Rosie’s ex-partner also demanded her pin codes and cleaned out her bank account by taking out loans and store cards in her name, and leaving her responsible for finding work to support them, even when she was pregnant and then looking after their child.

‘You’re made to feel bad whenever you dare to ask for money; you’re constantly kept in this poor financial state. And what people don’t understand is if you’re being abused, you do not feel confident to say in an interview ‘employ me, I’m employable’. You feel like you have nothing to offer because you’ve been worn down,’ says Rosie. ‘There are so many factors to economic abuse that are just so damaging. You are kept in a state of confusion, fear, low self-esteem, you are isolated.’

When they finally separated, and he was put in prison for his violence, Rosie was left with mountains of debt. ‘The letters started coming in. And it was thousands and thousands and thousands of pounds. I would ring the debt companies and plead with them but they didn’t listen. I moved into a house that had no flooring, no furniture, no cooking equipment. I had no money whatsoever.’

It is common that economic abuse accompanies domestic violence and coercive control – even if victims don’t realise it is happening at the time. According to research from the Co-operative bank and Refuge, 86% of women who have experienced economic abuse have done so along with other types of intimate partner abuse. Yet despite its prevalence, it has, until very recently, been misunderstood and unrecognised. Dr Nicola Sharp Jeffs, the founder of Surviving Economic Abuse, the UK’s only charity dedicated to the issue said, ‘It’s a little bit like how physical abuse was responded to 40 years ago where victims were not getting a response and feeling really helpless.’

financial abuse

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Making a difference

Things are changing, albeit slowly. In January 2019, the government included economic abuse as part of the statutory definition of domestic abuse in the Domestic Abuse Bill (which is currently still hovering around parliament, pushed off the table thanks to the Prime Minister’s prorogation of parliament and then the election). By October, UK Finance, an industry trade body had published a voluntary Code of Conduct which most banks and building societies have signed up to (but not all). Stories of how perpetrators were using financial products to control thier partners started to be reported in newspapers and on TV and radio.

 And in light of this, a few things became startlingly clear: economic abuse is a form of coercive control that forces women into poverty. Perpetrators control spending, force loans to be taken out, rack up debt in their partner’s names, spend their partner’s savings and destroy their credit history.  If abuse is about control, then economic abuse is a particularly effective strain because we exist in a society that functions entirely around money. The abuse, therefore, not only controls the victim, but in every way possible, the victim’s interaction with the rest of the world, and how the rest of the world interacts with them. In particular, financial institutions.

With an awareness of economic abuse has come an understanding how financial institutions, such as banks and building societies, have unwittingly been aiding perpetrators through their procedures and protocols. For instance, letters have been sent to perpetrators with their victims’ new address on; women have had to pay off loans that they were coerced to take out; women have had their homes threatened with repossession by mortgage lenders when partners have stolen money from joint mortgage accounts or refused to pay their share of the mortgage. Additionally, many victims speak of the agony of having to repeatedly tell their predicament to several different members of staff, many of whom shrugged and pointed at the small print.

 Yet banks are beginning to listen. Take NatWest, which has recently appointed Kim Chambers as Customer Protection Manager, a dedicated role supporting victims of economic abuse in its existing customer protection unit. Chambers, a NatWest employee and customer of 18 years says tackling the issue was long overdue. ‘It goes without saying that this is something that has needed to be done for a long time. We’ve always had channels of support but maybe not with that true understanding of what support is needed. There is more that needs to be done and it’s going to be a constant learning.’

financial abuse

Kim Chambers (credit: NatWest)

In a partnership with SafeLives, a charity dedicated to ending domestic abuse, Chambers and her team have undergone months of training in how to respond to customers who are victims of economic abuse. Staff are taught how to respond sensitively and appropriately to customers who are explaining situations of abuse or to recognize the signs vulnerable customers might display. All customers are then referred to Chambers. Chambers speaks to these customers on the phone weekly, or monthly – sometimes even daily –  and over the course of many months, acknowledging how potentially dangerous each situation can be and that every case is different and needs tailored support.

‘Your bank account is the footprint of your life, it tells everybody what you do every single day,’ says Chambers. ‘If I make a  change [to a victim’s account], for instance, if there’s funds that need safeguarding, and I make that decision to do that, then I’m prompting the abuser to know that there’s something going on and that can make the situation worse. The training has helped me understand the consequences of making these decisions.’

Raising awareness

In other words, banks are beginning to understand how high the stakes are for women who are trying to ask for help. With the introduction of video banking Chambers is hoping to increase the trust between her and the survivors. Chambers also works with relatives or refuges to help women who have to flee without being able to access bank account details or have had all thier belongings including bank statements and passports, taken from them and destroyed. ‘The person going through this knows what they want and what they need to do. It’s my job to make sure I do that as safely as possible for them.’

For Rosie, it’s not just banks and building societies that can enable the abuser. ‘He’s still financially abusing me through the child maintenance service,’ she says.  Rosie claims he pays her the absolute minimum he can get away with before being dragged back to court. As he gets close, he ups the payment and avoids the fine but leaves her in financial precarity. ‘It’s the last invisible chain pulling me in,’ she says.

But despite this Rosie is moving forward. Paying back the debt ‘is a bitter pill to swallow. You are a victim. You’re dealing with so many different things. But I have to say to myself, this debt isn’t going to go away.’ She’s recently set up her own business and is trying to raise awareness to help other survivors. ‘When you suffer abuse, any kind of abuse, it doesn’t always go away, it gets easier to deal with. You find positive ways of managing it, and moving on from it in your own way, but it doesn’t ever go away.’

* Name has been changed

Is someone you know a victim of economic abuse?

SafeLives and NatWest pinpoint five ways to spot if a loved one may be experiencing economic abuse.

1. Restricted spending and access to finances: for example, if a friend unexpectedly and frequently uses money as a reason for cancelling plans. Or a loved one borrows money when it is out of character and they’re being elusive about why.

2. Problems with joint finances: you might become aware of ‘conflicts’ between a friend and their partner concerning money, earnings or savings. Or a partner taking complete charge of their joint finances.

3.Unusual shopping behaviours: this might be a friend obsessively asking for receipts for every purchase and becoming anxious when this isn’t possible. Or someone hiding purchases from their partner or asking permission before buying anything.

4. A change in working habits or attitudes: has a close friend unexpectedly quit a job they love with no real explanation. Or someone is expressing a desire to work but their partner’s not supporting them to do so?

5. Becoming increasingly isolated: unusual and frequent excuses to avoid socialising or a sudden decision to move away from close family can be signs of being controlled by a partner, especially if that person doesn’t have access to their own finances.

* If you want to know more about the signs and impact of economic abuse visit Survivingeconomicabuse.org

* If you, or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge on freephone 0808 2000 247. Lines are open 24/7.

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