One in four women and 1 in 7 men will experience physical violence from an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Not all scars, however, are visible. Of those women and men, the National Network to End Domestic Violence reports that 99% will have experienced financial abuse, or the use or misuse of money to limit and control their actions and freedom of choice.
Through its Economic Empowerment program, Rochelle Park-based nonprofit Center for Hope & Safety helps victims of domestic violence heal the wounds of financial abuse—poor credit, debt and lack of savings—and sets them up for financial success through career counseling and job placement.
Executive Director Julye Myner said CHS has been offering a similar service to its clients for a number of years, but really sharpened its focus in the past year after hiring career counseling and job placement experts and using The AllState Foundation’s Moving Ahead Curriculum, a financial empowerment resource tuned specifically for victims of domestic violence. Nearly 300 women have achieved financial self-sufficiency with the help of this program since then, she said.
When CHS opened in 1976, domestic violence wasn’t a focus in the non-profit sector. Safe houses are common enough now—though their locations are kept secret for safety reasons, most people know they exist—but the first safe house in contemporary America opened just a few years before CHS, either in California in 1964 or 1972, or St. Paul, Minn. in 1973, depending on the information source. Regardless, CHS was a trailblazer for the time and for the region. The organization quickly expanded from one safe house to include five transitional homes and a curriculum beyond safety and therapy: free legal services are offered, a community closet provides not just food pantry staples but clothing and household items, and a team of professionals runs the economic empowerment program where domestic violence victims learn financial literacy and hone skills to get them on their feet.
“[Financial abuse] is a very powerful way for victims to be oppressed to try to reduce the likelihood for them to leave an abusive situation. A victim also looks at economic viability when considering if she should be leaving the abusive situation,” Myner said. “We want to make sure our community of victims understands that we know it’s an economic leap of faith to leave, so we’re here not only as a safe house but for you to rebuild yourself for you and your children.”
Abusers control their victims’ finances in a number of ways. Some are made to stay home, even if they want to work. Some are forced to quit school. Some are allowed to work but have their employment jeopardized by their abuser, who might call them frequently at work or even show up and cause problems. “We see a lot of employment turnover in domestic violence victims. There’s a huge loss of productivity in the workplace due to DV, and that jeopardizes their employment,” Myner explained.
Some victims are gainfully employed, and although they make good money, they don’t see it. “We have a few women who have great jobs. Some of them are given an allowance, and that in itself is abusive for women that make their own money. These women don’t have the ability to use money in a way that they [want]. All of their expenses can be tracked and they’re questioned on the purchases that they make,” Myner said.
In other cases, victims are undocumented immigrants who are inhibited from getting their work authorization. In more cases than not – Myner estimates 60% – abusers take out credit cards in their victim’s name and incur debt they don’t intend to pay, thus ruining the victim’s credit.
To remedy the latter situation, “our financial literacy experts as well as our case managers work with the credit companies and go over charge by charge, issue by issue,” Myner said. “We also help clients rebuild their credit. It takes a lot of time. That’s why we value relationships with landlords. It’s almost impossible to get an apartment in Bergen County unless you have perfect credit. Landlords who understand DV make a world of difference in allowing our clients to get stable housing.”
As the program has grown in the last year, so have CHS’s partnerships with businesses including Valley Bank, Hackensack Meridian Health, Ridgewood Moving, and ShopRite. These and others offer steady employment for CHS’s clients. The organization is currently looking to expand its pipeline of career opportunities by partnering with more local businesses, which then enjoy the benefit of a wider talent pool at a time when employers nationwide are short staffed.
These placements don’t just benefit the women and the employers. They benefit CHS’s biggest pool of clients: the children.
“It’s on average one woman with two children, but [we’ve also had] one woman with six kids. A lot of these children have seen their mom abused, oppressed, unable to be a powerful economic being. And they begin to see their mom in this program not only get safety for themselves and the children, they see her starting to study at home, to get a certificate, to get a degree, to get a job. Their perspective begins to shift,” Myner said.
“That’s part of rebuilding these children [and transforms] who they will become. Now we’re seeing children getting degrees—engineering degrees, microbiology degrees—whose mom we served year ago,” she said. “They’re making a strong life for themselves. When they go through this rebuilding with their mom, and they go through the healing and therapy we provide, the cycle is broken.”
Recently, CHS has shifted from using the term “financial self-sufficiency” to “economic empowerment,” to embolden clients to move beyond being able to take care of themselves and their families and into greater opportunity.
“We don’t want to put any limits by using words like ‘financial self-sufficiency,’” she said. “Yes, you can achieve that, but you can go beyond that. We’re really lifting up our clients emotionally to reach goals that they might not have considered for themselves. And looking ahead, my very optimistic vision is we can transform the many victims of DV into achieving their full economic career potential. We would all have a greater workforce to benefit from in this country.”