President Obama signed into law a revised version of the Violence Against Women Act; its passage comes after weeks of debate over extending protections to GLBT and Native American victims of domestic abuse. Today, then, is a day to celebrate a revitalized VAWA.
But one question does linger: what does VAWA actually do and who does it help? The bill states that it seeks to “to implement, expand, and establish efforts and projects to provide competent, supervised pro bono legal assistance for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking.’’
Generally, then, we understand that VAWA fights and protects against physical and emotional abuse. But what about financial abuse? It’s an often-overlooked but similarly pervasive issue that’s usually only discussed in the context of elder care. But for younger people, too, in a destructive relationship, financial abuse is a problem; it can destroy a victim’s life well after she leaves, or even prevent her from leaving at all.
We take a look at one woman’s story in particular – we’ll call her Mary. As recent events in her life illustrate, financial abuse often goes hand-in-hand with other, more publicly-discussed and recognized forms of domestic violence.
Mary is a mother of two and the survivor of a three-year abusive relationship — financially, emotionally and sometimes physically so.
Take, for instance, this episode, which effectively ended the relationship: her ex became convinced that she was unfaithful, and so he planted tape recorders around Mary’s home. Upon hearing recordings — which he took to a professional service to improve their audio fidelity — he became further convinced that Mary had allowed herself to be gang raped for money and that her son had been there to witness.
This is a scenario that Mary vehemently denied then and does now, and yet her ex, whom we’ll call John, would go on to spread these rumors not only to his own friends and family but hers, too.
Today, over a year since the relationship ended, Mary is in not one but two legal battles with her abuser, but has failed to qualify for pro bono legal assistance from the Legal Aid Society of Orange County. This is just the scenario that VAWA hopes to address.
But don’t label her a victim of a domestic violence. She’s determined to get the message out and prevent others from suffering from similar abuse.
“As cliché as this sounds, I do not see myself as a victim but as a survivor,” she said.
A $100,000 loan gone bad
One of Mary’s lawsuits speaks to the financial abuse she endured: Her abuser borrowed $101k from her son’s college savings account with the intention of investing it in a small company. The investment, it seems, didn’t pan out, and he hasn’t paid her back despite his promise of the principal plus interest.
Reflecting on that loan now, Mary said, “There were many times I felt so alone, trapped and isolated from the shame and embarrassment of telling anyone about lending him the money from my son’s college account. I felt so stupid as it was and could not bear any further judgment since I was already my worst critic.”
Today, Mary seeks compensation for the loan, and so she’s filed a suit for fraud.
Meanwhile, in the middle of this suit, Mary’s also had to file for bankruptcy, and her lenders have foreclosed upon her home.
The child-custody battle
The second suit may be even more harrowing. A month after the relationship ended, Mary discovered that she was pregnant. Hence the second suit, filed by John, who looks to obtain full custody of their one-year-old daughter.
The history leading up to this suit perhaps highlights best the knotted nature of their relationship. At once, John could show love, insult and guilt.
For example, in the first trimester, he wrote to Mary in an e-mail that he felt shut out of her life. He blamed Mary’s distance on her body: a mere consequence of being a woman and, better yet, a pregnant woman.
“Although, I have been excluded and lack lusterly [sic] informed of what is going on, I assume that has transpired due to your situation and fluxuating [sic] hormones and needs.
I just want to let you know I forgive your callousness, I can only imagine how difficult it has been for you since I do not have a baby inside of me and the joy of knowing coupled with the sadness of what the bundle of joy is being born into only makes me choose to be someone that chooses to put myself secondary to the baby.”
Further, in a text message, John wrote: “And lastly did getting raped when u were younger really mess u up this bad? I can only pray now that [your son] has the strength not to end up like u.”
In short: he abused.
Her recommendations for victims of domestic abuse
Mary says she’s interested in helping anyone who’s felt abused, bullied, discriminated or violated in such a way. In our conversations, she’s highlighted most the need for fellow survivors to “own their worth.”
“Never lose sight of yourself and your self-worth. I did exactly that. I lost my independence which made me feel worthless and vulnerable,” Mary said.
Perhaps most important for surviving, she said: a support system. Mary may speak more directly of family and friends, but her concern, in this writer’s opinion, also underlines the importance of VAWA, which seeks to help victims of domestic abuse. Hopefully, some day, it will help Mary, too.
Abuse image via Shutterstock.