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What is economic abuse?

Economic abuse is insidious and keeps victims feeling trapped. Know the signs

When Elmira* left Iraq, with her husband and children, she hoped for a better life in Canada. Shortly after arriving, she got help applying for disability and child benefits. But she doesn’t see a penny of that money. In fact, Elmira doesn’t even have access to her own bank account. Her husband has total control over every single aspect of the couple’s finances, and his poor money choices have landed their large family in a shelter. Pregnant, unable to speak English, and lacking any knowledge of the state of her financial affairs, Elmira is left with limited choices in this abusive situation.

Economic abuse can happen in any intimate relationship, and it leaves the victim feeling trapped. The abuser might block a partner from accessing their own finances, run up mountainous debts in joint accounts, or refuse to let them work. There are endless variations, but the underlying motive is always control.

Illustration of a person sitting at a computer screen with a dollar sign on it

“The interesting thing is that economic abuse cuts across all cultures, all classes, and all backgrounds,” says Deepa Mattoo, Executive Director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, a United Way-funded agency that offers free legal services to women who have experienced violence or abuse. “We see it play out in people with a lot of money at their disposal, people living in poverty, people from immigrant communities, and among Canadians who have lived here their whole lives.”

This type of abuse can be hard to spot for outsiders—and sometimes even for victims themselves. For example, if a victim has some disposable income, say to buy lunch out with co-workers or shop for household items, then they may appear to have some financial autonomy. Meanwhile, their partner might  be intentionally destroying their credit by borrowing money in their name. “What happens in these kinds of abusive relationships is that you get tied to the person,” says Mattoo. “Then you have limited options left.”

This type of financial stranglehold can come with other controlling behaviours.

“This kind of abuse is often layered with many forms of abuse,” says Jessica Mills of Victim Services of Peel a United Way partner that helps victims of crime, including domestic abuse. “Other things are usually happening in their relationships; often the fact that they’re experiencing economic abuse only comes out in counselling.”

Here are some red flags to look out for, if you suspect that you or a loved one is being economically abused.

Theft and secrecy: An abuser may exert control by denying their victim access to—or knowledge of—their own finances, running up large debts in joint accounts, not disclosing tax money owing, adding to the mortgage without consent, or outright stealing cash from their victim’s wallet. Jordan* is struggling to rebuild his life in the aftermath of this type of abuse. After saving for many years, he bought a Toronto home to live in with his wife and children. Jordan’s wife, however, had other plans fot the property. Without her husband’s knowledge, she fraudulently had his name taken off their joint mortgage and claimed solo ownership of the home. Her next step was to kick out Jordan and the kids, who are now residing in a shelter.

Identity fraud: This can include taking out credit cards or opening businesses in a victim’s name without their knowledge or defrauding the Canada Revenue Agency or Employment Insurance in the victim’s name. “The reality of identity fraud is that most of the time, it happens from someone close,” says Mattoo.

Control over employment: Some abusers won’t allow their victims to earn money or—at the other extreme—they might force their victim to be the sole breadwinner for the household. Another way of exerting control is by dictating exactly what kind of job a victim is allowed to do. When a couple runs a store, for example, the controlling behaviour might look like forcing a spouse to do grunt work in the basement without visibility, or not compensating them for their time and labour.

Illustration of a wallet with money coming out of the top

Taking back control
If you suspect economic abuse, the first step is to enlist help from a lawyer. Depending on the victim’s financial situation on paper, legal assistance may be available at a free legal clinic. Abused partners or family members can also arrange a free and confidential meeting with a financial planner at a bank.

The next step is conducting an investigation. This usually involves getting a credit check, carefully combing through financial accounts and looking for any hidden investment properties or businesses. Victims can contact the Canadian Revenue Agency and Employment Insurance offices to see if accounts are in order. Lawyers and financial planners can also help with these steps, as well as tracking down missing documents.

Once the full scope of the problem is laid out, planning can begin. If the goal is to make a total financial separation from the abuser, then the victim needs to create a detailed exit strategy. That might involve setting up a separate bank account to stash money, accessing social assistance or applying for a consumer proposal.

A note of caution: “In general, when abuse comes to a point where a partner is trying to get out of that cycle, and the abuser is losing their control, the abuser will react, and this often escalates to other forms of violence fairly quickly,” Mattoo says. Physical and emotional safety and well-being need to be written into the exit plan. Victims should identify safe places, people and organizations to turn to for support, as they remove themselves from their situation. Social workers, community shelters, or the police could all be helpful at this time.

Economic abuse can happen so subtly and slowly that its victims don’t even know it until they’re in its grips. It takes time to escape and then more time still to rebuild self-esteem, financial security and a general sense of safety. Elmira is not yet ready to separate from her husband or address the abuse she’s facing. But she’s acknowledged the issues to trusted individuals, and that’s a critical first step. When she is ready, she knows there are many eager allies ready to help.

*Name changed

If you are experiencing domestic abuse, you can call Assaulted Women’s Helpline toll-free, 24 hours a day, at: 1-866-863-0511.

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