"It’s our job to help abuse victims, but we feel powerless"

We spoke to the experts whose hands are tied when it comes to helping victims controlled by economic abuse

12th August 2019

“Can you imagine trying to support a woman who is terrified of getting her period because her boyfriend won’t give her money to buy tampons? She’s basically trapped in the house for five days a month because she’s too embarrassed to go out.

“The funny thing is this woman has a degree from Cambridge and could easily be earning £50,000 a year, but is so beaten down by poverty and bullying that she’s been drained of the energy to leave her partner.”

Claire*, a 49-year-old social worker based in York, is recalling her experiences of working with a client who was the victim of economic abuse — a form of coercive behaviour in which perpetrators exert control over their victims by robbing them of financial independence.

CONTROL

It can take various guises such as denying victims money to buy essentials, applying for credit in a partner’s name, accessing another person’s benefits, coercing a victim to alter a will or preventing a partner from finding work.

According to research from the Co-operative Bank and domestic violence charity Refuge, 18% of UK adults have been a victim in a past or current relationship, while 30% claim to know someone who has been a victim.

For professionals dealing with potentially vulnerable individuals, it’s a form of domestic abuse they witness frequently, but many have told The Overtake they lack the training to intervene — especially if physical violence isn’t involved.

I often sense something odd is going on with regard to money, but the family won’t open up, which can tie my hands

One of the major difficulties is financial abuse doesn’t always fit the profile of abuser and abusee many of us have in our minds, says Claire. “Not all victims are like that emaciated young woman afraid to buy tampons or leave the house.

“I’ve seen men in their thirties terrorised by their pensioner mothers. When I visit their homes, I expect a fragile old lady clutching her savings books and I encounter a fit, strong man who needs to hide his wallet in case his mother confiscates it to stop him going to the pub.

“Or even worse, I often sense something odd is going on with regard to money, but the family won’t open up, which can tie my hands.”

The law

This code of silence Claire describes is not unusual. Over a third of all victims fail to tell anyone about their ordeal according to the research from Co-op and Refuge.

But professionals such as Claire may potentially find clarification in the government’s draft bill on domestic abuse, which was introduced into parliament on 16th July. The bill is the first to provide a statutory definition of economic abuse, describing it as “any behaviour that has a substantial adverse effect” on the victim’s ability to “acquire, use or maintain money or other property, or … obtain goods or services.”

Financial and economic abuse wouldn’t actually be criminalised under the bill, but they would fall under the umbrella of “coercive and controlling behaviour”, which became a crime in 2015.

If you’re called to a woman’s house and she’s covered in bruises because her husband has smacked her, that’s something you can prove in court.

Yet some campaigners argue the bill does not reach far enough. According to charity Surviving Economic Abuse: “stronger recommendations could have been made to tackle some fundamental barriers faced by survivors of domestic abuse, and economic abuse in particular”.

Funding is another point of controversy surrounding the bill. Under current proposals, the police will receive £47,000 towards the cost of financial abuse training, while approximately £250,000 will be set aside to create a national advice service for banks and building societies and to develop resources for the public.

DOUBT

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is scepticism among police offers over whether the proposed £47,000 will have any real impact.

Danny*, a 27-year-old police constable from North Yorkshire, says: “Forty-seven grand. It sounds like a token gesture to me. Divide that by every police officer in the UK, what would that equal?”

At this point, Danny takes out his phone and does the maths. Taking to Google, he uses ONS data to discover there were 202,023 police workers employed in England and Wales in March 2019. He then works out this would mean a total of 23p per employee if every police worker is eligible for training.

He admits it’s a pretty rough calculation since, as yet, it is unclear how these funds would be allocated and only includes England and Wales, but is nevertheless unimpressed.

At what point does a row over money become something more sinister? It’ll take more than £47,000 to provide police officers with the confidence to answer that question.

“So, the figure won’t be exact, but how are the police meant to do our job with such paltry funding? I love my job. It’s government I have the problem with.”

Like Claire, Danny also feels a legal definition of financial abuse could have come far sooner.

“If you’re called to a woman’s house and she’s covered in bruises because her husband has smacked her, that’s something you can prove in court. But if that same woman tells me she’s confiscated her husband’s benefits because he’s a gambler and the kids need to eat, I’m less certain what my role is.

Danny, who is getting married next year, adds: “My fiancée and I constantly argue about the cost of the wedding. When I tell her we can’t afford an extra five grand, I don’t see myself as abusing her. At what point does a row over money become something more sinister? It’ll take more than £47,000 to provide police officers with the confidence to answer that question.”

TRAPPED

Again, evidence suggests that Danny’s experience is not unique. Of the professionals attending training courses hosted by charities Surviving Economic Abuse and SafeLives, 81% haven’t had any previous training specifically on the topic of economic abuse. These attendees include staff from the police, domestic abuse projects, local authorities and housing associations.

The Overtake contacted the Humberside police department for details of its financial abuse training policies, but the department was unable to provide this information without a Freedom of Information request.

While it’s easy to see financial abuse as centring on the day-to-day hardships of being without ready cash, it also has long term implications, says Hardip*, a 57-year-old benefits adviser from Sheffield.

“I remember phoning a man who was £800 in arrears on his rent. I could tell he was terrified of losing the home he shared with his girlfriend and kids.”

The sense of sadness and powerlessness in his voice stayed with me for weeks

The claimant told Hardip he couldn’t pay anything because his girlfriend controlled his money and their joint benefits went into her account, which left him without an income.

He also claimed his partner alleged debt collectors had been to the door looking for him and he began to worry she had applied for credit in his name.

His experience is not uncommon. According to Co-op and Refuge, 27% of financial abuse victims face serious debt problems and 10% are left homeless.

this man and his kids are still trapped with this bully.

Hardip recalls: “I suggested the tenant contacted Citizens Advice and offered to talk to my manager about his situation, but he quickly ended the call and his case was escalated to another department.

“After the call, I went in the loos because I was worried I was about to burst into tears in front of all my colleagues. The sense of sadness and powerlessness in his voice stayed with me for weeks. I had no doubt that he was telling the truth.”

“But without proper information or training on this issue, I felt powerless. As far as I know, this man and his kids are still trapped with this bully.”

Where to get help

If you’re concerned about financial abuse, you can report the matter to the police. Alternatively, there are a number of organisations that can help, including:

Surviving Economic Abuse

Women’s Aid

Refuge

Action On Elder Abuse

SafeLives

* Name has been changed

12th August 2019