A Woman at the Edge

Tough Times, Domestic Violence, and Economic Abuse

Even in good times, life for poor working women can be an
obstacle-filled struggle to get by. In bad times, it can be hell. Now,
throw domestic violence into the mix and the hardships grow
exponentially -- as I discovered recently when I talked with "Tyrie"
while she was at her job at a child-care center in one of New York
City's outer boroughs.

"This economy is hitting everybody really hard," the 40-something
woman, originally from Trinidad, tells me. But it's hitting her harder
than many. Tyrie is a domestic violence survivor whose personal
suffering has been compounded by the global economic crisis. And she
isn't alone.

"Clients are coming in more severely battered with more serious
injuries," reports Catherine Shugrue dos Santos of Sanctuary for
Families, New York State's largest nonprofit organization exclusively
dedicated to dealing with domestic violence victims and their children.
"This leads us to believe that the intensity of the violence may be
escalating. It also means that people may be waiting until the violence
has escalated before they leave."

"Difficult financial times do not cause domestic violence," says Brian
Namey from the National Network to End Domestic Violence. "But they can
exacerbate it."

"When there are tough financial times," Namey notes, "couples can be
under greater pressure, have higher stress levels." In fact, a 2004
study by the National Institute of Justice reported
that women whose male partners experienced two or more periods of
unemployment over five years were three times more likely to be abused.

The Domestic Violence No One Notices

When "domestic violence" is mentioned, people usually think of
physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, but experts say that another form
of domestic violence has been on the increase since the global
financial meltdown hit. They call it "economic abuse." It not only goes
largely unnoticed by most Americans, according to Shugrue dos Santos,
but is "not sufficiently explored in the press." Namey concurs, adding,
"Financial abuse is something that may not be on the radar for most
people, but it is a serious problem."

Sanctuary for Families points to "Jen," a battered client who came to
them in the fall of 2008 just as the financial crisis was beginning to
sweep the country. According to its staff, she represents an ever more
typical case.

Speaking of her partner, she put her dilemma this way:

"Sometimes I think it would be easier just to go back
to him. I know that he could possibly kill me but... when we lived with
him he always had the refrigerator full and I never had to worry about
what my baby was going to eat or what we were going to wear. It's just
really hard to watch my baby live like this. Sometimes I don't think
it's worth it."

is one of an increasing number of women caught between violence in the
home and the violence of being moneyless, powerless, and alone in the
world. One way in which economic abuse occurs, as Shugrue dos Santos
explains, is when "as part of the power and control dynamic, the
batterer tries to exert control over the finances of the family. We
talk to many women, and even if they're the primary bread-winners in
the family, they end up turning that money over to the batterer who
either doesn't give them money or gives them an allowance."

There can be little question that the economic crisis is exerting new
pressures on victims of domestic violence, exacerbating a whole
constellation of interrelated issues that threaten to make their lives
more precarious. Staff members at Sanctuary for Families are finding,
for instance, that batterers are ever more likely to fail to pay child
and spousal support once their wives or partners leave them. Job loss
in a swooning economy and less-forgiving landlords are just two other
obvious factors that lead many of their clients to consider returning
to abusers for financial security.

In addition, women like Jen are often kept in the dark about family
finances and may even have their financial well-being and credit ruined
by partners who mismanage their money, or use it as a form of
punishment or a method of control. But there's also a larger kind of
economic violence that only adds to the hardship of abusive
relationships (or the possibility of leaving them) -- as Tyrie recently
discovered when she took action against her abusive husband and found
herself with mouths to feed in a world in which all sorts of economic
supports were crumbling around her.

"I'm Not No Prima Donna"

The story Tyrie tells is emblematic of the special problems facing
domestic violence survivors in tough financial times. With an already
abusive partner, she emigrated to New York City from Trinidad years
ago. After he pulled a gun on her, he was arrested, sent to prison, and
then deported. Tyrie stayed on in New York, working and raising her
three children.

For the last seven years, she has been married to an American citizen,
and was again a victim of domestic violence. "It was an abuse
situation," she tells me in her lilting, island-inflected voice.
Although she fled to a shelter for victims of domestic violence several
times, she says, "I wasn't too comfy there." And so she always returned
home. Nor could she make much use of the group-counseling sessions the
shelter offered on a weekday evening. After all, in addition to raising
her children, Tyrie held down a child-care job from nine in the morning
to one in the afternoon, and then, at four, became a security guard
until midnight.

Her husband worked only irregularly. "The alcohol controlled him
more than he controlled the alcohol" is the way she puts it. Last year,
the violence at home reached intolerable levels. After he raped her,
Tyrie finally took action and he, too, was sent to prison. While that
made domestic abuse a thing of the past, the economic abuse by systemic
forces outside the home had barely begun. Tyrie's situation actually
worsened as the economy nosedived.

Last spring, with her work permit about to expire, she filed forms
to renew it. Then the waiting started. Without a rapid renewal, she
lost her security-guard job and eventually retained a personal lawyer
to look into the delay. The lawyer, she says, misfiled her paperwork
and without her American husband at her side, Tyrie was left
vulnerable. "Then I got this letter saying I'm facing deportation."

With deportation hearings looming and left only with her part-time
child-care job for minimal support, the financial pressure began to
mount. "It became really hard, paying $1,350 rent, taking care of three
kids, [subway] rides, food, and everything else," she says. "I spend
only $25 every week in the grocery. That's all I can afford.
Twenty-five dollars! You tell me what I can... pick up for $25 and make
that work for the week."

Friends offer assistance, but they, too, are facing financial
hardship. One, whose job in home construction dried up two years ago,
travels from food pantry to food pantry picking up groceries, including
a bag for Tyrie's family. Tyrie then takes the chicken, potatoes, and
onions he brings back and combines it with the peas and rice she buys
on sale to cook up dishes that provide the family three meals a day. "I
make it go a long way," she says, with more than a hint of weariness in
her voice.

It has to go even farther these days. In October, her sister-in-law
lost her job on Wall Street. Given the dismal employment situation in
New York City, she hasn't been able to find work since. So Tyrie took
her and her two children in. Together, the seven of them live in a
small apartment, barely making ends meet.

at a friend's urging she made time to canvass for then-candidate Barack
Obama in Pennsylvania during the waning days of the campaign in order
to "make a difference." And at night, for the last year, she's also
been enrolled in a home-study program in the hopes of one day becoming
a social worker. "Nothing is gonna hold me back," she insists in a way
that leaves a listener feeling she's trying to convince herself. As we
talk, she vacillates between hope and despair, wondering aloud how she
will push on, but resigned to the fact that she has little choice other
than to find a way.

In January, Tyrie had to go to her landlord and level with him about
her finances. For the moment, he's working with her. "At least I try to
give him a thousand dollars every month. But the three hundred dollars
is backing up," she says of the unpaid remainder of her rent. Now, a budget cut
threatens pre-kindergarten programs funded by New York's Administration
for Children's Services, imperiling her remaining part-time job. So on
days off, she's gone to Albany to lobby politicians, but it hasn't left
her hopeful. "Come September, I might not have a job," she tells me.

More immediately, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is facing its own fiscal crisis and was then threatening to increase subway fares
in the city by 25% to $2.50 a ride. That, too, was on her mind. After
all, taking mass transit at whatever price is an everyday necessity for
Tyrie and her children, and that price leap seemed unaffordable to her.
"I'm already struggling to make ends meet. When it goes up to $2.50,
how on God's green earth am I gonna make it? I don't know yet. But I'm
really trying my best not to give up, not to throw in the towel, and do
the best I can for me and these three children." (In fact, the fare
rise was only to $2.25, still ruinous for Tyrie.)

At night, when she tries to rest, her mind races. "I am not sleeping. I
can't tell you the last night I really slept," she says.

"I don't know if they'll authorize me to get back my work permit. I
really want to know because I need a second job. I can't live like this
no more, ya know? The security people want me back, but if I don't have
that card to give them, they don't want to take me back."

In fact, she's willing to do just about any work short of prostitution.
"I'll wash dishes. I'll go clean any office. I will clean any bathroom.
Anything, just to make the extra couple dollars. I'm not no prima

"I Can't Crumble and Fall"

Tyrie's situation highlights the terrible bind that affects so many
victims of domestic violence. Her husband was a danger to her and yet,
even with only irregular work, a second source of income in the family
provided a small protection against the abyss. Now he's gone, as is the
abuse -- and the income. Gone as well is Tyrie's immigration security
and with it her other job -- and now there are three more mouths in the
house to feed.

Tyrie understandably chose to trade increased economic insecurity for
personal safety, and as a result, her life threatens to crumble at any
moment. For many domestic violence survivors, however, the prospect of
economic ruin is more terrifying than physical, emotional, or sexual

"Studies have shown," Shugrue dos Santos tells me, "that it's difficult
for domestic violence survivors to leave for all sorts of reasons.
Dependence on the batterer, emotionally and economically. And certainly
we know that in a bad economy there are more obstacles for leaving. We
know that there are fewer options for housing. The essential thing is:
How am I going to feed my kids if I leave?" If you're used to living on
two incomes, she notes, the prospect of trying to survive on one can be

Tyrie made that hard choice and the consequences haven't been easy,
but she credits her upbringing in Trinidad as instrumental in helping
her to survive. She muses: "My momma had 10 kids back in the days, with
my dad alone working. She showed us how to make ends meet and I'm
thankful for that, because now I'm in the situation. I have to make
ends meet." It's in that spirit that she insists, "I can't crumble and
fall. Nope. I have to face reality. There's people worse off than us,
that's how I look at it."

Tyrie's story is increasingly typical of domestic violence survivors
now facing another terrifying form of abuse. Over the course of her
life in the United States, she has suffered from many forms of
mistreatment at the hands of her domestic partners. Now, free of that
violence, she finds herself subjected to another form of mistreatment
that may be even more difficult to escape: abuse at the hands of a
government bureaucracy and a crumbling economic system. Those combined
forces are now punishing a woman who has always tried to play by their
rules: following immigration statutes, working multiple jobs, and
raising her children.

Even today, she's still trying. "It's hitting me harder because of my
status," she says of the economic crisis in regard to her immigration
situation. But she still believes she can claw her way out of hardship
with hard work. "If I had my second job," says Tyrie, "I would have
been okay."

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