Tulare County Fights Domestic Violence on a New Front

Photo: Thinkstock/John Gomez

Nestled in central California and flanked by the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, Tulare County is sometimes called the Appalachia of the West. It is home to the giant Sequoia trees; Mount Whitney towers over the county’s eastern edge. It’s also one of the most poverty-stricken regions of the state.

With an agriculture-dominated economy, the region’s inequalities have only intensified as the state suffers one of the worst droughts on record. Unemployment in Tulare County remains high — at 12.6 percent it is nearly twice the national average, according to recent numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Caity Meader, executive director of Family Services of Tulare County, knows that financial hardships in the county can exact an additional toll, particularly when it comes to cases of domestic violence.

“We know that financial stress, unemployment — all those things also exacerbate family stress and can exacerbate violence,” Meader said. Increasingly, advocates in the field are identifying financial abuse itself as a distinct type of domestic violence.

Meader’s organization is not just observing a correlation between domestic violence and financial instability – Family Services is tackling economic justice head on.

Often occurring in concert with other forms of violence, financial abuse manifests in many different ways, ranging from the subtle to the overt. It might be restricting victims’ access to bank accounts and forcing them to live on a meager allowance; forbidding them from working or sabotaging their employment; racking up debt on shared accounts and purposefully destroying the victim’s credit — the latter, Meader says, becoming more common among her clients in recent years.

“It all leads back to making it more difficult for a victim to leave a relationship. If they’re not able to rent on their own or establish credit, it makes it more difficult for them to get out of an abusive situation,” Meader said. “It’s all part of that cycle of power and control that we see in violent relationships.”

According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, financial abuse occurs in 98 percent of abusive relationships; concerns over financial stability are reported as one of the top reasons victims stay with their abusers, according to the organization.

Despite the prevalence of financial abuse, Meader said, “It’s one of the most unrecognizable forms of domestic violence, and unrecognized by the victims themselves.”

But from a professional standpoint, that’s changing, says Kathy Moore, executive director of the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence.

“Generally, there’s such an emphasis on physical abuse because it is incredibly threatening and harmful. But there are so many other forms of abuse — whether it’s emotional, verbal, spiritual or economic — that are really at play,” Moore said. “As we’ve had greater awareness about financial abuse and the tactics, I think we’re talking about it more and we’re identifying it more.”

Moore, who has been working in the field for more than 20 years, says that financial abuse is nothing new. However, in the past, advocates mostly dealt with financial abuse on an individual basis.

“Being able to see it as domestic violence, and also being able to see it as broader economic inequality, that has been gaining much more traction and energy in recent years, ” Moore said.

Family Services of Tulare County is among the agencies to directly address such economic disparities — with the idea that the approach will not only help victims permanently break free of their abusers, but also that it can help prevent future instances of abuse.

The organization is working to integrate economic empowerment and financial literacy education into nearly every aspect of its offerings. On a daily basis, case managers walk clients through everything from banking basics — opening a new account, for instance, can be difficult when previous accounts were drained by an abuser — to career development services and guidance with repairing damaged credit.

Family Services of Tulare County has also drawn in local business professionals to participate in workshops to help clients build networks.

“That’s what a lot of what career development and financial literacy is — having connections,” Meader said. “And that’s also something that being in a violent relationship takes away from you is that network and those connections.”

Meader says that in order to make an impact, she knew the approach had to be more than a one-time session or a class on the side.

“We’ve thought of this as a longer term investment, because it’s going to take daily practice for our clients,” Meader said. “It takes time to implement new habits, especially healthy habits.”

However, Meader also knows that concerns about financial literacy may not always be the most pressing issue at first, particularly when physical abuse is involved.

“A lot of times when someone initially leaves a domestic violence situation, there are so many other immediate issues — like getting a restraining order, addressing the legal issues, addressing the immediate housing, food, and clothing [needs] — that some of these things, in terms of the financial literacy, those have to be a bit later on after someone has established safety and the threat has diminished to some degree,” Meader said.

Meader noted that there are other unique challenges in Tulare County that can impact domestic violence outcomes. It can be challenging for case workers to maintain contact with clients not only because it’s a rural area, but also because a great deal of the population tends to be migrant, often traveling for seasonal farm work. Violence — and increasingly, gang-related violence — is a problem in the county.

“In Tulare County, we already have some significant income challenges and workforce challenges,” Meader said. “So when you add financial abuse on top of that, we can see how many barriers that can present to a victim that’s already struggling with poverty.”

But financial abuse is not exclusive to low-income families. In fact, as Kathy Moore points out, escaping financial abuse in an affluent household can present its own unique barriers.

While there is a frequent correlation between domestic violence and poverty, Moore cautions that economic status does not have a causative effect on abuse.

“You can look at financial abuse as it relates to poverty, and it’s a tremendous issue. But there are certainly tactics that fall within a range of income status levels, and have similar debilitating effects,” she said.

Moore recalls a former client who had terminal cancer, and despite being from an affluent family, felt trapped in a violent relationship, in part because she feared losing her health insurance. When she would reach out to her friends for advice, they would tell her to go to a hotel, not understanding that she did not even have a credit card.

“We have to look below the surface to understand whether a domestic violence victim actually has access to the wealth or resources in a family. They may look like they have access on paper, but the reality is, they may not,” Moore said.

“If you have a real appreciation for the financial barriers, hopefully that will help to decrease some of that judgment and allow somebody to continue to be supportive and there for victims.”

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