By Ashley Belanger
November 26, 2021
Financial abuse is violence. That’s what Maid, on track to become the most-watched Netflix mini-series of all time, vividly showed over 10 episodes released last month, effectively raising awareness for this misunderstood form of domestic violence. Netflix projected that within four weeks, more than 67 million people watched Maid’s hero Alex struggle to break free from her partner Sean, the financially controlling and emotionally abusive father of her daughter Maddy.
Of the many viewers who sympathized with Alex, some were moved to act. Maid author Stephanie Land tweeted: “I have heard from a few people that folks are donating to DV shelters in honor of #MAIDNetflix and this is the most beautiful thing. Thank you all so much.” Even Maid star Andie MacDowell, who plays Alex’s unreliable mom, told Land she had a friend inspired to make a donation after viewing.
This sudden outpouring of donations came at a most urgent moment.
The financial abuse that Alex suffered – income barriers like when her abuser cuts off her phone, prevents her from working, or takes away her transportation – was one of the most increased forms of pandemic-related domestic abuse reported, according to a representative from the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Reports show abusers nationwide going to new extremes to exert control by limiting Wi-Fi access, lying about pandemic risks, and intercepting stimulus checks.
“There’s so many things that abusers come up with as ways to control you,” Land tells Teen Vogue, and financial abuse is key to isolating victims.
Common forms of financial abuse include taking money without permission, controlling bank accounts, running up debt, credit card fraud, hiding assets, and preventing someone from making money or money-related decisions. Surveys show nearly all domestic violence survivors experience financial abuse and the top reason that survivors stay with abusers is because they cannot afford to leave.
In Maid, we watch Alex dodge Sean’s explosive outbursts and malicious cut-downs while her friends and family deny the validity of her abuse and the direness of her finances. “It’s not just about financial control, but it’s wearing this person down,” Land says. As Alex discovers, the only real solution to the financial abuse she experienced was a stable income source, which allowed her the freedom to access child care, safe housing, transportation, and independence from her abuser.
As the show portrayed, organizations meant to help survivors aren’t always enough. In January, the Journal of Family Violence published results of a National Alliance for Safe Housing survey of 800 pandemic domestic violence service providers. The authors identified guaranteed income as the most promising way the United States could have financially supported survivors through the pandemic’s double whammy: a dramatic spike in domestic violence and a quick erosion of typical survivor safety nets.
Attempting to support as many Americans as possible through the economic shock, the federal government provided stimulus checks, as well as emergency funding to community domestic violence organizations through the CARES Act, but the Journal of Family Violence report showed that organizations still struggled to meet survivors’ basic needs.
For Rimsha – a domestic violence survivor of emotional, physical, and financial abuse who requested her surname and location be concealed for her protection – she already had a restraining order against her abuser in place when the pandemic started. That didn’t stop him from filing her and their children as dependents on his income taxes, and then intercepting her stimulus checks from the Internal Revenue Service.
Rimsha has been working with the nonprofit Safe Horizon to contest ongoing identity theft, the last bastion of her abuse.
While she feels she’s healing from the emotional and physical abuse, it’s the financial abuse she still can’t quite escape, because like most financial institutions, she says the IRS lacks protocols to support domestic violence survivors. Throughout the pandemic, as she’s served as primary caregiver for her special-needs son, it’s been particularly hard to lose out on emergency financial supports like the child tax credit, which was designed to reduce child poverty and serve as a monthly form of guaranteed income for all struggling families.
“I went through hell,” Rimsha says. “The person who put me through hell is enjoying the payments.”
Despite contesting the identity theft since 2019, if Rimsha can’t resolve her stimulus check issue with the IRS by January 2022, she will miss the cut-off for distribution and will never see her payments. She’s not optimistic, and she isn’t the only survivor whose stimulus check got snatched.
The national non-profit organization FreeFrom, based in Los Angeles, provided direct-cash assistance in grants up to $250 to 7,200 survivors in every state and Puerto Rico through the pandemic. They surveyed more than 1,000 grantees on their COVID-19-related setbacks, and heard that stimulus check theft, fewer financial resources, and slowed court proceedings that delayed income from child support were all commonly experienced pandemic impacts that financially drained survivors.
Health policy expert Naomi Zewde has a vision to help all survivors financially recover from pandemic financial abuse.
In May, she coauthored a bold policy proposal to abolish poverty through The New School’s Institute on Race and Political Economy. In “A Guaranteed Income for the 21st Century,” it’s outlined how the federal government could use a progressive tax code to increase taxes on the rich and guarantee income for everyone who earns less than the national median household income (between $50,000 for single-adult households and $70,000 for two-adult households).
It’s designed to lift everyone above the poverty line for what’s estimated to be half the cost of similar policy proposals, by directing funds only to the poorest households in America, including the one in four women-headed households who live in poverty. Under the policy, impoverished survivors would qualify for up to $12,500 in annual income, and an additional $4,500 per child. By providing stable income, Zewde believes the policy proposal shows how the U.S. could build a functioning safety net for domestic violence survivors, fortifying the fragile web of pre-existing services that the pandemic proved were inadequate to meet basic needs. And that safety net would be there for every American.
“Everyone would have access to assets,” Zewde says. “Whether or not we’re in a pandemic situation, everyone just has like a financial foundation that they can fall on.”
Zewde says this foundation would cover basic necessities as needed, but could also provide funds that anyone who’s poverty-stricken can use “to build themselves up and to make moves in the world and to make choices and to live out their dreams.”
In Maid, Alex attempts to leave her abuser, but his financial abuse keeps her snared. At an especially dire point, she is symbolically shown at the bottom of a pit, her eyes devoid of fight. By the end of the mini-series, she’s worked her way out, methodically plotted her escape and reached new heights in life, literally climbing a mountain with her daughter Maddy. In fiction as in reality, it takes Alex setting up stable income sources to adequately plan for the future and end her financial insecurity.
That happy ending remains a fantasy for many survivors.
For survivors of the most extreme forms of pandemic financial abuse, like Rimsha, getting out of that pit will require more than grit and extra maid shifts. It will require systemic changes where government agencies and financial institutions acknowledge the pervasiveness of financial abuse. FreeFrom reports the average financial abuse survivor loses more than $20,000 in income and accrues nearly $16,000 in coerced debt annually.
“The worst thing in the world is when you want to get out and you cannot get out, because you don’t have money,” Rimsha says, adding she feels uncertain of any proposed guaranteed income disbursed through the tax code after her struggle with the IRS.
Zewde agrees with Rimsha that any guaranteed income disbursed by the IRS would only benefit the survivor if they filed taxes on their own, but that once they do file as individuals, they would at least know that money was coming.
“The idea of some type of guaranteed income, obviously, is important and necessary and needed,” says Blair Dorosh-Walther, Safe Horizon program manager for economic empowerment and shelters. “But it doesn’t help if survivors don’t actually get it.”
To better protect survivors, Dorosh-Walther recommends in part establishing an advisory committee to consult with government agencies and create pathways to resolve common survivor issues.