She walked in wearing a full length mink coat — not something I had ever seen in my law office. In fact, at first, I thought she must be in the wrong place, because she had an aristocratic air wrapped around that coat; something else I didn’t see very often in my clients. Had I looked out the window of my office a few minutes earlier, I would have seen her parking her car: a Mercedes Benz, with wipers on the headlights, no less.
However, she was, indeed, in the right place. Once we dispensed with the coat, the sophisticated attitude also disappeared, and she became a frightened, insecure woman with a long story of abuse to share with me. Maureen (not her real name, of course) became one of my longest-running and most challenging clients.
Life had started out well for her. She had all the advantages of being born into an upper-middle class family: university professors for parents, piano and horseback riding lessons, academic encouragement, stimulating discussions around the dinner table, summer trips to Europe. Maureen graduated from high school at the top of her class, and eventually obtained several degrees, culminating in a Ph.D. in mathematics. She began an academic career herself, met another academic in a different field, fell in love and got married.
What was the path that found her, 30 years later, in my office? Turned out the man she married was a coercive controller of the worst order. To the outside world, he was charming, solicitous and gracious. He and Maureen lived in a beautiful house and entertained frequently. They had season’s tickets to the symphony orchestra and were patrons of the arts. She stayed at home to raise their son while his career took him to universities all around the world.
It all looked pretty good from the outside, but people didn’t see what was going on at home.
Behind closed doors
Maureen stayed at home with their son because her husband did not permit her to work. He told her that she was stupid, a bad mother and ugly so often that she started to believe him. He made sure their son got the same message about his mother. He gaslighted her until she started to doubt herself and withdrew from the world beyond their home.
And that beautiful house? Just the rooms seen by guests when Maureen and her husband entertained were finished; the rest of the house was in a perpetual state of disrepair and renovation. Her jewellery – some of which she had brought into the marriage — was kept locked in a safe for which only her husband knew the code and was brought out only for special events. Maureen was on a strict allowance and had to produce receipts from every shopping expedition. She had no access to credit cards, and the bank accounts were in her husband’s name only. He made all the financial decisions for the family.
By the time Maureen came to see me, she was all but destroyed by her husband’s pernicious abuse. She was also – despite the fancy coat and car – penniless. No doubt her husband assumed she would never leave him because she had no access to her own money and had been out of the job market for so long that she was virtually unemployable.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, approximately 90 percent of survivors of IPV have been subjected to financial abuse. As Maureen’s experience illustrates, it can take many forms: the abuser can prohibit the survivor from working, interfere with her ability to work or force her to work and take all the money; control her access to money; keep all financial accounts and assets in his name; run up debt without the survivor’s knowledge; make all the financial decisions, and so on.
The survivor will find ways to manage while she is in the relationship; it’s when she thinks about or tries to leave that she finds out just how dire her situation is. She may have a bad credit rating due to debts she didn’t know anything about. She might not know anything about the family’s finances, and the bank might not know who she is. She likely will have limited or no access to assets or cash and may lack basic money management or decision-making skills.
It’s a kind of abuse that doesn’t leave bruises or broken bones, which means it can be hard for an outsider to spot. As Moo Baulch, a domestic violence expert and advisor who works with the banking industry in Australia to implement programs to support IPV survivors, says:
“There are rich, affluent women who’ve got five cars in the driveway and have a beautiful summer home, who are living – to all intents and purposes for everybody on the outside – a beautiful, privileged life. But if they are not allowed to put petrol in their car, or have to account for the number of miles on their car when they drive it down and drop off their kids at the private school, or if they don’t have any access to money. . then they can’t meet their basic needs.”
What about the law?
Unless the abuser’s actions rise to the level of fraud or embezzlement, there is no criminal offence for financial abuse in Canada. While some countries have created a criminal offence of coercive control, including financial abuse in the definition, many – Canada among them – have not.
Canada’s Divorce Act and some provincial family law legislation (including Ontario’s) contain a detailed definition of family violence that explicitly includes financial abuse and coercive control, meaning family courts can make orders that try to rectify past economic wrongs.
However, banks and credit card companies just want their money, and if the survivor’s name is on a credit card, loan or mortgage, the financial institution is happy to pursue her for payment, even if she knew nothing about the debt.
Financial institutions in some countries are beginning to wake up to their responsibility. In the UK, the finance and banking sector has updated an industry-wide Financial Abuse Code of Practice that sets out principles designed to provide guidance on how to support survivors of financial abuse. Also in the UK, some bankers are being trained about financial abuse as a tactic of intimate partner violence. In Australia, Baulch’s work includes training for bankers about how to spot red flags and provide trauma-informed responses.
In the U.S., FreeFrom is a national not-for-profit with a mission to “dismantle the nexus between gender-based violence and financial insecurity so every survivor has the opportunity to thrive and live free from abuse.” It offers survivors cash grant programs with no strings attached as well as a savings match program to help survivors build emergency savings, both of which make it easier for a woman to leave an unsafe situation without having to access any of the family money. The organization is also working with banks to implement better protections for IPV survivors.
But what about Maureen? Because she was asset-rich (although she had no real access to those assets) she could not get legal aid. She had no money of her own, so I represented her pro-bono. Eventually, we were able to get a modest amount of spousal support, but that was it. She limped away without any share of her husband’s pension, the matrimonial home and other property because he drew out the proceedings for so long, gaslighting her throughout, that she just couldn’t keep going.
She left that 30-year marriage with a fur coat, a fancy but aging car and some spousal support, to live in humiliation in a cheap motel room, while her husband remained in the family home with their son, whom he had completely alienated from his mother.
For the sake of Maureen and countless women in similar situations, Canada needs to jump on board with some of the initiatives in other countries that combine legislative reform, changes to how the finance industry does its business and practical support for women. What a game-changer that would be!