AuthorThomas, Tia


Economic abuse is an extremely common, yet often overlooked aspect of domestic violence. Economic abuse can affect every aspect of a survivor's life, often limiting their ability to obtain an education and maintain employment. (1) Although the federal government has passed several laws addressing domestic violence, these laws have only recently begun to address economic abuse and are mainly meant to provide civil support for survivors. Similarly, many states do not yet have criminal law's addressing the problem of economic abuse in the domestic violence context. Even with increased recognition at the federal level, there is still much that must be done to ensure that survivors of economic abuse receive the support they need and are able to hold their abusers accountable. Given that current legislation (at least on the federal level) provides civil support to survivors of both physical and economic forms of domestic violence, this Note focuses on criminal solutions and recommends that federal and state actors implement laws criminalizing economic abuse in the domestic violence context.


Marissa and her husband moved overseas while she was pregnant with her first child. She stated that "the minute the aircraft door closed on that first flight out of here, he just turned into a monster." (2) Her husband gave her a Visa card and an American Express card, so that he could check each item that she bought. (3) She was told to put the most expensive items on her cards, which meant that, when they divorced, he was able to argue that she "was spending $10,000 a month or whatever on credit cards." (4) Ultimately, Marissa and her children were thrown out onto the street after her husband "took hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity out of the house, effectively bumping up the mortgage repayments so she couldn't afford them." (5) Her husband also cancelled her cards, so she was unable to pay for a place to stay. (6) Ultimately, she went from living in a "beautiful big, multi-million-dollar house" to living in "one tiny room." (7)

Tonya was raised by two parents and thrived during her first year after transferring to a new college. (8) However, it all changed when she met a "charming" man who "excited" her because he was different than the men she usually dated. (9) The relationship quickly deteriorated, affecting every aspect of Tonya's life: they moved twice, her grades slipped, she took extra sick days at work, and her finances suffered. (10) Her partner engaged in various forms of economic abuse: he refused to work--leaving Tonya responsible for the bills, stole money from her, and racked up credit card debt in her name. (11)

Marissa and Tonya are only two of the millions of women who have survived domestic violence and, specifically, economic abuse in the domestic violence context. Domestic violence, sometimes referred to as intimate partner violence (IPV), (12) is a widespread and persistent problem. Studies estimate that, in the United States, approximately ten million people are affected by domestic violence each year and that "as many as one in four women and one in nine men are victims of domestic violence." (13) The "predominant perception" is that domestic violence primarily "constitute[s] physical violence." (14) Indeed, the vast majority of research (15) and many laws (16) aimed at addressing domestic violence focus solely on its physical effects. However, domestic violence can actually take many forms: "economic, physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological." (17) While some states are taking steps to address these forms of abuse, (18) a majority of states do not have any laws against economic abuse. (19)

Economic abuse has been referred to as a "frequently hidden or "invisible' form of abuse." (20) Economic abuse "centers on creating economic dependency on the perpetrator" (21) and "includes behaviors that control a victim's 'ability to acquire, use, and maintain resources thus threatening her economic security and potential for self-sufficiency.'" (22) Federal laws, including the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), include some provisions that address economic abuse but remain inadequate. (23) In addition, while some state laws could be used to prosecute economic abusers, (24) additional legislation must be passed to ensure that economic abusers throughout the United States are held criminally accountable for their actions. Given the insidious nature of economic abuse and the difficulties that survivors of economic abuse face when trying to escape their situation, merely providing resources for survivors (i.e., through the programs established under VAWA) (25) may be insufficient. Criminal sanctions are necessary to ensure that those economic abusers are held responsible for their actions in a way that will deter both them and others from committing further economic abuse. (26)

This Note begins in Part I by detailing both the various tactics used by economic abusers and the effects of economic abuse. In Part II, this Note explores current laws regulating domestic violence at both the federal and state level and discusses why those laws are inadequate to address the problem of economic abuse. Part III discusses current efforts to amend federal domestic violence statutes, efforts to pass a new federal statute, and additional actions that federal legislators could take. Part III also discusses possible actions that state legislators could take and proposes a set of actions most likely to hold economic abusers accountable.

  1. Background

    Economic abuse, as previously discussed, primarily involves creating dependence on one's abuser and behaviors that significantly affect a "[survivor's] ability to acquire, use, and maintain" key economic resources. (27) Such resources can include transportation, employment, and education. (28) Economic abuse can be measured in different ways, with researchers using at least three standardized measurement tools to assess the prevalence of economic abuse. (29) The first instrument is the Scale of Economic Abuse (SEA), created in 2008 in an attempt to "develop a comprehensive measure that captures the economically abusive behaviors used by men who batter." (30) The SEA was revised in 2015 (31) and 2020. (32) The second instrument is the Work/School Abuse Scale (W/SAS), created in an effort to better understand how abuse by an intimate partner may prevent or hinder survivors' attainment of employment or education. (33) The last instrument is the Domestic Violence-Related Financial Issues Scale, created in 2009 to assess the financial issues faced by female survivors of domestic violence. (34) Given the variety of ways that economic abuse is measured, estimated rates of economic abuse vary from study to study. That said, most studies estimate that between ninety-four and ninety-nine percent of survivors of domestic violence have experienced economic abuse at some point during an abusive relationship. (35)

    1. Tactics Used by Economic Abusers

      The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) has an entire page devoted to describing the various tactics used by economic abusers. (36) This page emphasizes the subtle nature of economic abuse and lists various methods that abusers can use to gain control over survivors, namely: forbidding the survivor to work, sabotaging employment opportunities by stalking or harassing the survivor at the workplace, physically battering the survivor prior to important work meetings or interviews, forbidding the survivor from attending job training or advancement opportunities, controlling how all of the money is spent, not including the survivor in investment or banking accounts, withholding money or giving an "allowance," forcing the survivor to write bad checks or file fraudulent tax returns, running up large amounts of debt on joint accounts, refusing to work or contribute to the family income, withholding funds for the survivor or children to obtain basic needs such as food and medicine, hiding assets, stealing the survivor's identity, property or inheritance, forcing the survivor to work in a family business without pay, refusing to pay bills and ruining the survivor's credit score, forcing the survivor to turn over public benefits or threatening to turn them in for misusing benefits, filing false insurance claims, refusing to pay or evading child support, and manipulating the divorce process by drawing it out. Studies suggest that this list only scratches the surface. (37) Abusers may also interfere with their partners' ability to find jobs not only by engaging in the tactics listed above, but also by turning off the morning alarm, refusing to provide childcare, (38) and more. (39)

      Research suggests that abusers are able to engage in these tactics by utilizing a variety of coercive tools, such as "isolation, intimidation, threats, withholding of necessary resources ... and abuse of children, other relatives, or even pets." (40) In a federally funded technical report, Dutton, et. al. created a model of intimate partner coercive control. (41) According to this model, abusers first set the stage by either creating vulnerabilities or exploiting existing ones, leaving their partners vulnerable to coercion. Abusers then make coercive threats and engage in surveillance of their partner before ultimately delivering the threatened negative consequences. (42) The subtle nature of these tactics, combined with the fact that the "means and effects ... are easily confused with the range of sacrifices women are expected to make in their roles as homemakers, parents and sexual partners," (43) makes it difficult to detect abuse. That said, some of the effects of economic abuse are easily identifiable.

    2. Effect of Economic Abuse: Economic Dependency

      Ultimately, the greatest effect of economic abuse is its impact on survivors' ability to leave their abusers. (44) Several studies suggest that economic abuse may explain why...

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