CBS 58 Special Report: Domestic violence victims struggle with financial abuse amid pandemic

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) – As millions of stimulus checks drop into the mail and hit direct deposits, there are groups of people who still can’t get them, such as victims of domestic violence.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence said research has shown 99 percent of domestic violence victims also suffer financial abuse. That’s a situation where an abuser gains control of their victim’s finances, in an effort to curtail their victim’s independence.

“We don’t know if he’ll have spent the money before we get into a courtroom,” said Jane.

Jane has been trying to divorce her husband for a year now. We’re using a pseudonym to protect her identity, because her ex faces criminal charges for sexual abuse.

“It’s hard, I’m a single mom, I have no child support coming in,” said Jane.

Jane said her $1,200 stimulus check, plus another $1,000 for her two children was deposited into an account only her ex controls. Jane said her lawyer is on the case, but so far, her ex hasn’t responded.

“I have no access to that money,” said Jane.

Legal Action of Wisconsin Attorney Amanda Aubrey said the situation Jane is going through is fairly common, but is often overlooked.

“Financial control is one of the sort of overlooked prongs or aspects of domestic abuse,” said Aubrey.

Aubrey explained abusers will set up bank accounts only they control. They will take their victim’s critical documents including passports, state ID cards, and social security cards. Aubrey said in extreme cases the abuser will destroy the documents.

“It really can seem like there’s no escape, a room with no door,” said Aubrey.

The stimulus deposits highlight a long ongoing problem. In this case, the IRS deposits the money based on tax returns, or the information people have entered into the Get My Payment app, but a financial abuse victim, like Jane, with no control over their finances has few options.

“A divorce court will order them to file a joint return because that provides usually the least tax result,” said Legal Action of Wisconsin Attorney Michael Calabrese.

Calabrese helps clients with tax problems. He said victims would need a judicial order to gain access to money out of their control.

“(They would) ask the state court judge to order the other spouse to pay over their share of the payment,” said Calabrese.

That takes time, and given that the courts are operating on limited schedules because of coronavirus, time just adds to Jane’s problems.

I’m pretty sure that money will be gone,” said Jane.

Wisconsin offers domestic abuse victims a way to get a secure mailing address. A spokesperson for the Wisconsin Bankers Association said a person could use that to help open a separate secure bank account, but acknowledged reestablishing financial independence gets harder the longer someone is in a financially abusive relationship.

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