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Cost of living crisis could be ‘catastrophic’ for domestic abuse survivors

Experts say surging costs may offer perpetrators an excuse to control the household’s finances – depriving survivors of the means to escape

Nandini Archer
10 May 2022, 12.01am

170 pairs of shoes are laid out to represent the number of people killed due to domestic violence in the UK every year


Allsorts Stock Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

Before she broke up with her partner, Rachel* had savings and a great job. But when her ex refused to pay any child maintenance, she was forced to spend all of her money on lawyers – fighting three costly court cases in less than four years.

Now, Rachel is financially reliant on her father – a pensioner – while her ex, she says, “has the time and the money to use the law to try and punish me further”.

“His family helped him try and hide his money with a whole host of tactics, including adding extra staff on to the pay roll of his business, four months before the final court hearing.”

Meanwhile, Rachel adds, “because he has money, they splash the cash when my child is in their care”.

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Rachel is among the one in every six women in the UK who has experienced financial abuse by a current or former partner. Domestic abuse experts fear financial hardship in the coming months will lead to a spike in cases – leaving many unable to escape their abusers.

Ellie Butt, head of policy and public affairs at Refuge, explains: “The cost of living crisis is not going to make people more abusive. Financial stress does not cause domestic abuse. It’s about giving perpetrators the opportunity to exert control.

“Scarcity and price rises will give perpetrators the excuse for abuse and will reduce survivors’ options and perceptions of their options if they were to leave.”

Women need money in our hands in order to to flee violent men

Sophie Francis-Cansfield, a policy and public affairs manager at Women’s Aid, agrees, saying the crisis could be “catastrophic for survivors and their children, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and potentially trapping them with their abuser”.

“Economic abuse is a common factor within domestic abuse,” she says, citing a 2019 Women’s Aid report, in which almost a third of surveyed domestic abuse survivors reported their access to money being restricted.

“Perpetrators will very much control the finances of their partner to restrict the independence of the women, and ultimately stop them from fleeing,” Francis-Cansfield adds.

Nicola Mann from Women Against Rape says mothers fleeing male-perpetrated domestic abuse face an additional barrier. They risk losing their children because fathers tend to have more money and better resources to fight for custody.

“Social services often cite domestic abuse as a reason, or ‘neglect’, but a mother’s poverty shouldn’t be misconstrued as neglect,” she says. “With the soaring cost of living, this will happen even more.

“Asylum seekers, women with disabilities, single mothers, women of colour, and sex workers, have the least power in society and are going to be most affected by this crisis – and their children have [the] least power of all.”

Mann adds: “Above all, women need money in our hands in order to flee violent men.”

‘Our poverty was orchestrated’

Ryan Hart has experienced the devastating consequences of financial abuse.

“One of the main methods of control my father used to control what we could and couldn’t do was financial control – to keep my mum poor, essentially so she couldn’t survive away from him,” he said, speaking on a panel at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia last month.

Ryan’s mother wasn’t allowed to work full-time or take promotions, her wages went into the joint account, and his father gave her only small amounts of money to buy the bare minimum for herself and their children.

“In winter, my father made sure we were all with him by only heating one room in the house because he claimed that we couldn't afford to heat more than one room, so if we wanted to be warm, we had to be in the room with him so he could watch what we were doing.”

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In 2016, days after the family finally left their abuser, Lance Hart shot dead his wife and 19-year-old daughter, before turning the gun on himself. Ryan says his father had shown no signs of physical violence up until this point.

“We never identified ourselves as victims of abuse. The only way we could explain this to ourselves, why life was so hard, was [that] we were weak, we were too demanding,” he explains.

“It’s only now, retrospectively, that we can see that our poverty was orchestrated by our father so he could trap us, isolate us and make us entirely dependent on his goodwill.”

Services under threat

A lack of safe, affordable housing remains a major barrier to escaping abuse. “Survivors will be left with a stark choice of staying with their perpetrator or perhaps facing homelessness,” explains Francis-Cansfield.

The 2021 Domestic Abuse Act gives local authorities a statutory duty to fund safe accommodation for survivors. But the funding provided by the government is insufficient, says Francis-Cansfield, explaining that 60% of survivors are turned away from services in England due to lack of capacity.

“We have 170 member services across England and a number are already really stressed about the pressure they’re facing and the impact the cost of living crisis will have on their ability to run services.”

Women’s Aid estimates that £409m is needed this year to fully fund specialist domestic abuse services across England. Yet in February, the government allocated just £125m to councils for this purpose.

The impact of this shortfall, Francis-Cansfield tells me, is disproportionately felt by refuges run by Black women and asylum seekers.

Over the past decade, 50% of Black and minoritised specialist refuges have been forced to close or been taken over by a larger provider due to lack of funds, and only 5% of refuges offer beds to survivors with “no recourse to public funds” – referring to those subject to immigration control.

Our poverty was orchestrated by our father so he could trap us, isolate us, make us dependent on him

In May 2020, as part of measures to help deal with COVID, the government announced emergency funding for domestic abuse services, which Ellie Butt from Refuge describes as “hugely helpful”.

Over the next few months, as the cost of living crisis deepens, Butt urges the government to listen to what the specialist domestic violence sector needs – and introduce similar measures if necessary.

But for Nicola Mann, it’s already time for the welfare state to step in. “Universal Credit has pushed thousands of women into deep poverty”, forcing them “into financial dependence on violent partners or else destitution and having their children taken by social services.”

As such, Mann says Women Against Rape is demanding a care income for mothers and other carers – so survivors can truly cut ties with their abusers.

Without action, many women and their families will continue to suffer for years to come. “Financial abuse holds your life back in every sense of the word and this can last a lifetime,” Rachel tells me.

“The children suffer enormously, too… How can you pretend to be happy at home when constantly worrying about money? The kids see it all.”

*Some names have been changed to protect the individuals in this story

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