Justice Center and neighborhood organizations shine light on financial abuse and domestic violence


Sanctuary for Families

Sign in hallway at Sanctuary for Families’ confidential location. Photo: Aarthi Manohar.

Quasona Cobb had been in an abusive relationship for four years before she was finally able to leave. “He had thrown me on the ground and poured air freshener diffuser liquid on me.  He was holding a lighter, threatening to set me on fire. I told him, ‘You can’t make me be happy with you.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘You have to learn to be happy with me.’”

Although it took several attempts before she was able to leave her abusive boyfriend for good, Cobb, now 25 and a coordinator at a holding company, says that she doesn’t think she would have been able to escape if she hadn’t had her own job and source of income. “A lot of people don’t understand domestic violence and control,” she says. “Being financially independent helped me get out.”

Based on her experience, Cobb, a nationally-recognized domestic violence spokesperson, believes that economic dependence plays a large role, if not the deciding role, in why women stay with their batterers. “When [your abuser] is your source of income and your child’s source of income, then you really are all by yourself,” she says.  “Where can you go?”

In light of October’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month, last month’s 20th anniversary of the signing of the Violence Against Women Act, and the recent media coverage surrounding domestic violence and the NFL, advocates like Cobb hope to generate a discussion about the role that economic abuse plays in “why women stay” (#whyshestayed) in abusive relationships. Several Manhattan-based organizations associated with the Manhattan Family Justice Center are redoubling their efforts to spread awareness and help victims achieve economic independence. Members of the Justice Center—run out of the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence—hope to educate the public about financial imperatives while providing economic empowerment services to victims and survivors.  This month, the Mayor’s office will hold panel discussions to educate employers and the public about financial abuse.

The Justice Center, located at 80 Centre Street, opened officially in March 2014. Alongside similar programs in the outer boroughs, it provides free criminal and civil legal services, as well as social services, to domestic violence victims, survivors, and family members. At the center, victims can meet with a prosecutor to check on their case, speak with a counselor, and apply for housing and financial assistance. The staff is multilingual and provides free childcare services to parents seeking help.

Annabella Escobar, the Justice Center’s deputy director, believes that a lack of financial resources is the main obstacle that victims face. According to a 2011 report by Susan Pollet, coordinator at the New York State Unified Court System, the state’s judiciary, 56 percent of domestic violence survivors said that their abusers prevented them from having money of their own. Forty-nine percent reported that their abuser actively hid money from them, cutting off their access to personal finances altogether.

“It’s a big decision that our clients are making,” Escobar says. “A source of income is a major concern for them. Many times that’s why they’re struggling with that decision to leave; they’re trying to think about how they’re going to provide for their children.”

Staffers at Sanctuary for Families, one of the center’s service providers, echo Escobar’s message and stress the importance of media attention.  “This is the most sustained conversation about domestic violence that we’ve had in a long time,” says Beth Silverman-Yam, the director of clinical programs at Sanctuary for Families, in reference to the Ray Rice incident and subsequent reports of abuse by NFL players.

Sanctuary, which provides employment training services through the center and independently to victims and survivors, runs its own economic empowerment program, which enables participants to achieve job certification in computer programs,  and provides interpersonal, GED, and ESL training. “Our goal is to help them get living wage jobs,” says Silverman-Yam. “[And] the whole notion of what goes into getting a job and the trajectory of having a career.”

Angelo Rivera runs Sanctuary’s intensive economic empowerment program, which he calls the “Cadillac” of financial initiatives. Sanctuary’s model offers victims from all educational backgrounds employment training workshops in three-month-long cycles throughout the year. It emphasizes literacy, IT skills, and professional development—or teaching women how to work in a formal office environment.
 Today, 150 women are enrolled Sanctuary’s program. Rivera anticipates that approximately 120 of them will graduate from the program, and that 70 percent of the graduating class will have jobs lined up.

Rivera thinks that he’ll see more participants from the Justice Center in the coming months and years. “Learning the mechanics through reading, discussion, and professional development is completely transformative,” he says. “So we focus on [attaining] the personal and educational level that they need to conquer to get a living wage job.”

Carol Corden, the executive director of New Destiny Housing, a Midtown West shelter service that works with the Justice Center, also believes in the reparative powers of having access to a job and the ability to earn a living. She says that women often stay with their abusers because they lose their sense of self-worth when their access to money or job services and training are cut off. “We want to help survivors increase the confidence they lost during their relationships,” she says of New Destiny and the center’s services.

The Justice Center works with 20 domestic violence organizations in Manhattan to help victims and survivors gain access to jobs and job-training workshops. Its own self-sufficiency program helps clients develop a job-seeking plan, draft resumes, practice their interviewing skills, and get in touch with agencies like New Destiny and Sanctuary for Families.

Economic issues aren’t just limited to female victims in heterosexual relationships. The Anti-Violence Project, or AVP, a Midtown West organization working with the Justice Center, plans to use Domestic Violence Awareness Month to highlight the role that financial abuse plays in relationships between individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, transgender, or queer. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that two in five gay or bisexual men experience domestic violence in their lifetime—a percentage comparable to the number of heterosexual women who are abused.  Half of all lesbian women claim to have been in abusive relationships.

Shelby Chestnut, 32, co-director of community organizing and public advocacy at AVP, says that financial abuse is commonplace in violent LGBT relationships. “The financial implications of [domestic] violence, coupled with unemployment rates in LGBT populations makes financial abuse a real problem in the LGBT community,” she says. According to a study by the Williams Institute, run out of the UCLA Law School 24 percent of lesbians and bisexual women in the U.S. live in poverty, compared with only 19 percent of heterosexual women.  The study says that transgendered individuals are twice more likely than non-transgendered individuals to be unemployed.

“You see financial abuse particularly in relationships where the victim is transgendered,” says Chestnut. “In those cases, financial abuse can take the form of homophobia. For example, the abuser may [control finances] in order to control or cut off the victim’s access to his or her hormones.” She feels that economic support programs should be a priority. “Economic empowerment is a nontraditional resource. It needs to be part of a strategic shift in focus. We need to offer an opportunity to see the ways in which all forms of violence interact with one another.”

Legal Momentum is an organization that focuses on what happens to victims and survivors who are employed, and works with victims who experience discrimination in the workplace. The All State Foundation reports that nationally, 96 percent of domestic violence victims who are employed experience problems at work due to abuse, which is why Christina Brandt-Young, a staff attorney at Legal Momentum, works to educate clients and employers about victims’ rights in the workplace. In New York, she says, it’s against the law for employers to penalize victims for missing work for court dates or other meetings associated with domestic violence. “There are a couple of different ways that people can use the law to deal with discrimination against domestic violence victims and their needs,” she says. “But most of the employers don’t know about it.” Legal Momentum also trains employers and human resources staff to let them know about workers’ rights.

Ultimately, says Escobar, domestic violence is never just a matter of physical abuse but a struggle over resources and power. Many of her clients have never had the opportunity to have their own job and manage their own finances. She hopes that the recent media focus on domestic violence, as well as the Justice Center’s work, will help shed light on this aspect of abuse.  “It’s very important for us to make sure that the clients are receiving services so that they are able to achieve financial self-sufficiency,” she says.

Quasona Cobb believes that finances are often the missing puzzle piece for survivors like her.   “Therapy and social services are good,” she says.  “But they don’t answer questions like how am I going to eat or how am I going to get a job?”