by Claudia Boyd-Barrett
Leigh Ferrin knew she had to find a way to help the single mother who called her legal aid office.
The mom, who lived near Ferrin’s office in Orange County had escaped domestic violence and was trying to move on with life — for her child and herself. She was scraping together rent money for the home they shared. She was starting over.
But the past kept haunting her.
The client – whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy – started getting calls from credit card companies after leaving her husband. It turned out her ex-spouse possessed numerous credit cards in her name and had racked up about $5,000 in debt. The debt wasn’t hers and she couldn’t afford to pay it. The creditors sued her.
“I thought, there needs to be something we can do, there needs to be a way for us to publicly fight back against the creditors and say, I don’t deserve to owe this debt,” said Ferrin, who at the time worked at the Public Law Center and is now program director at One Justice, a statewide support center for pro-bono legal firms.
Ferrin got to work, advocating for her client and the estimated thousands of other financial-abuse survivors like her in California every year. In September 2022, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 975, a new law that makes it easier for survivors of financial abuse to seek relief from coerced debt.
Research suggests financial abuse occurs in 99 percent of domestic violence cases. More than half of domestic violence survivors experience coerced or fraudulent debt of over $10,000 a year, the legislation states. Financial abuse in intimate partner relationships is often accompanied by other forms of violence, such as physical or psychological mistreatment. (According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner.)
When her client first came to her office for help, Ferrin tried to reason with the credit card companies by writing them a letter and sending a copy of her client’s restraining order to explain the situation. The creditors ignored the letter and sued, taking the single mother to court. The case was ultimately settled two days before trial, but placed enormous stress on the mother, Ferrin said.
“It just is ridiculous to me that she had to go through this year-to-two-years-long battle over something that should be more generally understood, and is an issue that impacts survivors so clearly,” Ferrin said.
That’s when Ferrin started working on and advocating for Senate Bill 975. The most recent version of the bill was introduced by Orange County Sen. Dave Min in February 2022, and passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and Assembly in August of 2022.
It was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on September 30, 2022.
The new law will compel creditors to recognize coerced debt if a survivor can provide proof such as a police report, a court order specifying financial abuse, identity theft report or letter from a professional such as a domestic violence advocate or clinical social worker. Creditors can also seek repayment of the debt from the person responsible for it. The law takes effect July 1, of this year.
While Ferrin anticipates it will take time for awareness and understanding of the new law to reach survivors and those who advocate for them, she said she hopes it will ease the burden on survivors and help prevent them from losing a job or housing because of a partner’s financial manipulation.
The right ‘to stand up for themselves’
When legal advocate Dan Sanders meets with domestic violence survivors, he frequently hears stories of financial exploitation – spouses that control the survivor’s access to money, steal their paychecks or prevent them from seeking a job. Others rack up debts in their partner’s name to ruin their credit.
The abuse can be devastating, often forcing survivors to remain in violent relationships for economic security, or grapple with huge debt burdens if they leave. Yet, until recently, Sanders and his team of legal advisers at the Women’s Transitional Living Center in Orange County, struggled to help these survivors achieve justice.
“Sometimes judges would say, ‘I’m sorry, that’s not abuse that falls under the family code,’” said Sanders, who provides legal advocacy for survivors applying for domestic violence restraining orders and representing themselves in court.
Legal protection against financial abuse was not clearly stated in California law for years. But in 2021, California expanded its legal definition of domestic violence to cover coercive control, including using economic power to interfere with a partner’s “free will and personal liberty.”
The new laws have “opened it up for people to have ways to fight back against the abuse that they’ve gone through,” Sanders said.
“When I say fight back, I don’t mean to abuse back. It’s to stand up for themselves, to exercise their rights, to make sure their voice is heard.”
It can happen to anyone
Although financial abuse and other forms of domestic violence occur at all socioeconomic levels, low-income people are often most vulnerable, said Sanders. That’s because they’re less likely than wealthier survivors to have financial resources or the ability to lean on economic support from other family members.
Immigrants without legal immigration status face particularly precarious situations.
But Elizabeth Vera, who does training and consulting for organizations working with domestic violence survivors, said it’s important to understand that financial abuse can happen to anyone. She said she, too, experienced financial abuse. At the time her family was outwardly middle class and lived in a nice house, but her partner controlled the finances, withheld money for groceries, skipped rent and utility payments, and took away the car, she said.
Because the financial abuse wasn’t obvious, and because outwardly the family appeared well off, Vera said she struggled to get friends to believe her, leaving her feeling isolated and ashamed.
“If you’re physically abused and you have bruises, people will look at them and have some sympathy or compassion,” Vera said. “There’ll be some sense that what you’re saying is true.”
Sometimes survivors run into “this perception that financial abuse is the victim’s fault,” said Vera. “That the victim-survivor should have known better, should have planned better.”
Vera now trains people working in the social services field to recognize and respond to signs of financial abuse.
She explains that signs include having difficulty paying for food or other basic needs, even when the person or their spouse should be able to afford them, and wearing dirty clothes, or inappropriate clothes for the weather. Vera advises listening without judgement and offering support, such as referring survivors to food banks and free legal advocacy.
California’s recent advances, particularly SB 975, will help alleviate the suffering of survivors of financial violence, according to Sanders. He urged people experiencing this or any other form of domestic violence to seek help and support.
“My hope is that this legislation, this amendment to the law, will give people a clearer path to freedom from abuse,” Sanders said.
“Hopefully people are going to find that things are not as hopeless as they might have seemed in the past.”
Author Claudia Boyd-Barrett is a senior reporter at the California Health Report, a two-time USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism fellow, and a former Inter American Press Association fellow. Her stories have also appeared in such outlets as the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Diego Union Tribune.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for support and referrals, or text “START” to 88788.
This story was produced in collaboration with our partners at the California Health Report