Sue Else

(WOMENSENEWS)–The bruises were a constant reminder of the need to escape. But Regina ignored the pain because her violent husband controlled every penny.

"I felt hopeless," Regina Davis-Sowers said. "I had no job and couldn’t support myself and the four nieces and nephews I had adopted after my sister’s death. My husband loved to party. I was terrified every day that there would be no money to feed the kids because he had prevented me from knowing anything about our finances."

After six years of marriage, Davis-Sowers got a break when a welfare check for the children arrived while her husband was away from home. Trembling inside, the 24-year-old devised a daring plan: She would use the check to buy a one-way bus ticket from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Atlanta, Ga., and give the remaining money to her mother for the children’s care until she could send for them.

"That was 1974 and the beginning of a wonderful new life for me and my kids," Davis-Sowers said. "An old friend put me up; three weeks later, I found a job at the telephone company that paid $129 a week. I thought I had won the lottery because it was my first step towards self-sufficiency."

Once she gained a footing in the job market, Davis-Sowers faced an array of interlocking challenges: setting up a budget, finding affordable housing and moving the family.

"There was so much I didn’t know about saving and investing but I learned along the way," she said. "In addition to buying a home and building a retirement fund, I set aside funds for the education of the kids and me. It took me nine years to complete my bachelor’s degree because I worked full-time."

After 22 years at the phone company, Davis-Sowers retired early and earned a doctorate. Today she teaches sociology at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

"I stress the importance of financial empowerment in my classes," she said. "Being able to earn a living and manage money provides self-respect, so that people don’t get into bad relationships. It also ensures that people can leave–if necessary–and establish a better life."

New Emphasis on Money

The economic challenges faced by domestic violence survivors like Davis-Sowers are receiving more attention, according to Sue Else, president of the Washington-based National Network to End Domestic Violence Fund, an arm of the National Network that provides training and technical assistance to state domestic violence coalitions and advocates.

"The problem is pervasive," she said. "Survivors from all socioeconomic levels often find themselves without financial resources to meet their immediate needs; others spend years paying off crushing debts created by their abusers."

For some survivors, the economic challenges of building a new life are so daunting that they return to their abusers out of necessity.

Pat Blackstone, program coordinator of the Arkansas Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Little Rock, said multiple factors impact victims. "Safe, affordable housing is in short supply in cities and suburbs; transportation and child care may be unavailable in rural areas. Paying for these necessities is extremely difficult for many women, especially those who earn the minimum wage."

Self-Sufficiency Lessons

To help survivors meet these economic challenges, the National Network to End Domestic Violence Fund and the domestic violence program of the Allstate Foundation in Northbrook, Ill., created in 2005 a "financial empowerment" curriculum that teaches safety, such as planning for the higher costs of housing that offers enough security to prevent attacks, and self-sufficiency.

"The curriculum covers topics such as credit that are important for everyone but looks at them through the lens of survival," said Angela Cobb, domestic violence program manager at the Allstate Foundation. "It provides information about the use of special pin codes and passwords that can be useful in securing private information during the first few weeks after the survivor has left the abuser, as well as strategies to repair a damaged credit rating over the next three years, so that the survivor can obtain a mortgage or achieve another long-term goal."

The curriculum’s five workbooks are designed to be used in a variety of local settings: emergency shelters, temporary housing units and in nonresidential programs that serve immigrants, people with disabilities and other groups that are at high risk for domestic violence. For example, survivors learn how to make budgets, open bank accounts, establish credit and qualify for mortgages. Because these tasks are stressful for many, the survivors work with advocates who have received special training in financial matters.

To determine its usefulness, the curriculum had a test run with 207 survivors in five states from October 2006 through January 2007.

"The vast majority of survivors rated the curriculum as extremely helpful or very helpful," said Shawndell Dawson, the fund’s economic justice specialist. "They suggested adding worksheets, so we are in the process of putting together an additional booklet before making the curriculum available through all the state coalitions of the National Network to End Domestic Violence Fund later this year."

Career Grants

In addition to the financial curriculum, the Allstate Foundation awarded a $75,000 grant in August 2006 to help survivors begin or continue their education and secure or keep a job by providing individual grants of up to $1,000 each to offset the cost of tuition, school supplies, books and other expenses.

"A $500 grant to buy new tires for a car and update computer skills makes a major difference in the life of a survivor who has crushing debts and has been out of the work force and lives in an area where there is no public transportation," said Jill Richard, economic justice project coordinator of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence in Montpelier. "It also enables the survivor to support children and other family members."

Advocates across the nation predict that programs that teach financial skills will become more common.

"Financial empowerment programs are the next step in meeting the challenges of domestic violence," said Krista Del Gallo, policy coordinator at the Texas Council on Family Violence in Austin. "Public awareness programs about the signs of domestic violence and programs to solve the legal problems are in place; now we must ensure that survivors have the knowledge, skills and economic resources to achieve a satisfying new life."

Sharon Johnson is a freelance writer in New York.

This series is supported by a special grant from Mary Kay Inc.

For more information:

National Network to End Domestic Violence Fund:

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