WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat from California, learned about economic abuse in families at a young age.

As a teenager, the congresswoman saw her mother struggle to overcome the obstacles her father erected when the older woman sought to advance her education and develop job skills after raising her children.

"He was very threatened by the fact that he didn’t have an education and she was getting one," said Sanchez, sharing episodes that included her father yelling at her mother when she would leave for night school.

"This was a mild form of economic abuse, but it was abuse."

Sanchez made her comments during a Capitol Hill briefing last week on economic abuse, which sought to publicize the issue and educate congressional staff. The Oct. 20 briefing was sponsored by Women’s Policy Inc., the YWCA and Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues.

Although no national statistics exist on the rates of economic abuse, emerging research has found it usually accompanies cases of physical and sexual abuse that victimize 25 percent of U.S. women.

Economic abuse through domestic violence that results in the loss of a job occurs in up to half of all battering cases, according to a Government Accountability Office report. The current recession may exacerbate abuse. A November 2008 survey of 8,000 callers to the National Domestic Violence Hotline found that 68 percent of callers believed that their abuse had worsened within the previous year.

Blocking Employment

Such abuse can range from preventing a partner from obtaining employment to intentionally run up massive debts for which both people are responsible.

Sanchez said she continues to see economic abuse regularly among her constituents who seek help. Some immigrant victims, she said, have been stopped by their spouses from seeking legalization documents and threatened with deportation if they fight against the abuse.

"In some ways it is like indentured servitude," Sanchez said.

Tune in to our live blog tonight at 7 p.m. (EST), covering "After Awareness," a roundtable on domestic violence.

After Awareness

Judy Postmus, Ph.D., an assistant professor of social work at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J., studies domestic violence and spoke at the briefing.

She said women who are provided with financial education and skills that allow for self-sufficiency are more likely to escape physically or sexually abusive relationships. Even those women who are taught financial literacy and choose to remain in such relationships report lower incidents of physical and sexual abuse and have lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, Postmus said.

A growing number of programs nationally provide women from abusive survivors with financial skills, according to advocates.

Finding a Way Out

One such program is Sisters Acquiring Financial Empowerment, based in Detroit. Kalyn Risker founded the group after she escaped an abusive relationship 11 years ago and was given the financial education that helped her become self-sufficient and not return to the abusive relationship.

"During these challenging times people sacrifice their health due to their finances and staying in an abusive relationship can be one of those sacrifices," Risker said, during the briefing.

Survivors of domestic violence also may face longstanding financial hardship because they are unable to find employment after poor work performance during a period of abuse. One group addressing that challenge is Second Chance Employment Services, based in Washington D.C., which is the only domestic employment agency exclusively for people who have survived domestic violence.

"It’s very important that women understand financial issues and learn how to take care of themselves, even before they are ever in relationships," said Ludy Green, Ph.D., the founder of Second Chance, in an interview.

Green has advocated for abuse prevention programs, including teaching basic financial literacy and economic self-sufficiency, starting with young girls.

Rich Daly is a writer in Washington D.C.

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