Prevention Corner: Economic Empowerment as Part of Legal Services Response to Survivors

Jan 07th, 2020

By: Grace Fansler Boudreau, MPH Prevention & Education Program Coordinator & Ashley N. Young, Esq. Managing Attorney, Sexual Assault Legal Institute

In 2016 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the STOP SV Technical Package, a collection of the best data-based sexual violence prevention strategies.  One strategy focuses on empowerment and opportunities for females.  Women and girls’ risk for sexual violence decreases when they have access to opportunities, education, employment, and income supports.  Therefore, prevention efforts have been shifting towards ways we can strengthen economic opportunities for women. 

While strengthening economic support is an effective way to help prevent sexual violence, it can also be applied in a tertiary sense as a long-term response to sexual violence victimization.  Economic empowerment can be a part of legal services response to survivors, not only in criminal law and protective orders, but in cases involving child support, alimony, addressing credit abuse, property issues, bankruptcy, and tort.  Establishing economic security for survivors is essential to their long-term safety.  Sexual violence is costly.  Recent estimates put the cost of rape at $122,461 per victim; this number includes medical costs, lost productivity, criminal justice activities, and other expenses (Peterson et al., 2017). 

Resources must address and respond to the economic barriers and fees faced by survivors.  To support survivors’ independence and recovery, legal programs and advocates should assess the economic well-being of the survivors they serve.  Economic assessment is important from the moment a survivor first calls to access legal services and should be discussed in conjunction with initial safety planning.  These preliminary questions serve to evaluate if the survivor is facing economic abuse and helps give the legal advocate a general overview of their financial well-being.  Economic assessment from these beginning stages, not only helps to address a survivor’s safety, living arrangements, and ability to support themselves while seeking protection from abuse, but also helps to identify potential longer-term legal issues.  Examples of legal issues that survivors may face are consumer problems caused by the perpetrator of abuse, the need for emergency family maintenance requests in a protective order hearing, or in the calculation of alimony and child support in family court matters. 

How advocates and attorneys talk to survivors about finances is important.  Financial discussions are a cause of stress for many people, not just survivors of abuse.  However, these questions could exacerbate stress for survivors in particular because of the dynamics that economic control potentially had in their abusive relationships.  It is important to discuss the reasons why you are asking for this information.  Please see these helpful tips from the Center for Survivor Agency and Justice (CSAJ):

  • Be specific and make it related to the abuse.
  • Focus on and identify survivor strengths. See CSAJ’s Screening Tool
  • Define and normalize.
  • Elicit, respond, elicit
  •  Find opportunities to take a step back
  • Provide in-depth opportunities/events (i.e. community workshops) to discuss and work on specific economic issues (i.e. banking, credit reporting, and repair)

As noted above, when doing an economic assessment, it is important to be sensitive and consider the following questions, from the CSAJ:

  • When doing an economic assessment, consider questions like:
    • What ethics of screening/intake are important to keep in mind? When are we asking and how much are we asking?
    • HOW are we asking about money/economics? What reactions from survivors are we getting? What works well, and what’s more challenging?
    • How can we better understand survivor values, beliefs, and goals around money? --and get out of the way!
    • How do we not overwhelm staff/advocates when integrating economics into advocacy? How to make it not feel like another huge thing they need to know?”
  • It can be challenging to keep our own values or ideas about money out of the conversation. Take time to step back and explore experiences and strengths with money. Talk about the survivors’ values about money so you can more effectively support their decision making

However, it is also important to keep in mind any legal issues that might arise from this financial discussion.  The attorneys at MCASA’s Sexual Assault Legal Institute are experienced at identifying legal issues that may arise from economic abuse and finding solutions for survivors of sexual violence.  For example, if a survivor calls who may be hesitant in getting a protective order because they would not be able to pay for their family’s expenses, a SALI attorney can explain to them that a court can order the abuser to pay emergency family maintenance or order the abuser to vacate the family home, so that they can continue to provide for themselves and their children.  Another example would be helping a survivor apply for the Crime Injuries Compensation Board, which gives survivors of sexual violence in Maryland access to funds to pay for medical expenses, mental health treatment, and other expenses related to the abuse.

If you are interested in learning more, the CSAJ provides information on how service providers can utilize several screening tools to access economic empowerment.  The Economic Security for Survivors (ESS) project from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research works to educate criminal justice professionals, as well as develops curriculum and tools that advocates can use to incorporate economic empowerment into their core.  As always, if you or someone you know needs legal services related to an experience with sexual violence, please contact MCASA’s Sexual Assault Legal Institute at 301-565-2277.

References:

Consumer Advocacy Toolkit: Survivor Centered Economic Advocacy. Center for Survivor Agency and Justice

Peterson C, DeGue S, Florence C, and Lokey C. (2017). Lifetime economic burden of rape in the United States. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 52(6): 691-701.

Plunkett, L. and Sussman, E. 2011. Consumer rights screening tool for domestic violence advocates and lawyers. National Consumer Law Center and Center for Survivor Advocacy and Justice.

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