Feb. 07 2017

Women’s Stories on the Lifelong Costs of Domestic Abuse

Mailman alumna Sara Shoener speaks about the often-ignored financial strains facing survivors of intimate partner violence.

Physical injuries are just one side of domestic abuse. For the one in three American women who experiences intimate partner violence in her lifetime, its economic and social wounds are often felt long after she leaves her abusive partner.

Sara ShoenerIn a recent talk organized by the Department of Sociomedical Sciences, Mailman School alumna Sara Shoener, DrPH ’14, senior policy advisor in the New York City Mayor’s Office’s Commission on Gender Equity, explained that too often the systems designed to safeguard survivors don’t consider the costs women face from housing to legal support. Many times, they exacerbate these challenges. 

As part of her dissertation, which has since been turned into a book, Shoener interviewed domestic violence survivors and the professionals who work with them. Her very first interview was with a survivor named Sophie, who left her abusive husband only to feel cut off in an emergency shelter that forbade visits from friends and family. After reaching out for help from Child Services, she lost custody of her son, forcing her to consider returning to her abuser. Then, when she missed several days of work to be in court, she lost her job.

“Because she was in an abusive relationship at one point in her life, her entire economic trajectory was altered,” said Shoener. “A lot of well-intentioned resources for families in crisis actually end up putting them at greater risk by failing to account for the structural disadvantages survivors experience.”

Oftentimes, economic security is a weapon yielded by abusers. The majority of domestic violence survivors Shoener spoke with experienced some form of professional sabotage.

One of these women, Lola, looked forward to helping those like herself who had experienced a lifetime of abuse. But shortly before starting school to become a social worker, her estranged partner filed a court order forcing her to drop out of school and enter a protracted custody dispute. Lola finally got her social work degree, but not after losing years of professional development.

Caroline was once a thriving special events photographer. When her clients stopped calling, she discovered her husband had been booking her for jobs without her knowledge, leading to numerous no-shows. Sadly, it was too late to make amends: her professional reputation destroyed, she had to shut down her business. 

Domestic violence happens for rich and poor women alike, but women without money or strong social support often stay in abuse relationships longer. Many of those who do leave become destitute, according to Shoener. “Poverty itself creates risk for violence just as violence creates additional poverty.”

In New York City, more than 90 percent of homeless mothers, and two-thirds of women on public assistance, are domestic violence survivors. The role of domestic abuse in urban poverty has traditionally been overlooked, but thanks in part to Shoener, the city has started to create new protections for survivors.

A New York City Success Story

Before graduating, Shoener immersed herself in the world of domestic violence advocacy in New York City, where she learned of a study of economic abuse led by then-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s office. She consulted in the development of the report and the final recommendations put forth by the office. These included training for advocates to screen for economic abuse and funding to improve services, including legal help, for low-income domestic violence survivors.

After getting her degree, Shoener was offered a job in the City’s Human Resources Administration, where, among many initiatives, she partnered with the Financial Clinic in the expansion of  Change Machine, a website that gives domestic violence advocates tools to screen for financial security risks, including detailed information on specific issues, like how to tackle federal student loan debt while in a domestic violence shelter or how to claim tax credits while still married and faced with the fear that an abusive partner will try to claim credits first.

In her current position, she works with New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray to find ways to reduce economic barriers for domestic violence victims. For example, the City recently introduced a policy known as “paid safe leave” that expands paid sick leave to allow victims to take time off from work to go to court and other social services appointments without risk of losing their jobs.

Last week, the First Lady announced new public resources for survivors of sex trafficking, to encourage them to seek help without risk of being charged with a crime or being deported. These kinds of assurances are the next frontier, driven by the Trump Administration’s posture on immigration, says Shoener. “We want to make sure that, for survivors living in poverty who are worrying about how the current federal landscape affects their lives, we can start providing protections.”