We all think we know what domestic abuse looks like, but most people are unaware of the hidden kinds of abuse often taking place under our noses. One kind of abuse that's very little understood, and far more common than you would imagine is financial abuse. According to a study by the Co-operative Bank and refuge, one in five people have experienced it at some point in their lives. So it's worth understanding what this consists of, and how we can look for it in our friends and family.
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What is financial abuse?
When one partner or family member is using psychological abuse, financial abuse is often a broader part of the control they inflict on the victim.
There are a number of variations, but all involve coercion or control. Some people will restrict the money their partner is allowed. This is especially the case where the abusive partner is the only one working, and they provide an allowance for their other half. They may provide as little as possible, and gradually reduce it, so that the abuse victim is struggling to make ends meet. In many cases, they keep the rest back for themselves, to provide them with the lifestyle they want.
Some may do this so that their partner has to ask for more money, and justify every penny they want to spend. Some insist on seeing receipts before they will provide any money at all. Others refuse any requests for more money, so they are forced to sacrifice everything from their social life to their own food budget.
In some cases, the abuser will force the victim to work harder, taking more jobs or doing more overtime, disrupting their relationship with their family, and damaging their health and wellbeing. They may do this by refusing to contribute to the home, or by spending so much money that the victim has to work more to keep them from going under. In some cases they simply abuse their partner psychologically to the extent that they feel they have no other choice.
They may then force them to hand over all their wages, so that the abuser remains in control of the household finances.
Conversely, the abuser may stop their victim from getting a job, or from keeping it, so they are under their financial control.
Some abusers don't stop there. They will run up debts in the victim's name, steal from them.
Most frequently this kind of abuse happens between a couple but it can also take place between family members, often when the victim is getting older and a family member steps in to take charge of their finances. They may put the older person under pressure to spend money on them, or change their will. They may also move into their home uninvited and take control of bank accounts.
How to spot abuse
It can be incredibly difficult to spot when this is happening, because the abuser may well be controlling the victim to such an extent that they feel they cannot talk to anyone about it. The study showed that a third of all victims have never told anyone they have suffered financial abuse.
They may have been made to feel that the abuse is perfectly normal, and that they are being unreasonable for expecting things to be any different. It means it's important to look for signs that someone may have no control over their financial situation.
In care situations, early indications may be that the individual seems depressed or worried about money. They may not be able to answer questions about their finances any more, and they may be confused about items or sums of money that have gone missing.
If their financial position changes suddenly, it should ring alarm bells. So, for example, if they put their home on the market without warning, or suddenly are unable to pay bills or meet financial commitments.
If their personal circumstances change unexpectedly, they can also be warning signs. They may give up social commitments that involve a financial outlay, they may no longer shop alone or handle their own money. You may find it difficult to see them alone.
If you have any concerns at all, it's worth arranging them to see them alone, and getting to grips with whether they have asked for this financial involvement, and whether they are happy with the way things are going. You can also talk to the caregiver, and see whether they have plausible reasons for the financial changes taking place.
Among couples, any unexplained change in behaviour needs to be explored. If they stop coming out, or spending money, it can be a sign they are being denied the funds for it. If they seem worried about money, or about spending it on things they need, it's important to check whether this is something they are imposing on themselves, or whether it's coming from elsewhere.
Big changes in their career path should also be the basis for a conversation - such as taking a second job, or giving up work. You don't need to ask someone whether they are being forced to do something - sometimes just by asking people why they have chosen a new path, they will open up.
Changes in their attitude can often be a warning sign too. If, for example, they start to think of themselves as incompetent with money, or that they spend too much, or that they don't have the right to spend money without checking with their partner, it can be a sign they are being controlled and manipulated.
Abuse victims will find it very difficult to open up, so don't just ask once, and don't push them for details. Keep opening up the conversation, without pressure. If you provide enough opportunities, in the right context, they will talk to you.
In any case, if you have any concerns, you can contact domestic abuse charities for advice, or contact your local police by calling 101. Elder abuse and financial abuse are illegal, and the police have the power to investigate. At the very least they will be able to talk to the victim and offer their support.