Credit cards and bank accounts can easily become weapons in the hands of a domestic abuser.

For someone bent on power and control, domination of the household finances leads to domination of family members. And locking a spouse into crushing debt is often as effective as locking a literal door.

When people ask, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” the answer often lies in the economic abuse that almost always exists alongside other, more obvious forms domestic abuse.

This year, the state of Maine did something about it. A bill passed by the Legislature this spring defines economic abuse in law and provides a path to debt relief and credit repair for victims of domestic violence. The law is the first of its kind in the nation, and is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by a trade association of credit reporting agencies, such as Equifax, seeking to block it from taking effect.

The Consumer Data Industry Association claims that removing debts proven to have been incurred by domestic abusers in the name of their victims would violate a federal law that protects public confidence in the banking system. But no judge should hand this power back to people who will use it to isolate and punish family members. Economic abuse should not be given a place to hide in laws designed to protect consumers.

The bill, L.D. 748, sponsored by Rep. Jessica Fay, D-Raymond, came to the Legislature this year following an extensive survey by the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

The coalition reported that 89 percent of the survivors surveyed in 2018 said that their abusive partners reacted either negatively or very negatively when the issue of finances came up.

The survey also showed that 74 percent said they were either never, infrequently or only occasionally accustomed to making their own financial decisions when in the abusive relationship; 72 percent said their abusive partners lied to them about money all the time or frequently; 72 percent said they had their personal purchases monitored all the time or frequently; and 63 percent said they always or frequently hid personal purchases for their children from their abusive partners.

And most importantly, 81 percent of domestic violence survivors said financial issues were a barrier when they tried to break away from an abusive relationship.

The effects of economic abuse exist long after the relationship is over. Survivors with ruined credit struggle to find safe, affordable housing. That can lead to poverty, homelessness, poor health and traumatic impact on children. The consumer debt industry becomes a proxy for the abuser, who wants to continue to exert power from a safe distance.

The federal courts should not be an accomplice to that kind of abuse. Maine’s law should stand. If companies like Equifax want to protect public confidence in the banking system, they should put more effort into preventing the theft of personal financial data, like the enormous data breach Equifax allowed in 2017.

Ultimately, the right solution would be passing a federal law that recognizes economic abuse as a mode of domestic violence, unworthy of shelter from consumer protection laws, all across the country. But until that happens, states like Maine should take steps necessary to protect families from this well documented form of abuse.


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