There is a consistent theme to domestic violence and divorce that people don’t recognize or even understand; poverty. When a woman leaves her abuser, she is six times more likely to be murdered by him. She is 100 per cent likely to be financially abused and forced to live in poverty and very likely to go bankrupt.
Women lose assets when they leave an abusive marriage; house, vehicle, equity, retirement savings etc. What they “gain” is legal fees, court dates, job loss and stigma. Women face more abuse from their ex-spouse in the form of stalking and harassment, often including unexpected and intrusive “visits” to their place of employment causing employers to become frustrated and co-workers to feel unsafe. Though it is undeniably unfair, many employers feel the only recourse they have to fire the woman. Sometimes a woman will lose several jobs consecutively, leaving her feeling helpless and hopeless. She will end up on Ontario Works and be plunged headfirst into abject poverty with little hopes of getting out.
Abusers hate losing, they do not accept being told “no” and they do not like to lose control. When a woman leaves her abuser, he will use any means available or necessary to regain control. This will often mean withholding support, stalling on the sale of the matrimonial home and, most common, use Family Court to keep her tied to him with frequent court hearings and motions which will cost her money that she simply does not have. I have heard far too many women say that their exes have warned that they will “destroy” her if she leaves and realize he was true to his word as she struggles to pay her bills, keep a roof over her head and put food on the table. She often will have her children at least half the time which will add to her financial responsibilities. It will also magnify her distress as she feels guilty for not being to provide for her children the way she used to.
Too often I have sat with women as they cry, feeling overwhelmed and hopeless about their future as her abuser continues to use Family Court to further abuse her. Even more frustrating is that the courts allow it to happen. They allow men to bring motions forward to request minimal and ridiculous changes to current Orders or request new Orders regarding custody and access and support that leave women no choice but to concede. Concession often means she is not receiving the financial support she and her children are entitled to and that any money she already should have been receiving is relinquished, leaving her with more legal fees and financial hardship.
Financial hardship and poverty is not just a struggle for her, but it sometimes leads to custody issues. Child Protective Services seem to take issue when a woman needs to have her children sharing space (ie bedrooms) when she cannot afford housing that gives each child their own bedroom. Knowing that she does not have money to provide all the extras a child may need, such as seasonal clothing, school supplies, extracurricular activities etc., will sometimes lead them the recommend that she have less access than her abuser because he can provide these things. This is completely unfair and irrelevant to the quality of care she is giving her children. This is also an added insult to injury as CPS are often very judgemental of women in abusive relationships and will threaten to remove her children from her care if she doesn’t get the abuser out of the home or leave herself. They do not offer to connect her with supportive services, nor do they put their recommendations in to writing so she has some sort of leverage in court to support her claim for sole custody.
People think when a woman leaves, the abuse ends. It doesn’t. People think that when she is fighting for her equitable share of assets she is a gold digger. She is not. People think when she fights to keep her children safe she is trying to punish her abuser. She is not. Women leave their abusers when they can because they have to in order to survive. They do not deserve to be judged or isolated or stigmatized for it. They do not deserve to be financially destroyed and the courts should not allow it.
It’s no surprise to those of us who advocate for victims of domestic violence that poverty becomes a way of life, particularly those of us who are also Survivors. That resignation is what is the problem. The fact that society either expects it, enables it or ignores it is what leaves women vulnerable, hopeless and defeated. Divorce should not mean poverty for women. Your mother, sister, friend, teacher, co-worker….they all deserve better.