Financial insecurity is the number one threat to an abuse survivor’s safety. Sonya is transforming the domestic violence movement from a mindset of crisis response to a focus on stability-building by bringing together the domestic violence and asset building movements.
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Sonya Passi is working to transform the way we address domestic violence in the US, from a short-term, crisis intervention, band-aids approach toward a focus on long-term recovery and safety for survivors, their families, and their communities. She is doing this by pinpointing financial insecurity as the number one threat to a survivor’s long-term safety, as it is the chief motivator for survivors who remain in or return to abusive relationships. Currently, however, most shelters and emergency services have little to no programming or support geared towards achieving financial stability, and are focused on addressing the immediate crisis rather than on building a foundation for success. Sonya has a three-pronged strategy for transforming our response to domestic violence, building capacity within the domestic violence movement to support survivors’ financial recovery, using innovative strategies to reach survivors directly with self-help tools and resources, and removing structural barriers to survivors’ financial security through policy and regulatory reform.
The Center for Disease Control estimates that one in four women in the U.S. will experience intimate partner abuse in their lifetime. Financial insecurity is the number one cited reason survivors stay with or return to their abuser, and domestic violence remains the leading cause of homelessness among women and children in this country. Why is this? The stark reality is that being a survivor of domestic violence is incredibly expensive. The American Journal of Preventive Medicine estimates the lifetime cost of intimate partner violence for female survivors as $103,767. On top of this financial burden, 98% of survivors experience financial abuse by their perpetrator - not being allowed to work or losing their job as a result of the abuse, not having access to cash or bank accounts, and being coerced into debt and/or taking on fraudulent debt created by their abuser. If we are to end domestic violence, we must help survivors build the wealth necessary to heal, rebuild and live free from abuse.
Although financial insecurity is a key obstacle to survivors’ safety, financial recovery is not prioritized throughout the current domestic violence movement - whose services (shelter, crisis intervention, legal services, peer counseling and support groups) are primarily shaped around addressing the immediate crisis of survivors leaving an abusive relationship, focused on putting out fires rather than long-term stability. Their services rarely cover income building, credit building and access to capital to rebuild - services that are critical to breaking the cycle of violence and ensuring survivors’ long-term safety and healing. When domestic violence organizations do choose to incorporate financial capacity into their service delivery, they overwhelmingly report that the finance sectors’ curricula and products offer a one size fits all approach that does not sync with the financial realities survivors are facing. What is needed is a blending of the asset building and domestic violence movements, to create a model that works for survivors’ unique challenges and addresses the root cause of why so many people stay in or return to abusive relationships.
FreeFrom believes in the creativity, resourcefulness and power that each survivor has to achieve financial independence, and to build communities that support individual, intergenerational and collective healing. Their holistic strategy is responsive to the needs of survivors and supports their agency in determining their own path towards financial, physical and emotional well-being.
First, FreeFrom’s train-the-trainer model reforms the existing system by teaching shelter staff and other people who work directly with abuse survivors the basics of financial empowerment, including how to check credit, generate income, and protect one’s assets. This training is tailored to the needs of survivors in a way that mainstream asset-building resources are not. This training empowers the frontline workers, who are often survivors themselves working long hours for little pay, by supporting them in building up their own financial confidence and foundation. They are ultimately working to bring together the asset building movement and the domestic violence movement so that, working together, these forces can better support survivors. Every summer, FreeFrom hosts a Survivor Wealth Summit, bringing together domestic violence organizations, asset building organizations, survivors, key stakeholders, funders and policy makers in the same physical space to cross-pollinate and build intersectional movement power.
Not all domestic abuse survivors will reach out for services of any kind. For those who do not, FreeFrom reaches them directly through an online Self Help Compensation Tool that reached over 100,000 people in its first year of operation. It walks survivors through their legal options for resources, reimbursement, and lawsuit remedies in the aftermath of abuse. FreeFrom is also piloting peer-to-peer financial support groups for survivors in the hopes of building community networks for survivors at different stages of crisis and recovery, coming together to support each other and draw upon their collective knowledge and wisdom.
Third, FreeFrom is working to build a structural framework that protects and supports survivors’ financial autonomy and security. On a state-by-state basis, FreeFrom is supporting legislation to: (1) allow for paid and protected leave for survivors to deal with the crisis they are in; (2) expand the definition of domestic violence to include financial abuse; and (3) increase the statute of limitations for survivors to get compensation for the harm done to them. FreeFrom is also working to make banks, credit card companies, and other financial institutions part of the solution, with training, tailored systems and processes, and new products that address financial abuse and support survivors.
Sonya grew up, like most of us, in and around abuse of different kinds. She watched her aunt start a business out of necessity to make ends meet and put food on the table because of domestic violence and watched many other adults around her stay in abusive situations out of financial necessity. From a very young age, she understood that if you weren’t safe in your own home, you could never really feel safe anywhere in the world. Immersed in human rights principles as a young teenager, she was clear that safety in the home was a basic human right. So, at 16, she began hosting domestic violence awareness weeks at her high school. In college at Cambridge University, she started a group that was educating campus students about intimate partner violence and, as a second year student at UC Berkeley School of Law, she co-founded the Family Violence Appellate Project (FVAP). FVAP has transformed the legal landscape for survivors in California, by providing pro bono appellate legal services and creating binding case law to support survivors across the state. She moved on from this organization, which remains a thriving nonprofit, to found FreeFrom and attack the root problem of financial insecurity for domestic abuse survivors on a national scale.