Re-discovering economic abuse podcast

Internationally renowned expert on economic abuse Nicola Sharp-Jeffs OBE joins us to talk about her book, Understanding and Responding to Economic Abuse.

She talks us through her journey into advocating for the victims of domestic abuse, the history of economic abuse as a concept, how it manifests in society, the importance of recognising it as a tactic used by perpetrators of domestic abuse, and her thoughts on best practice responses to tackling this critical issue.

Chronicling her response to timely legal, strategic and policy developments in the response to domestic abuse, Nicola guides us through how to involve multiple stakeholders in tackling this wicked problem, considers the impact on perpetrators and victim-survivors, and offers a view on the future of community, legal, governmental, and societal responses to dealing with economic forms of domestic abuse.

Speaker profile(s)

Nicola Sharp-Jeffs OBE is an expert in economic abuse as it occurs within the context of coercive control.

Nicola set-up the charity Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA) in 2017 and is its CEO. In 2018, Nicola was also appointed an Emeritus Fellow of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU), London Metropolitan University, UK. She received her OBE for services to victims of domestic and economic abuse.

In this episode:

  • What is the meaning of economic abuse? What behaviours do perpetrators of it demonstrate? What is the lived experience for victim-survivors?
  • How did economic abuse come to be recognised as a distinct form of domestic abuse, and what are the implications of this?
  • Which stakeholders should be involved in tackling economic abuse, and how?
  • How does economic abuse manifest internationally?
  • What is the impact of recognising economic abuse on perpetrators and victim-survivors?
  • What does the future for responding to economic abuse look like?

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Re-discovering economic abuse

Daniel Ridge (DR): Today I’m joined by Nicola Sharp-Jeffs, internationally recognised expert on economic abuse. Economic abuse is a legally recognised form of domestic abuse. It often occurs in the context of intimate partner violence, and involves the control of a partner or ex-partner's money and finances, as well as the things that money can buy. In 2017, Nicola set-up the charity Surviving Economic Abuse, sparked by her determination to raise awareness of economic abuse in the UK. In 2018, Nicola was also appointed an Emeritus Fellow of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU), at the London Metropolitan University, UK. In 2020, she received an OBE for services to victims of domestic and economic abuse. In 2021, she won the 2021 Charity Times Rising Leader of the Year Award. Responding to this trailblazing career, I began my conversation by asking Nicola what inspired her to take up this field of work.

Nichola Sharp-Jeffs (NSJ): Yeah, I’d be really happy to talk about that journey started back in 2006, when I started to work for domestic abuse, charity, and my role at the time was policy and parliamentary affairs. So there were lots of government consultations around sort of a real range of different topics. But when I was speaking to victims of domestic abuse, using the charity services, I was always struck by the economic impact of domestic abuse. So many were in refugees or shelters, as they're known in other parts of the world, and kind of fled with absolutely nothing, and we're having to start their life, again, from scratch. And many talks about not having sort of the economic resources they needed to rebuild their life. And I just remember just thinking, you know, that these were, you know, intelligent, strong, amazing women who, you know, could reflect you or me, and just thinking how unfair that because of the actions of another person, they perhaps lost their house on their savings, and perhaps their credit rating wasn't very good. And that kind of potential of what would have been, if it hadn't been for the abusers, actions, you know, just really sort of ignited a bit of a fire in me, really, it just felt, you know, so unfair, that they're sort of lives were on hold, or that they would have to, you know, spend more years getting to where they would have been. So I think, you know, just recognizing, understanding, you know, not only the physical, emotional impacts of domestic abuse, but also the economic impacts, you know, and how that's, you know, really shaped their life, you know, over time, and as I said, perhaps limited opportunities and stop them from realizing their full potential, just really felt like something that wasn't being discussed in the other spaces that I was in.

DR: Well, you talk about in your book that that economic abuse has received little attention in research, policy and practice, and that we need to rediscover economic abuse. Can you talk to us about the history of this concept, and when it was first recognized as a tactic used by perpetrators of domestic abuse?

NSJ: Yeah, so it was first recognized in the early 1980s. So our project in the US in Minnesota, the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project created something called the Duluth Model. And that was victims and survivors of domestic abuse coming together and discussing their experiences and recognizing the different ways in which they've been controlled by their ex-partners. And so economic abuse was kind of one of those kind of tactics recognized within the belief, power and control wheel. So there was a sort of a wheel with different segments in it and different forms of control. So that might be things like isolation, it might be emotional abuse, and economic abuse was recognized within that. And then sitting on the perimeter of the wheel is physical and sexual abuse. And you know, generally, as a society, we think that domestic abuse is mostly about physical violence. And then we don't always recognize it's a pattern of controlling and coercive behavior, which sometimes includes physical violence, but doesn't always and it's really about one partner seeking to control another sort of through these lesser forms of controlling tactics. And actually, it's when our victim survivor kind of challenges that control that the abuse might escalate to physical violence. So you can kind of recognize that, you know, if you act in a certain way, and there's a physical repercussion, you might start to modify and change your own behaviour to kind of stop that physical violence from happening again. You know, so the kind of the presence or the potential of physical abuse is, you know, is very powerful, even if it only ever happens once and we hear about victims and survivors talking about kind of walking on eggshells, because they're kind of constantly trying to modify their behaviour to please the abuser. So even though, you know, that was recognized back in the 1980s, came to look at, you know, what, there was about economic abuse when I kind of started to recognize it through my conversations with survivors. You know, I was really shocked by the fact that there was hardly if any research around economic abuse at the time, I really sort of had to search and could only find sort of limited research in the US and also Though there were no sort of practice responses that I could see either. So actually, that led me in 2008, to do my first piece of research around economic abuse, which explored survivors experiences and that their children in the UK context. So kind of really started to understand the issue. And over the years have made contact with other researchers working on this area, and together sort of kind of really sort of pushed forward our understanding of this issue. Yeah, to the point where we're sort of getting to the book, which really kind of summarizes all that learning over time.

DR: Yeah, I wanted to dig a little bit deeper into the meaning of economic abuse, because you mentioned at the beginning that, you know, women who fled, the partners ended up with nothing or bad credit, or, you know, sort of with nothing to start over again. But it's more than that, isn't it?

NSJ: Yeah. So what we're sort of learning through research is that there's so many different types of behaviour, controlling or coercive sort of economic behaviour, but we can generally understand it in relation to three different distinct sort of constructs, as we call them in the research literature. So that's basically thinking about economic abuse in terms of restriction. And this is probably the area that people might be most familiar with. So this is when the abuser stops or restricts their partner from accessing economic resources. So that might be refusing to let them go to work so that they can earn an income or not letting them claim any state welfare benefits. Or it might be preventing them from helping themselves freely to food that's in the fridge, it might be ensuring that they ask permission before they turn on a light switch or, or turn on a tap and, and use utilities, asking to use the car. So restricting their access to a new source of economic resources. And, and that's the difference, I would say, again, between a concept that perhaps people are more familiar with, which is financial abuse, which has been spoken about for a while. But we understand financial abuse as the control of money and finances. And economic abuse is a broader term, which recognizes that it encompasses the control of anything that money can buy, as well. So things like accommodation, or transportation, or food or clothing, or access to tech and things like that. So the broader term economic abuse kind of recognizes that real broad range of tactics on the perpetrators use and which I think it's so important that we kind of recognize in terms of the experiences of victims and survivors, so that sort of feels very important, then we have exploitation. So that's, perhaps when you know, we hear lots of stories where a victim or survivor might meet someone, and their partner kind of convinces them to work, you know, for their own company, and then refuses to pay them, it might be that the partner takes out debt in their name, so that might be sort of through credit, or bank loans, and things like that. So they kind of exploit, you know, their labor and their kind of ability to access credit. And then we see sabotage, which is kind of the third construct. So that's where a perpetrator might destroy victims, survivors possessions. So that might be you know, expensive items, like a television that sort of thrown at a wall as part of the intimidation, or it might be perpetrator, you know, smashing a mobile phone to seek to isolate the victim or survivor from family or friends, you know, stopping them from kind of being able to talk to them when they want to, and those items have to keep being replaced, which kind of absorbs any spare money that they might have. And also, we see sabotage kind of linked to exploitation, where a credit rating might be ruined, because the perpetrator has taken out debt in that person's name, and then kind of refuses to let them pay it back, or does other things to kind of interfere with the management of that. So sort of all of these things, you know, kind of come together and either create, you know, certainly through restriction, economic dependence, but certainly through exploitation and sabotage, you know, real economic instability, which means the victim or survivor really, you know, is paying out constantly, you know, in order just to survive, and doesn't have that kind of spare cash or that available income, or resources that would enable them, you know, to leave and to rebuild their life again on their own.

DR: I'm curious about what the implications are of naming this and discussing it in the courtroom or going after perpetrators does this help cases against perpetrators? By having this outlined for courts?

NSJ: It really does, actually. I think it's a really important question. So I spoke to how society generally thinks about domestic abuse as being physical abuse, and certainly in the UK, that's how a lot of courts still look at this issue. And all the way, you know, through, you know, perhaps reporting to the police, the case being taken forward to prosecution, and then the case being heard in the court, you know, hopefully towards, you know, successful outcome for the victim or survivor. So it's only relatively recently certainly in the UK context, that this kind of controlling or coercive behaviour, this kind of pattern that I spoke to, in terms of the loop, the loop power control wheel has been recognized within sort of criminal law, certainly So in 2015, the Serious Crime Act introduced a specific event a specific offense rather called Coercive Controlling Behaviour. And that recognizes those patterns of non physical abuse, which also includes economic abuse. And the work that my charity has done surviving economic abuse over the past couple of years, is that when the government also then decided to introduce new legislation, through the domestic abuse at the government, for the first time actually introduced a statutory definition of domestic violence. So previously, we'd worked on, you know, policy definitions, you know, which statutory bodies could you know, choose to follow or not, but through introducing a statutory definition, that meant that all statutory agencies had to work by that definition. And so we influenced government very early on to recognize economic abuse within that definition of domestic abuse. So that now, you know, since that act, has come into being, you know, such agencies do have to respond, and that would include the courts, in terms of how cases are prosecuted. That would be the understanding of what domestic abuse looks like.

DR: Well, I know that your book is coming out at a crucial time, I was really struck by all the recent dates in the book of of all the developments that have only come out in the last 1015 years. But right now is a fairly crucial moment with the Domestic Abuse Act and the publication of the National Domestic Abuse Strategy. So how does your book respond to these crucial legal strategic and policy developments in response to domestic abuse?

NSJ: I think the Domestic Abuse Act and the naming of economic abuse within it, but also the defining of economic abuse within it provides a really good starting point for the book, because I walk readers through that definition and what it means. So it enables us to explore different behaviours, as I said, in relation to restriction or exploitation or sabotage, it helps us to understand that economic abuse is more than just an inverted commas, the control of money and finances, but economic resources more broadly. So the Act recognizes things like services, as I said, utilities, property, it's so much broader. And actually, the definition within the act on draws on an academic definition of economic abuse, which was developed by academics, including Adrian Adams from Michigan State University. So it's a really fantastic framework, I think, which enables us to understand economic abuse in the first instance, and then how that's understood in relation to coercive controlling behaviours more broadly, something else that surviving economic abuse was able to achieve through the development of the Domestic Abuse Act, was also to recognize that this form of abuse happens really commonly post separation. So certainly, again, within the UK context, that controlling or coercive behaviours offense that I spoke to, only previously applied when somebody was living with or still in a relationship with the perpetrator, once they'd left, that controlling, or coercive behavior couldn't be prosecuted. So we worked really hard for an amendment to the Serious Crime Act via the domestic abuse act, to make controlling and coercive behaviour, including economic abuse, a criminal offence post separation, as well. So I think it really kind of sets out, as I said, what economic abuse is, helps people understand it, what it looks like, and then it that enables me in the book to think about different stakeholders, and how they might recognize economic abuse in the different contexts within which they work. Which I think sort of is really important in really getting across, you know, how economic abuse, particularly, you know, really, is everywhere, in many respects. And, you know, traditionally when we've responded to domestic abuse, you know, that might have been through statutory agencies. But increasingly, when we're thinking about sort of money and finances and economic resources more broadly, that requires us to start thinking about a broader range of stakeholders and thinking about how they can be incorporated into this work. So whereas sometimes money and debt advice organizations or financial institutions such as banks have kind of been seen as on the periphery of this work, actually, what I argue within the book is that it needs to be central to this work, because what we see is that victims and survivors, certainly around economic abuse, are more likely to disclose that control to a bank than they are to the police.

DR: You mentioned, you know, I saw in your introduction, that you're really hoping that that this is this really is sort of a new field of exploration for researchers, and you're hoping to spawn that. So, do you find yourself now in a new context of researchers and people that are working on this?

NSJ: Absolutely. So I'm really motivated in many ways by a professor who supported my work since the very piece of research that I did back in 2008. Professor Liz Kelly at London Met University, and she really spearheaded research into sexual violence in the UK and I remember her talking about that first piece of work that she did and how there was just so little around sexual violence and you know, very few books on the library bookshelf. Certainly back then it was before sort of online journals etc. But you know, few articles in those kinds of dusty journals that sit on library bookshelves as well. And it kind of really inspired me that since she'd started work on that area, you know, 40 years later, they've really kind of built a body of research around sexual violence. And so by, I suppose I've been wanting to kind of replicate the idea that, you know, we can take an area that's been really under researched and under recognized, and in many ways invisible, I would argue, and kind of get to that point where, you know, in 10, 20, 30, 40 years, you know, economic abuse is understood in the same way that you know, that it's not a lesser form of harm, which some people tend to think that actually is really integral to our understanding of domestic abuse. Because, you know, the limited research that there is, does show us that when economic abuse is a form of coercive controlling behavior alongside sexual, physical and emotional violence, then women are at increased risk of being killed by a current or former partner. And certainly when there's economic abuse within that coercive charging context, victims and survivors are also more likely to take their lives as well. So you know, increasingly, what I'm trying to get across is that, you know, economic safety really does underpin physical safety. Because if you don't have the bus fare, you know, money for a hotel overnight, you can't remove yourself from that physical harm, which means you end up staying longer, and therefore you're going to, you know, inevitably experience more harm as a consequence of that. So, you know, it's been a real honor and a privilege actually, to be so kind of interested in this area, and to kind of reach out to other academics as they've done work sort of across the world. You know, we've got partners in US and Australia and New Zealand, and Canada, you know, in to kind of really sort of build that body of literature up together and really kind of challenge each other and move it forward.

DR: Yeah, well, that is what I wanted to ask you about this larger context, because in your book, you discuss the Westminster Oolicy in the UK, but you also reflect on the case for naming and defining economic abuse in the statute, and that it would have wider implications. Can you explain that a little bit, how it does have wider implications and reaches beyond the UK?

NSJ: It really does. Because, you know, whatever country we live in coercive controlling behaviour exists, sadly, and women have been killed, sadly, and sometimes those behaviours might look slightly different, depending on particular context. So South Asian women, for example, might talk about dowry, you know, there'll be lots of different ways in which economic control has been exerted over women in different countries. But that kind of common understanding of economic abuse in those constructs means that we can understand those behaviours as either restriction or exploitation or sabotage, which means we can kind of really understand and locate them, certainly within our academic understanding. But when we start to name things like economic abuse in legislation, whether that be in the UK or in other countries, you know, what we are doing is actually naming this form of abuse, as you said, and that's incredibly powerful in just so many different ways. Firstly, for victims and survivors, because they'll have been experiencing these behaviours, and will have recognized that they're wrong, but if they don't have a name, to kind of give them or to describe them, you know, it can be really difficult to, you know, to reach out for help, you know, similarly, if they do reach out for help, and the police don't understand what economic abuse is, you know, they won't understand the significance of those behaviours either. So sort of naming and defining really helps us to give victims and survivors that validation of their experiences, and they provide a route, you know, to creating responses. And that might be, you know, a criminal response, as we've just discussed, you know, or it might be a really sort of practical response as well.

DR: It's interesting, you point out that going to the bank or talking to people other than police about the types of abuse that you're that these people are experiencing, and you make a case in the book to expand the coordinated community response model, to domestic abuse to address economic control through involving non-traditional stakeholders. Do you think you could speak a little bit about that the coordinated community response model?

NSJ: Absolutely. And it's another concept that we've borrowed from the US. So similarly, Duluth created the coordinated community response model. And that was really important because it what it did was centre victims and survivors and also not lose sight of perpetrators. It holds them responsible for that behaviour as well, and it recognizes domestic abuse as a societal issue. It's talks about how societal norms and structures create inequality, which abusers take advantage of through their control of their partners. So, by understanding domestic abuse as a form of kind of entitlement, which is supported by social norms and behaviours, it says that as a society, we therefore need to respond to domestic abuse. So it can't be one particular agency or organization. It has to be everybody working together in order to address domestic abuse. And as I said a little bit earlier, you know, traditionally money and debt advice organizations, banks, other financial institutions insurance pension providers, there are so many different industries, I guess that economic abuse is relevant to. And that hasn't been recognized until recently. So certainly within the UK context, for example, the Domestic Abuse Bill as it was being developed into an Act, over time coincided with another kind of wave of activity in the financial services sector in the UK, which was around customer vulnerability. So that was a recognition that, you know, for some financial services, some of their customers might be more vulnerable than others. And vulnerable customers might be people who have terminal illness, or they might be people with mental health challenges, or there might be people who have been recently bereaved. And so, again, we really worked with the financial services industry to recognize domestic abuse as a vulnerability as well. So there's been a bit of a momentum created in the customer vulnerability space, which means even though banks under the domestic abuse legislation don't have statutory duty in the same way that statutory agencies do when it comes to responding to issue, this issue, actually, the financial services industry is recognizing that it is also responsible for the well-being of its customers. And there's a number of kind of voluntary codes and guidelines that exist now that enabled them to respond appropriately. So, you know, we've really seen a difference where, you know, frontline domestic abuse services, you know, would have said, I don't know, five years ago, there's a victim survivor that I'm supporting, there's a joint bank account, the abuser has taken all the money out the joint bank account, they've run up debt on the bank account, and they are refusing to let the victim or survivor remove herself from that bank account because traditionally, both parties would need to consent to that happening. And what the banks are now saying through something called the financial abuse code, which was introduced in 2018, is that we're not going to let this control be ongoing, we're actually going to in cases of domestic abuse actually remove one party from a joint financial product without their consent. And so that's a real step forward. And you know, a lot of the problems around joint bank accounts and other joint financial products, you know, we couldn't have resolved without the banks kind of taking that step. So it just really shows the importance of, you know, different stakeholders working together to achieve those outcomes. And recognizing different contexts in which perpetrators will try to kind of continue to exert that control and our work at surviving economic abuse is closing down those opportunities wherever we can.

DR: So this is now another tool to hold abusers accountable for the behaviour. And what do you think the impact is of that? And what the impact will have for the victim survivors being able to name this and go after this economic type of abuse?

NSJ: Yeah, I think until we name economic abuse and find those different avenues for holding perpetrators accountable, there's just no way of challenging those behaviours, because they are, again to coin another American researcher called Evan Stark, hidden in plain sight, because domestic abuse kind of draws on existing inequalities, you know, we might not question why somebody who previously went to work has suddenly stopped doing so because they've met somebody. We don't think about how money might be used as a way of controlling someone within a household. So you know, we might look at, you know, somebody who's living in a, you know, very large house, perhaps they have expensive cars, in an exclusive neighbourhood, their children might even go to a private school. But that doesn't mean that the people within that house have equal access to the resources within it. You know, as I said, it could be that the victim and the children perhaps have to ask before they take food out the refrigerator, they might not have access to the keys to drive the car, they might talk about leaving, but are told that no longer will the school fees be paid. So until we start bringing these behaviours out into the open through things like criminal legislation, or through codes of practice, and, and different mechanisms, in different industries, to really kind of identify and address this behaviour, then as a society more generally, we're not going to understand, recognize and challenge those behaviours. So I think, you know, all these initiatives, you know, taken together slowly, but surely will kind of chip away at some of the everydayness, I guess of what we see and cause people to understand these behaviours differently and to recognize the harm that they have.

DR: Well, we mentioned that, you know, there's a lot of new research going on in this field, and then in combination with the legal, the governmental, and the societal responses to dealing with this domestic violence, and abuse. Are you optimistic? When you look to the future? Are you hopeful that things are going to be changing in a bigger way?

NSJ: I'm really hopeful, actually, because I think so much has been achieved in such a short period of time. Again, I think it's a real privilege to start working on an issue like this and to see researchers come together for the issue to be taken seriously in lots of different countries to see similar charities to the surviving economic abuse being set up up needs to see legislation change. So quickly, it's amazing, it's kind of looked back on that journey and to think how far we've come. And, you know, in many ways I couldn't have written this book, you know, even five years ago, it just would have been really difficult. So, you know, that gives me a lot of hope for the future.

DR: That in itself is really amazing to me, and then how quickly it just caught fire, didn't it?

NSJ: You know, sometimes a berate myself for not having started the charity, a little bit earlier, I did research for a number of years and explored what other countries were doing, I was really lucky to go to America and Australia to sort of look at innovative responses there. But I think, you know, sometimes the time is just right. And I think we had an opportunity to change legislation that was a customer vulnerability agenda that was really developing that I spoke to, and it's created that momentum for change in the UK, which I'm also seeing, you know, in other countries across the world. And it means that we can all learn from each other, you know, a lot of CEOs in the sort of the various charities in other countries, and I, you know, we have kind of regular meetings, you know, we're all really collaborative in the way that we work. And I think that's kind of pushing us forward as well, because we're kind of all sharing that knowledge together. And so when we can take inspiration from each other, you know, perhaps when we go to funders with an idea, you know, we can say, well, that's innovative in the UK, but actually, you know, this is working really well in the US or Australia, you know, that gives funders a bit more confidence in what you're doing, you know, you can kind of speak to successes and the potential for change. So I think this kind of global community is just really important. And it's because kind of really pushing things through, you know, kind of in a way that you just feel, yeah, really significant, actually. And it's, you know, you can start to see the difference. You know, I know, again, we work with a partner agency called Money Advice Plus their debt and money advice agency. And together, we run a financial support line for victims and survivors, and we've run a national casework service. And we've developed a form to help challenge debts and the repayment of that for years after the victim has left, you know, and again, five years ago, a victim or survivor wouldn't have called that service and said, I'm experiencing economic abuse, but increasingly, I hear that they do, which is really, you know, shows change in you know, every level, you know, from the individual now to recognize them in their experience, you know, right through to a statutory framework, which kind of recognizes and responds to it.

DR: Well, I'm so impressed by your work and your book and everything you're doing. And I think it's so great to see this, this real world impact of the work you're doing. So thank you. Thank you for that.

NSJ: Thank you very much. Indeed.

DR: And thank you for coming to talk to me about it today. I really appreciate that this really insightful.

NSJ: Thank you. Well, it's been an interesting conversation. So hope people buy the book. And I look forward to you know, just hearing, you know, responses to it. You know, I would love it to be sort of a catalyst for discussion and more learning. So, I'm really sort of excited about, you know, how its publication, you know, create more momentum and, you know, hopefully create more change moving forward.

DR: Great, thank you.

Thank you for listening to today's episode. You can find a transcript of our conversation and more information about our guests on our website. I'd like to thank Katy Mathers for help with today's episode and Alex Jungius of This is Distorted

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