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For Survivors of Domestic Violence, Money Matters: Q&A with Natalia Otero

What does financial stability have to do with surviving domestic violence? Plenty, according to Natalia Otero, co-founder and executive director of Survivors and Advocates for Empowerment (DC SAFE) and a 2019 Rubinger Fellow. In a conversation with LISC, she shares some of her insight and new findings about the critical “investment” of helping abuse survivors get to financial independence.

DC SAFE is the only domestic violence program in the District of Columbia that provides 24/7 support, including shelter, to women and children seeking sanctuary from violent abusers.  Having worked closely with thousands of these families over the past 16 years, Natalia Otero believes that money—and with it the ability to maintain a stable and independent household—is a major issue in the lives of survivors. And it’s an issue advocacy programs have tended to overlook.

As part of her Rubinger Fellowship project, Otero has created and begun to apply a survey method to illuminate how survivors in the throes of crisis see their financial outlook, how they make ends meet in a pinch, what their most pressing needs are. With the findings she and her colleagues hope to develop recommendations for a package of financial products and services that will help survivors climb their way to self-sufficiency—and safety.


Q: What have you discovered in your surveys so far? Any surprises?

A: Some things we felt we understood about our population, but they might be missed in our larger community. For example, I think the assumption is that the majority of survivors are on some sort of public benefit as their main source of income. That isn’t actually the case so far. About 53 percent of survivors have a job. Often we hear that survivors are not leaving abuse situations because they are being financially supported by their partner. And 51 percent said yes, they do receive money from their partner, but 48 percent said they do not. Only 31 percent said they receive funds from the abuser’s family.

One of the findings that isn’t a surprise is the methods by which survivors deal with emergencies. One in five survivors reports using non-traditional lending, things like payday loans and pawnshops. In fact, I would have expected that number to be even higher, based on my experience.

Another revealing finding so far has to do with survivors’ living arrangements. Fifty-four percent stated that they rent or own their own home, sometimes with another person or using a housing voucher. About a quarter are living with family. But all of 20% said they do not have a steady place to live or are using the city’s homeless system. This is an important indicator. If homelessness is a major byproduct of domestic violence, we need to take a look at more coordinated interventions.

Natalia Otero, co-founder and executive director of DC Safe and a 2019 Rubinger Fellow
Natalia Otero, co-founder and executive director of DC Safe and a 2019 Rubinger Fellow

What do we know about how financial issues play into the phenomenon of domestic violence?

This is a new conversation that we’re having in the field. What we do know is that in some cases there is severe isolation and both psychological and financial abuse, meaning that they are not allowed to have a job, or even if they do have a job many times they are not allowed to manage their own money. They may not have access to the finances; they don’t know what that looks like, they just know that things get paid. So that’s definitely part of the cycle of abuse.

I think an equivalent would be the mentality of scarcity and how that arises from poverty and helps the poverty cycle continue. For survivors there’s that scarcity, and then on top of that scarcity there’s trauma.

How did you start to see this gap in support services for domestic abuse survivors?

We [at DC SAFE] established an emergency financial assistance fund back when we started in 2006, because we realized that survivors had some really basic immediate needs like transportation or medication. Over time we’ve had some “aha” moments where we thought, ok, maybe there’s another need there, for more substantial, thoughtful interventions that truly contribute to prevention.

We are a crisis organization, so our concern is, are you safe? We want to prevent a future homicide, a future assault. But not a lot of us have been thinking, we want to prevent your financial instability, which may lead to one of two things, either you are going to return to the abusive partner or you’re going to end up in the homeless shelter system.

Yes, counseling is important, but when you talk to a survivor after they’ve been assaulted and you’re at the hospital, or even months later and they’re at the shelter, they’re like, “I don’t even have time to think about that right now. Counseling sounds great, but you’re putting the cart before the horse. What am I doing tonight, what am I doing next month when I run out of savings?”

We’re not being holistic if we’re just thinking about shelter and counseling as a response to domestic violence. It isn’t enough.

What types of financial health programs are needed?

I don’t have a full answer to that yet, but I do believe deeply that there are a lot of small things that we could be doing that could make a very large impact for survivors. We should be creating specific fiscal programs for this subset of the population.

And we need to make it as low-barrier as possible at the beginning, a no-strings-attached sort of a thing. When I say that we need to give survivors cash, people say, “we can’t fix their lives, we must be talking about a large sum per survivor?” No, if a person is living on such a small amount, we’re talking about finding that point where can we intervene and it will be helpful long-term. Maybe they have a boot on their car and can’t get to work. Or they don’t have enough to pay for daycare.

We’re not being holistic if we’re just thinking about shelter and counseling as a response to domestic violence. It isn’t enough.

Now that solution has to be coupled with other solutions that take the survivor in a holistic way toward financial independence. Early on, a survivor is not going to avail herself of a savings program where every five dollars you save, you get five dollars from the entity. That’s a solution for like a year out, when you’ve been out of the abuse situation a year. And they’re already using payday loans and pawnshops— they’re already in this mindset where they’re willing to pay extremely high interest rates, or lose property or value of some sort. So later on in the cycle, I don’t think they’d be opposed to a program where they’re paying back interest, but it has to be reasonable. Right now the things they’re turning to are not reasonable, they’re predatory.

There has to be a toolkit, it can’t be the one thing.

What do you want us to know about the survivors you encounter every day?

We have a survivor who now gives to SAFE monthly. I know that it’s probably a struggle for her, but she gives ten dollars a month. There are other survivors that give in-kind or onetime donations. We need to trust that a survivor is actually capable enough to move forward, is capable enough to make decisions that are the best for her family given the circumstances. We shouldn’t think of providing financial support to survivors as charity or as money down the toilet. We should think of it as an investment.

How has the Rubinger Fellowship enhanced your work?

Many times in nonprofit work we are made to shelf otherwise viable ideas because of lack of resources and time. It stunts innovation and growth. LISC understands this and their approach to the Rubinger Fellowship is so refreshing! It has allowed me to really dig into this project in a way that no other grant or program would have allowed. It also legitimizes nonprofit leaders as viable members of the financial community. There is a lot of talent out there in unexpected places that if allowed a space can really be valuable to our communities. 

Unlearning Myths And Uncovering Solutions For Domestic Abuse

Natalia Otero joins Rachel Louise Snyder, author of “No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us” on The Kojo Nnamdi Show from WMAU.

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