Coerced Debt and The Definition of Domestic Violence

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Coerced Debt and The Definition of Domestic Violence​

February 2019

Amelia Hetherington

By Amelia Hetherington (@ameliahtweets)
Center for Health and Social Policy Ambassador


Before returning to graduate school at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, I worked as an advocate for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors. At Asian Family Support Services of Austin (AFSSA), our advocates specialized in either immediate crisis interventions and protections, or longer-term economic empowerment. I was one of the latter, working to connect mostly women to employment, childcare, housing resources, and supporting their progress towards self-defined independence. As we would begin to discuss apartment and job applications, the conversation would naturally turn towards credit, whether there was any at all, and if it was good or bad. Most of the clients I served had been focused on finding and maintaining housing and work, ensuring there was food on the table and enough money for rent. Often, our meetings would be the first time they saw their consumer credit report.  

Sometimes the reports were accurate, clearly matching the client's authorized and legitimately incurred credit history. More than half of the time, there was an unauthorized fraudulent account, opened by the victim's partner, or a coerced fraudulent account, opened by the victim under duress. Professor Angela K. Littwin at The University of Texas School of Law has coined a new category of economic abuse that encompasses these types of acts: coerced debt.

Coerced debt is "non-consensual, credit-related transactions that occur in intimate relationships where one partner uses coercive control to dominate the other." 1 Though there are consumer identity theft protections available at the state and federal level, financial coercion within an intimate partnership is difficult to prove. A survivor may also be unwilling to file a police report, typically the first step in establishing identity theft. Without a clear-cut way to establish fraud, domestic violence survivors are often left to 'repair' their credit the usual way: pay or wait.

There may be some reprieve on the horizon, however. With the help of community advocates at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Texas Appleseed, and the Texas Council on Family Violence, State Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has filed SB 269 in the current Texas legislative session, which would clarify and add "effective consent" to Texas Penal Code on identity theft. As part of a legislative briefing on coerced debt, Consumer Law Attorney Carla Sanchez-Adams explained the impacts of this proposed legislation: the change will clarify that coerced consent is not consent and allow victims to more easily access protections through the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Currently, advocates must evaluate fraudulent accounts one at a time, usually requiring the expertise of an attorney. This bill will block all fraudulent accounts from being viewed by creditors, employers and landlords in one fell swoop. It will undo the effects of coerced debt so that credit reports act as accurate reflections of an individual’s credit-worthiness.

Such protections for intimate partner violence have only become more important in the last year. In April of 2018, the current administration quietly rolled back the official definition of domestic violence used by the Office of Violence Against Women. The new federal definition ignores psychological and economic abuse such coerced debt, restricting it to harm that constitutes a felony or misdemeanor crime.2 

Thankfully advocates in Texas continue to push for the more inclusive definition and protections. I look forward to tracking SB 269 and encourage reading Texas Appleseed's recently published white paper for more: Abuse by Credit: The Problem of Coerced Debt in Texas.

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Amelia Hetherington is a first-year Master of Public Affairs candidate and CHASP Ambassador at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. She spent the previous five years working in domestic violence and sexual assault service provision in Austin. While at SAFE (formerly SafePlace) and the Asian Family Support Services of Austin, she worked as a client advocate and program manager, guiding survivors through the institutional processes to access legal protections, essential benefits, and safe housing. Amelia is passionate about improving the coordination among local, state and federal policies to provide meaningful supports to survivor and immigrant communities. After LBJ, she hopes to re-enter social services from the policy perspective.

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The views, information, or opinions expressed by blog contributors are solely those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Center for Health and Social Policy, the LBJ School of Public Affairs, or The University of Texas at Austin or affiliated employees.