For women in abusive relationships, money is a major complication
NEW BEDFORD — Milagros Sanchez was living in Manhattan when she became homeless.
Her parents had kicked her out of their home after the then-17-year-old became pregnant with twins. With no other choice, she moved into the home of her then-boyfriend’s family in Manhattan in June 2005.
It was there in a tiny two-bedroom apartment where she shared a room with her boyfriend, his brother and his girlfriend that the abuse began. He stalked her and watched her every move.
Sanchez then dropped out of high school.
“He made me drop out of high school. He said I wouldn’t be better than him,” Sanchez said.
She got a job at the local supermarket as a cashier to pay for food and diapers for her daughters. Her boyfriend’s family forced her to give up her paychecks to pay for rent as he stayed at home, jobless.
Eventually she left her job too.
“He used to stalk me. He would ask to see the tape from my register. It got to a point where I had to leave my job because he didn’t want me to be there.”
“I remember my daughters not having Pampers. I had to go on the streets and ask people for help,” she said. “They used to bleed from diaper rash it got so bad.”
At home, her boyfriend locked her in the bedroom and he’d punch her in the face. He’d cover her mouth with his hand and told her if she told anyone he would stab her as he began raping her.
When her boyfriend wasn’t looking, his father would molest Sanchez, caressing her stomach and rubbing himself against her.
One day, Sanchez was in the shower when his father pulled her out of the bathroom by the hair to move a stroller waiting in the living room.
“When I moved the stroller, he pushed me and I fell, hitting my daughter,” Sanchez recalled. “I grabbed her and left with my towel on. I knew if I left with one twin, I could come back for the other with the police.”
With the help of a woman at a local corner store, Sanchez took her daughter to the hospital. There, hospital staff noticed her appearance: She was standing with a towel on with wet hair and bruises on her body.
The police took her to rescue her second daughter and brought the three to an emergency shelter for domestic violence victims.
The shelter was in a hotel infested with bed bugs and mice, Sanchez said. Yet, she said she had an inner peace “because I wasn’t in that house.”
For two years, Sanchez traveled from shelter to shelter. Eventually, she found a small one-edroom apartment with a combined kitchen and living room.
It was December. She had no heat.
“I had no money. I had nothing. I couldn’t even buy my daughters’ milk,” Sanchez said. “My daughters were cold and hungry.”
She called New York City Administration for Children’s Services and gave custody of her kids over to the state.
“Watching them take them was the worst,” Sanchez said. “I had to get myself back on my feet. I got a job and my GED.”
“I had to make a decision. I had to get out of New York,” she said.
In domestic violence situations, many times abusers force their partners to stay home from work or quit school. Often, their abusive partners will sabotage workplace opportunities, forbid the victim to work, go to school or seek job training. They often control all the women’s assets.
It is one of the contributing factors to the gender wage gap, advocates say. And financial abuse is one of the common forms of domestic violence.
Seventy-four percent of employed battered women were harassed by their partner while at work, according to Employers Against Domestic Violence, a nonprofit organization that brings together Massachusetts employers and experts in domestic violence prevention.
In New Bedford, 288 domestic violence victims received counseling support at The Women’s Center in 2014. Another 75 women and 73 children received shelter. A total of 192 children and adolescents received trauma focused therapy, according to the nonprofit’s annual statistics.
“Just in our experience with different women in the LifeWork Project, if someone has been through domestic violence in the past and moved on, if the abuser shows up again, they can get re-traumatized and drop out of class or leave their job because they have to deal with the trauma again,” said Valerie Bassett, executive director of The Women’s Fund of Southeastern Mass.
“One of the things that keeps women trapped in financial abuse is income. They rely on the partner’s wages,” said Pamela MacLeod-Lima, executive director of The Women’s Center.
“For a lot of people who have trauma or experience homelessness, it’s more difficult for them to finish school and more likely for them to have earlier sexual experiences,” said Julia Kehoe, CEO of Health Imperatives Family Planning. “If there is sexual assault, domestic violence and early sexual experience, it is more difficult for kids to stay in school and achieve a level of economic security.”
That’s why domestic violence prevention and education in New Bedford schools on teen dating violence have risen as primary solutions recommended by the Women’s Fund’s Task Force on Pathways to a Living Wage to help close the gender wage gap in the city. The Task Force has been meeting since January to devise actionable steps to close the gap.
The Women’s Center does host workshops for students at the school on teen dating violence prevention, but with 12 towns and two cities in its service area, the local nonprofit says it can’t fulfill all the region’s needs.
“Millie didn’t pursue her education because her abuser was controlling her,” said Bassett. “The abuser controls the woman’s time and where she goes. It affects her ability to get jobs, work or get training to move up in her career.”
A 2014 domestic violence law established a new employee leave policy for victims of domestic violence and their families that can help keep victims in their jobs. The state law requires employers of 50 or more employees to provide up to 15 days of paid or unpaid leave for employees suffering from abuse to seek medical attention, counseling, victim services, legal services or secure housing
The new law is meant to prevent employees from getting fired from their jobs for having to deal with issues arising out of a domestic violence situation from court hearings for restraining order or child custody cases or health problems.
“Domestic violence does affect the workplace,” said Courtney Cahill, director of the Domestic Violence Unit at the Bristol County District Attorney’s office. “If someone is a victim of domestic violence, and they’re involved in an incident, their productivity will go down due to stress and trauma. Many times victims lose their jobs because employers don’t understand the effect domestic violence has on employees.”
Cahill, president of Employers Against Domestic Violence, said domestic violence can impact the amount of money a victim makes over time.
“Instead of staying at one job over a long period of time, where they can earn raises and promotions, they have to leave their job frequently and start new jobs,” Cahill said. “Their ability to grow in a company is affected unfortunately by their turnover rate.”
“Financial stability is the number one tool to help victims get out of a domestic violence situation,” Cahill said.
A NEW BEGINNING
Eventually Sanchez, who was working at a CVS in New York as a drug clerk, transferred to the New Bedford store on Ashley Boulevard. She saw it as her ticket out of New York, away from the trauma and the family that hurt her and toward a new life in Massachusetts.
In 2013, Sanchez and her twin daughters moved into the Bay Village Housing Development, where she participated in the Housing Authority’s ROSS Program, (Resident Opportunities and Self-Sufficiency program), to become self-sufficient and independent.
“That’s where I started again,” Sanchez said. “I got my GED at Bristol Community College. I have friends. I am a semester away from graduating BCC.”
Sanchez now interns at the Women’s Fund as a women’s policy advocacy representative with a focus on domestic violence issues. She also recently received a scholarship to participate in the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusett’s The Leadership Institute for Political and Public Impact.
“I used to think what it would be like to have a car and a career. Now, I look back and feel sorry for that girl,” Sanchez said.
“If you’re in a domestic violence situation and that person doesn’t want you to be better, he doesn’t want you to have wings. That affects the economy,” Sanchez said. “How can you work? How can you have ambition? How can you go to school? You can’t do anything if you’re being abused.”
“Getting out of this situation has opened my eyes and life,” Sanchez said. “Yes, I didn’t graduate from high school with friends, but it’s never too late. This was my dream.
Sanchez is focusing her education on human services with the goal of helping other domestic violence victims.
“At least now, I have options,” Sanchez said. “I can see my future. I can plan. I don’t have to be in fear anymore.”
“My life finally has direction.”