Imagine coming home to find that everything you and your children own had been destroyed — clothes shredded, electronics smashed, family photos stabbed with knives, bed filled with dirty cat litter — and you suddenly need thousands of dollars to repair your home and replace your belongings. In a recent TikTok video that went viral, Kaitlyn Brown of Illinois shared with viewers how her former boyfriend did that and more to the apartment she shares with her young son. Although every domestic violence situation differs based on which abusive tactics are used and what vulnerabilities are exploited, the scope and magnitude of the impact are remarkably similar. Domestic violence impairs survivors’ physical and mental health, educational attainment, parenting, and — as this case highlights — financial and housing stability.
In a series of follow-up videos, Brown responded to viewers’ many questions: Yes, she pressed criminal charges; yes, she filed for an order of protection; yes, she had her locks changed. But none of that changed the fact that she needed a substantial amount of money to purchase essential items and obtain legal representation. Within days, her GoFundMe account reached more than $30,000, as concerned strangers donated what they could to help her. Many people came to her aid and provided her with ample funds to use as she sees fit. Their generosity is an important reminder of how much society’s knowledge of and response to domestic violence has evolved in the 42 years since the first Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Charity, however, will never be the solution to helping domestic violence survivors regain safety and stability. For one, charity is inconsistent, ebbing and flowing with economic downturns and social trends. Charity also often discriminates, favoring people that seem “blameless” and “deserving” of help. These labels are not extended to most survivors, however, either due to complexities of the situation (e.g., “fighting back”) or marginalized aspects of their identity (e.g., race and ethnicity). Regarding the latter, the history of the Violence Against Women Act highlights how public and political support decreased over time with each proposed increase in protections for marginalized survivors, such as Native American women and LGBQT individuals.
Every survivor struggling with financial and housing instability should have access to no strings attached cash assistance that can be provided quickly to prevent crises caused by domestic violence from worsening. I remember a client I worked with years ago whose abusive partner purposely disabled her car’s engine; he knew she did not have the money to repair it and, thus, would not be able to get to work. Applying for VOCA (Victims of Crime Act) funds was not an option for her because she would have had to either report the incident to the police or apply for a protection order to be eligible — both of which she feared would put her at risk for greater harm. And even if she had felt safe enough to apply, it probably would not have prevented her from losing her job given that it typically takes at least six months before any funds are distributed.
She, like so many other survivors, would have benefited greatly from receiving “flexible funding,” a promising approach in domestic violence service delivery that offers exactly what many survivors need: reliable, rapid, and unrestricted funding to prevent financial hardship and homelessness. Although not new, the idea of flexible funding for survivors has only recently gotten the attention it deserves, due in part to increasing empirical evidence that it is an effective strategy for promoting housing stability, especially when paired with supportive services. One study found that receiving even small amounts of money (e.g., for moving expenses, utility bills, household items) made a big difference in stability for survivors and their children. Currently, several states have flexible funding pots that are dispersed through domestic violence organizations and funded through partnerships with foundations or state government agencies. Unfortunately, however, not every state has a flexible funding program, often forcing survivors to choose between safety and housing.
It is time for a robustly financed federal source of flexible funding. First, this is a common-sense, effective strategy that has the potential to reduce the staggering financial burden of domestic violence on society (e.g., lost productivity, health care costs, taxpayer money for law enforcement and shelter systems). Second, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the economic impact of domestic violence for survivors and stretched the already strained capacity of residential services. Third, as the national organization Futures Without Violence has argued, the infrastructure to administer it is already in place (e.g., the Family Violence Prevention and Services Program Office or the Office of Violence Against Women). Finally, there is political support at the highest level: In the first National Plan to End Gender Based Violence, President Biden listed the need to “reduce housing and economic barriers for survivors,” with flexible funding identified as a way to achieve that objective.
In Brown’s case, she eventually stopped taking donations, thanking everyone for their generosity and — in her words — “restoring her faith in humanity.” But for the thousands of similar cases that will never go viral, there must be a federally supported safety net in the form of flexible funding to protect survivors and ensure that the damage done by an abusive partner doesn’t turn into an even deeper crisis.
Kristie Thomas is a professor in the school of social work at Simmons University.