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According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, 99% of domestic violence cases involve financial abuse.

Yet, in a 2018 national poll by The Allstate Foundation, respondents believed financial abuse was the most underreported form of abuse and yet they rated it as the type of abuse that makes it hardest for the victim to leave.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, wants to do something about that.

He has introduced a bill that would extend the state's domestic violence statute to include "the controlling, regulating, monitoring, or depleting the finances, economic resources, credit, or ability to work or pursue education or job training of an adult."

A search of the domestic violence statues of the 50 states, as published by the National Conference of State Legislatures, indicates, if it passes, it could be one of the first laws of its kind in the country.

Gardenhire said Jeannine Carpenter, director of research and policy for The Women's Fund of Greater Chattanooga, approached him with the idea for such wording after meeting with a number of family justice organizations locally and around the country and hearing how much of a problem financial abuse is in domestic violence situations.

"It seemed so matter-of-fact to me ... It seems like such a simple change of code," she said.

Gardenhire said Maine has enacted something similar.

In Maine, according to the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, passage of its law means "Maine's family courts now consider the impact of economic abuse on dividing property and spousal support decisions in divorce cases. It adds economic abuse to the factors a court should consider when determining the 'equitable' distribution of marital property. Also, whether to order spousal support, and what form that support should take."

Other states may count such actions as abuse but call it something else.

For instance, in Delaware, "taking the tangible property of another person" is part of its domestic violence statute. Certainly, one would think "depleting the finances of an adult" would fall under such a law.

Carpenter said Texas, Florida, Arizona, Rhode Island and North Carolina are currently working on domestic violence laws about financial abuse.

She said with joint accounts such abuse can be "a difficult thing to prove," but she said if the law is able to do anything on the front end like provide corroborating evidence to make it easier for spouses to get orders of protection it will be worth it.

"It's an obvious issue — anything that prevents women from economic independence or taking advantage of opportunities," she said. "We want to do what we can to keep people safe."

Currently, Tennessee's domestic law states: "'Abuse' means inflicting, or attempting to inflict, physical injury on an adult or minor by other than accidental means, placing an adult or minor in fear of physical harm, physical restraint, malicious damage to the personal property of the abused party, including inflicting, or attempting to inflict, physical injury on any animal owned, possessed, leased, kept, or held by an adult or minor, or placing an adult or minor in fear of physical harm to any animal owned, possessed, leased, kept, or held by the adult or minor."

We could see Gardenhire's addition being cited in instances like emptying out a joint bank account, restricting access to a bank account, denying access to a credit card, maxing out the available credit on a credit card, preventing the payment for a school being attended or haranguing a spouse over every purchase (after glimpsing it through online tracking).

"Anyone can be the abuser or be abused," Carpenter said.

The 2018 Allstate Foundation poll also found that 60% of Americans doubted their friends and family members would know if they were in a financially abusive relationship, 54% of respondents rated financial abuse as the least understood form of abuse, and 48% of Americans believed financial abuse is the least recognizable of all abuses by an outsider.

Compounding the problem, according to the poll, is that only 2% of respondents felt financial abuse was the most common form of domestic violence. Emotional abuse (48%) and physical abuse (45%) ranked much higher, and sexual abuse (4%) slightly higher.

Carpenter said she didn't know of any legal roadblocks that would prevent passage of the bill. But that ball's in Gardenhire's court now.

Statistics show domestic violence has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, so any action can't come too soon.

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