CASCO — A key provision of a “first-of-its-kind” law protecting Maine survivors of economic abuse is facing a legal challenge that could compromise the scope of its impact.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jess Fay, D-Raymond and signed into law by the governor last June, creates a number of protections for financial abuse survivors, including help with credit repair and expansion of protection orders against abusive partners.
According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, 99% of domestic violence cases involve financial abuse.
“The overarching goal is to empower victims and give them the tools they need to make it easier to leave an abusive relationship,” Fay, who represents Casco and parts of Raymond and Poland, said in an interview Monday.
U.S. District Court of Maine Judge George Z. Singal last month ruled in favor of a lawsuit filed by the Consumer Data Industry Association that claimed the part of the law that relieves survivors of poor credit ratings inflicted by abusive partners is trumped by the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1996. The association is a trade organization of credit reporting agencies.
The ruling means the state would have to remove that provision from the law.
Last week, Maine Attorney General Aaron M. Frey filed an appeal of Singal’s ruling in the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
“I continue to believe this law is defensible and worth fighting for, which is why I have directed my office to appeal the District Court’s ruling,” Frey said in a prepared statement
‘Economic part reared its ugly head’
In 2016, Fay, recently elected to her third term in state Legislature, was running for the first time and was knocking on constituents’ doors when a Casco woman invited her into her home to chat about domestic economic abuse.
“I was so taken with the fact that this wasn’t … a policy issue that I even knew existed,” Fay said, that she promised to work on the issue if elected.
That woman, Jeannine Lauber Oren, said in an interview Monday that she began researching economic abuse after she divorced her ex-husband, whom she said abused her for 15 years.
“Had I known then what I know now, I would have left that toxic relationship a lot sooner. I would have been better,” she said.
Oren, who was a news anchor for local ABC-affiliate WMTW for 10 years, filed for divorce after she said her ex-husband physically assaulted her for the first time.
“The economic part really reared its ugly head with me once I filed for divorce. It was very difficult for me to get a fair shake at trial for the divorce if assets were being hidden, which they were,” she said.
In her April 2019 testimony before the legislative Judiciary Committee, Oren said that some survivors have told her they’d rather be physically abused than financially abused because it’s easier to recover from.
“One woman I know had her pelvis shattered by her domestic violence perpetrator. It took her a year to recover physically. Do you know how long it takes to recover from bankruptcy or identify theft, or credit card fraud? … It took me 15 years to become whole again.”
‘Why don’t they just leave?’
In a survey of 135 domestic abuse survivors by the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, the umbrella organization for nine of the state’s domestic violence prevention advocacy groups, 81% reported that economic abuse prevented them from leaving an abusive partner.
“And for the vast majority of survivors, economic abuse impairs their credit long term – making it hard to secure stable housing, good jobs and financial independence,” wrote Andrea Mancuso, the Coalition’s public policy director, in an Oct. 30 press release.
The coalition worked with Fay and other partners to draft the bill.
“One of the things we hear all the time is, why don’t they just leave? Well, you can’t leave if you’ve got no place to go and you have no money,” said Fay.
Oren said she’s “very disappointed” in the ruling against the bill.
“It’s hard to get an apartment, hard to get a job, hard to lift yourself out of the stigma of being a victim. And that’s one of the things that the bill attempts to do,” she said.
Despite the legal challenges, the definition of economic abuse in the bill remains intact, which Oren said brings “huge awareness” to the issue, especially for survivors demonstrating abuse in court.
“I’m confident that on appeal that the law will be made whole again,” Oren said.