The Women's Foundation of California | Interview with FreeFrom’s Sonya Passi: Discover the Organization Leading Survivors to Financial Freedom

Interview with FreeFrom’s Sonya Passi: Discover the Organization Leading Survivors to Financial Freedom

by Nicola

FreeFrom envisions a world where survivors have sustaining income, savings and credit with which to build wealth and the resources to support individual, intergenerational and community healing. As Founder and CEO, Sonya Passi has been a domestic violence activist since she was 16 years old. Before founding FreeFrom, she launched the Family Violence Appellate Project while earning her law degree at UC Berkeley.

What problem is FreeFrom working to address? 

1 in 3 women and 1 in 2 trans people will experience gender-based violence in their lifetime. The number 1 reason survivors of domestic violence stay in and return to abusive situations in the U.S. is because they cannot afford to leave or stay safe. In addition, domestic violence remains the leading cause of homelessness among women and children in this country. The CDC estimates the lifetime cost of intimate partner violence for female survivors to be $103,767. On top of this financial burden, 99% of survivors experience economic abuse by their perpetrator – not being allowed to work or losing their job as a result of the abuse, not having access to cash or bank accounts, being coerced into debt and/or taking on fraudulent debt created by their abuser.

FreeFrom launched in November 2016 to transform the domestic violence movement, expanding its focus from short-term emergency services to addressing financial security and long-term safety for survivors. Based in Los Angeles, FreeFrom is the first organization in the U.S. solely focused on creating pathways with and for survivors of domestic violence to achieve permanent safety through financial independence.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting isolation at home has resulted in domestic violence incidents skyrocketing. However, COVID-19 did not cause this problem. Survivors are trapped because of the impact of economic abuse and the cost of being harmed. COVID-19 has illuminated the devastating lack of infrastructure in the U.S. to support survivors’ long-term safety. FreeFrom’s work is to build that infrastructure, by building capacity for the movement, building tech resources to address economic abuse, and bringing in employers, banks and credit card companies to do their part to address this problem. If we do not use this moment to build the ecosystem needed, COVID-19 will come and go and survivors will still be trapped.

Studies found that between 22 percent and 57 percent of homeless women report that domestic violence directly led to their homelessness. With the decision to slow down the reopening of the economy and re-implement stay-at-home orders, what kinds of creative programs or strategies can be implemented to help individuals escape dangerous housing environments?

There is a myth that in order for survivors to be safe, they have to leave harmful or abusive relationships, homes, or situations. The reality is that leaving is not the only option. For example, we worked with a survivor who had children with their spouse and the only form of abuse present in this marriage was economic abuse. The survivor wanted to keep her family together and after taking our help in addressing the economic abuse within the marriage, she was able to safely remain in her home. However, there are some cases where the only option is to leave. Every survivor’s experience is different and it is important to honor the choices and needs of survivors and their families.

Financial safety planning can be extremely helpful and beneficial to a survivor who is either preparing to leave or hoping to gain back some financial independence in a harmful situation. Financial Safety Planning includes things like: securing identifying documents, changing passwords to bank accounts, opening separate bank accounts, freezing credit to prevent fraud, safely storing money, etc.

With domestic violence shelters closing their doors as a result of COVID-19, shelters across the nation are partnering with hotels to provide survivors temporary housing in vacant rooms. However, shelters have let us know that there is currently not enough long-term, affordable, housing to house all survivors after their hotel vouchers run out. During this time, government agencies should be securing funding for and creating more long-term affordable housing that will prevent survivors ending up homeless or having to return to abuse because they could not afford to stay safe. Additionally, long-term housing is difficult to sustain without a living wage income. We must pay people living wages so that they can sustain safe housing and create safety for themselves and their children.

Immediate and long-term housing is only part of the solution. Survivors report needing cash to assist them in covering necessities. And they need the flexibility to spend this money as they see fit. For example, one survivor that we worked with used her cash grant to make a car payment. This car payment meant she didn’t lose custody of her children. No one but the individual themselves knows what is best for them. The greatest innovation that we can bring to our societal response to domestic violence is to trust survivors and listen to their needs. 

It is also imperative that the services and resources provided are inclusive of ALL survivors in design and implementation. This includes survivors who have not left and may never leave and survivors who don’t identify as cisgender women.  

FreeFrom has just released the Survivor Safety Banking Guidelines, how can this help create a pathway for financial security for survivors of domestic violence?

Banking for survivors of domestic violence is not always safe, easy, or accessible. As a result of the financial devastation of abuse, bank accounts that require minimum balances or charge fines and fees are often too expensive for many survivors to access or maintain. For survivors who are banked, their accounts are often unsafe as harm-doers commonly control all of a survivor’s log-in information and passwords. This allows harm-doers to monitor, control, and at times even deplete survivors’ online bank accounts with impunity. In fact, harm-doers steal an average of $1,280 from individual survivors each month. 

Making matters worse, bank employees aren’t trained in domestic violence or economic abuse, and bank policies aren’t developed with survivors’ unique needs in mind. For instance, survivors who tell bank employees about abuse at best may be required to repeat their story multiple times and at worst are not believed or taken seriously. While survivors need support and flexibility in paying off debts, requests for such flexibility are often denied. At times, abusive behavior even occurs unchecked at branch locations as bank employees don’t recognize abuse tactics.  As a result, many survivors are either unbanked, distrustful of banks, or banked and underserved. 

Without access to safe and affordable bank accounts, survivors have no choice but to use predatory lenders and expensive cash checking services. Without access to debit cards and other account-related services, survivors resort to hiding cash around their home to try and save the money they need to get safe. Simply put, saving is difficult, dangerous, and expensive for survivors who are unbanked or whose bank accounts are controlled by their harm-doers. 

After working with international experts, surveying over 1100 survivors, and conducting in-depth one-on-one interviews, we developed our Survivors Safety Banking Guidelines to make banking easier, safer, and more accessible to survivors across the U.S. By implementing all or some of these guidelines, banks have the opportunity to help millions of survivors and their families save the money necessary to secure sustainable safety and continue to build the assets they need to permanently break the cycle of violence, thrive and live free from abuse. You can access our full set of Guidelines on our website here. Contact our Director of Systems Change Initiatives, Amy Durrence (amy.durrence@freefrom.org) to learn more.

Can you tell us a little about FreeFrom’s report that will be released this month focused on the impacts of COVID on survivors and their families?

On August 13th, our team will publish a report on our Safety Fund, through which we give out $250 cash grants to survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV). We started the Safety Fund back in April as a way to support survivors through COVID-19 directly, and so far, we’ve given out 1,100 grants to survivors in 36 states and Puerto Rico, totaling over $266,128. The fund remains open, and we are working hard to fundraise so we can give grants to everyone who applies! 

We were able to collect a range of data from survivors about their financial circumstances and needs through the grant-giving process, and our goal with the report is really two-fold. First, we want to illustrate, through data and stories, the ways in which COVID-19 has impacted survivors financially. The nexus between experiencing IPV and financial insecurity existed long before the pandemic, but what we’re hearing from survivors is 4 key ways that COVID-19 has exacerbated their experiences of abuse:

1. Escalating violence
2. Fewer financial resources to get or stay safe
3. Economic abuse around COVID-19-related benefits like stimulus checks
4. Cancelled court proceedings keeping survivors in contact with harm-doers and delaying potential income like child support.

And second, we want to share what survivors say they need most right now: cash to spend as needed (64%), utility bill relief (41%), and credit and/or debt relief (35%). Survivors report that, on average, they need $730 to stay safe right now. Yet, as a society we aren’t listening and providing the support. As far as we know, FreeFrom’s Safety Fund is the only unrestricted cash program for survivors during COVID-19. In the report, we urge other organizations and funders to follow our lead and trust survivors by giving cash support directly to them. Not only is it the just thing to do, but it’s the most impactful way to support survivors. Survivors shared with us that having the flexibility to spend cash how they needed was not only freeing, but helped them accomplish other goals like staying employed, for example, or keeping custody of their kids. We always say survivors know best, and the report is really centered on that sentiment.

We’re in an unprecedented moment, can you speak to the role of self-care and mental health in your work and in your organization as a whole?

FreeFrom’s staff are all survivors. Most of us are people of color and many of us are queer. I talk all the time about how expensive it is to heal and what a privilege being able to heal is. I talk about how survivors are rarely able to pass on generational wealth to their children and, as people of color and queer folks, we rarely have access to that wealth ourselves. It is extremely important to me as the leader of an organization that stands for economic justice and financial security for survivors, to practice what I preach. 

That means paying everyone on staff a living wage. No one at FreeFrom makes less than $65,000 a year. That means paying our hourly Gifted team $20 / hour and providing work that is flexible to their schedule as single parents and survivors. It means providing unlimited vacation time and actually making sure people take enough time off throughout the year. And it means offering a stipend for financial coaching and mental health services. 

As an organization focused on gender-based violence, we also want to set an example of how employers can create a supportive work environment for employees who are survivors. We offer 15 days paid leave for employees to deal with the consequences of being harmed (medical appointments, therapy, time to relocate). And we also provide emergency grants to staff to overcome the unexpected costs associated with this kind of harm (for example, a security deposit on a new apartment). 

My utmost priority is that my staff feel well, mentally and physically, and in a position to heal and thrive. Nothing that FreeFrom does is sustainable otherwise. 


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