Program helps abused women rebuild finances

Julie Neace thought about leaving her husband several times.

But when the stay-at-home mom did the math, she was convinced that she and her son wouldn't be able to make it on their own.

After a particularly violent confrontation in 2006, though, Neace finally left.

Through the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association, Neace now is saving for a home. And thanks to an innovative new program, the organization was able to offer Neace a $300 interest-free loan to pay for new tires for her car and software for her computer so she could go to school this fall.

"I am constantly looking forward now," Neace said of her financial independence.

Neace is one of 20 women to take part in the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association's new micro-loan program, thought to be one of the first domestic-violence groups in the country to offer micro-loans to women.

The micro-loans help abused women who need an influx of cash. More important, it keeps them away from payday lenders, which charge inflated interest rates that the women can rarely afford. The payments on the micro-loans are reported to credit bureaus, helping recipients to rebuild credit, said Mary O'Doherty, director of the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association's Economic Empowerment Program.

The first loans were issued in February, and the association hopes to gradually expand the program over the next several months.

The micro-loan program builds on other innovative financial programs started by the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association, an umbrella group for 15 domestic-violence programs. The economic empowerment project was started several years ago, after domestic-violence workers became increasingly frustrated that too many women would not leave their abusers or would go back because they didn't have the money to make it on their own.

"If we are going to help women leave their abusers, we have to help them become economically self-sufficient," O'Doherty said. "The reason that she stays is that she's economically tied to her abuser. She feels that if she leaves, her children's standards of living will go down."

With help from the Allstate Foundation, the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association started Individual Development Accounts, a type of savings account that matches $2 for every $1 a woman contributes. So far, about 100 people have used the IDAs. Roughly 50 have used it to buy homes, five have started new businesses, and the remainder have used it to pay for higher education, O'Doherty said.

But shelters also had seen an increasing number of women turning to payday lenders to help make ends meet. The women often borrowed from one lender to pay off another loan, a cycle that led them deeper into debt, said Darlene Thomas, executive director of the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program, which serves Central Kentucky.

"I couldn't give you a percentage of people who have used them," Thomas said. "But it's relatively common."

The micro-loans, also made possible through a grant from the Allstate Foundation, are available only to those abused women who have IDA accounts. The maximum amount of the loan is the amount in the IDA, Thomas said. There is no interest, and the woman must make payments for a year.

That gets people into good financial habits, and O'Doherty hopes that it also will help women's credit scores. The program will monitor credit scores of the 20 participants in coming months.

Neace has faithfully made payments on the $300 loan that she received in March.

She also is socking money away into her IDA account with plans to be able to use that money in two years for a down payment on a house.

None of the programs are handouts, Neace said.

"I have to earn my own money," Neace said. "It makes me feel better. It builds my confidence."