Venice attorney Sonya Passi seeks economic justice for victims of domestic violence

FreeFrom Entrepreneurship Program Manager Tannia Ventura (left), founder and CEO Sonya Passi, and Legal Director Amira Samuel work
in the front garden of their Venice office
Photo by Maria Martin

By Stephanie Case

A few weeks before Donald Trump was inaugurated as president, Forbes asked some of its 30 Under 30 honorees in the fields of law and policy to name one thing they would ask of the new commander-in-chief.

“End the war on women’s health and, instead, use those resources to fight violence against women,” answered Venice attorney Sonya Passi.

While at UC Berkeley School of Law, Passi founded the Family Violence Appellate Project, which provides free legal services for victims of domestic violence. Last year she launched FreeFrom, an innovative Venice-based nonprofit that goes beyond emergency shelter to help victims build financial stability so they can afford to leave toxic relationships for good.

According to a 2010 study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every four American women will face severe physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime.

“When you talk about one in four, that means your neighbors, someone in your family, someone you went to high school with,” says Passi. “It hits close to home.”

Yet, while domestic violence is embedded into the fabric of our communities, the truth of survivors’ experiences and the factors that keep them in danger, Passi says, remain largely misunderstood. Partners who endure abuse are frequently blamed and reduced to stereotypes: the pushover, the hopeless romantic, the exaggerator.

“The myth is: survivors just stay because they’re weak; they stay because they’re in love; they stay because it’s not that bad,” says Passi. “But the No. 1 reason survivors say they stay in abusive situations is because they can’t afford to leave.”

For most victims, no matter their tax bracket, safety comes at a very high a price tag.

“A lot of people think [being trapped in a violent relationship] is a low-income problem. That is not true,” explains Passi. “They think, ‘Women from wealthy communities can afford to leave.’ But what is so often the case is the woman in that wealthy community has not a penny to her name. … I meet so many survivors who were the sole breadwinner, and yet they never had more than a dollar in their pocket because the abuser would pick up their paycheck and control their wages.”

Financial abuse — blocking a partner from earning or accessing money — occurs in the overwhelming majority of domestic violence cases, Passi attests. It manifests in a variety of forms: pressuring the partner into being a homemaker; physically assaulting them for trying to open a checking account; stirring up trouble at their place of work, causing them to lose their job; committing credit fraud against them.

In one case, Passi recounts, an abuser surreptitiously took out more than 50 magazine subscriptions in his wife’s name but had the issues delivered to a random address, where they sat unread. In three years’ time, he’d racked up $30,000 in debt under her name and never paid off a cent, crippling her chances at financial autonomy should she dare to leave.

“It makes sense,” explains Passi. “Domestic abuse is about control, and the way to take away someone’s freedom is to take away their financial freedom.”

For survivors who do leave, it’s not cheap.

“When you think about picking up and completely relocating, you’re not only talking about breaking a lease,” Passi says. Securing a new apartment means a security deposit, plus first and last month’s rent — that is, if your partner hasn’t tanked your credit score, shattering any good standing with a potential landlord.

“You leave with as much as you can carry; maybe that’s a whole carload, and maybe that’s whatever you can hold in your hands,” Passi says. If you flee on foot, she adds, that could mean buying a house’s worth of new furniture, new clothes, and a new vehicle. If your abuser installed tracking technology on your cell phone or laptop, you may need to buy new electronics.

If that shopping haul doesn’t sink you, legal costs might: filing a restraining order, hiring a divorce lawyer, waging a custody battle. The costs of mental health care to help survivors and their children process the trauma of the abuse add up, too.

“Domestic violence survivors spend probably every last dollar they have trying to stay safe,” says Passi.

Once that last dollar is spent, many live out of their cars or take refuge on the street; domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness in U.S. women and children.

In a cruel irony, this abuse-induced poverty often sends children back into the care of their violent parent. When deliberating custody cases, “judges are trying to figure out: who can actually feed this child? Who can keep this child safe financially? So, frequently, they end up giving custody to the abusive parent,” Passi says.

To Passi, these cracks in the legal system — allowing survivors to flail financially, and abuse to go unchecked — are unacceptable. She’s rallied against them since she was 16 years old, spearheading her all-girl prep school’s Amnesty International club and organizing annual domestic violence awareness weeks. As an undergraduate at Cambridge University, she coached her fellow classmates on the signs of partner abuse. When it came time for her to apply to Berkeley Law, she spent three sleepless nights pouring over her personal statement, then, in a flash of inspiration, churned out an impassioned poem, with the lines: “Woman is born free and nowhere must be in chains.”

Now, half a decade later, Passi works full time on FreeFrom from her Venice home-turned-office. She and her tiny legal team help women in New York and California file lawsuits against their abusers, arguing for financial compensation for lost wages, medical expenses and relocation costs. Beginning this winter, she’ll also travel up and down the Pacific Coast, mentoring survivors on how to launch their own businesses and freelance careers so they never have to look to a partner for money again.

In her Los Angeles program, which launched this January, Passi coaches 15 women on the ins and outs of entrepreneurship — things like accounting, sales and marketing, customer acquisition, social media, branding, and even building confidence.

In just the first three months, the women under her wing are already immersed in their new projects.

One survivor created her own beauty venture, buying name-brand makeup products wholesale, then selling them door to door. She’s sold lipsticks at the bus stop and eyeshadow palettes at the doctor’s office, never wasting an opportunity to acquire a new customer.

Another survivor — a former personal trainer — is starting her own morning yoga, meditation and aerobics classes for fellow residents at her transitional housing unit, charging $5 a week.

Being your own boss makes logical sense for many survivors; those hiding from their abusers can feel vulnerable about networking on LinkedIn or being featured on a company’s staff website.
It also provides a loophole from having to face employers that may see their experience as undesirable.

“If you apply for a job and it comes up in the job interview that you’re a survivor, it doesn’t help you — it harms you,” says Passi. “Conceptually, it makes no sense. How can you be weak if you’ve survived all of this?”

Passi says that in building their own businesses and becoming financially independent, survivors are empowered to do exactly what their abusers told them they could not: stand on their own two feet.

“The message of the abuse is: ‘You are nothing without me,’” Passi says. “Our message is: ‘You are everything you will ever need.’”

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