When Domestic Violence and Utility Bill Debt Intersect

In Pennsylvania, domestic violence survivors are often not afforded the protections they are entitled to because many people are often unaware of the Responsible Utility Customer Protection Act and its provisions. A three-year pilot program aimed to change that.

A woman teaches a group of people.
Elizabeth Marx, supervising attorney for the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, provides training and technical assistance to help advocates understand utility-related rights. Photo courtesy of Rachel Blake

In the U.S., there are more than 10 million people who are abused by their intimate partners annually. A majority of domestic violence victims—between 94 and 99 percent—have also experienced economic abuse. This can include employment-related abuse, where a survivor is prevented from getting or keeping a job; coerced debt, where a survivor is saddled with bills; or other activities that prevent a person from accessing funds.

One particularly difficult challenge many domestic violence survivors face is utility debt. “The utility company may try to hold a survivor responsible for delinquent utility bills on an account managed by the abuser,” according to the National Consumer Law Center. “In addition, a survivor who has any pre-existing utility debt may find it hard to get new service.”

Over the years there have been multiple changes in federal and state laws to respond to the realities of domestic violence and to ensure that policies and programs do not make conditions worse for survivors, or create unintended barriers to accessing critical assistance. However, many of these efforts have been less than effective due to a lack of awareness and a weak enforcement process.

In 2004, Pennsylvania adopted the Responsible Utility Customer Protection Act, which allowed utility companies to collect debt from any adult household member where service was provided. This caused significant concern among domestic violence advocates because victims of abuse may be held responsible for debt accrued by their abuser—further limiting their ability to flee the home. In recognition of this concern, the act initially included an exemption for persons with a valid Protection from Abuse order. Pennsylvania expanded the exemption in 2014 to include those who have a “court order issued by a court of competent jurisdiction in this Commonwealth, which provides clear evidence of domestic violence.”

This exemption allows victims of domestic violence to escape liability for utility debt accrued in someone else’s name. If debt was in the survivor’s name, the act allows the survivor to have access to additional and/or longer payment arrangements. Despite the exemption, there are many people who aren’t receiving the protections they should receive.

The Utilities Pilot Project

In Pennsylvania, domestic violence survivors are often not afforded the protections they are entitled to under the Responsible Utility Customer Protection Act because survivors and domestic violence advocates are often unaware of the law and its provisions. Likewise, utility companies often lack clear policies or screening procedures to implement the domestic violence exemptions found in the law. As a result, front-line utility employees who interact with survivors are often not informed about the special domestic violence protections, and fail to screen a customer for eligibility.

Even if a survivor self-identifies to a utility employee—and attempts to access the special protections— they are often met with confusion from utility company employees who do not understand the relevance of a survivor’s victimization to the utility issue at hand.

Elizabeth Marx, supervising attorney for the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project (PULP), knew about the act’s uneven enforcement before she began working at PULP. Marx previously served as an attorney at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV), and before that, she worked for many years in direct services as a domestic violence advocate. Through this work, Marx saw how utility issues often prevented survivors from starting over. She sees utility access as fundamental to a fresh start for survivors. “You can’t successfully set up independent housing with utility problems. Survivors often leave not just with nothing, but less than nothing,” she says.

Marx’s experiences at PCADV and PULP helped her envision a solution to the problem of uneven access to utility-related protections for survivors. In late 2015, she and her colleagues at PULP conceptualized and implemented a pilot project that involves:

  • Partnering with direct service providers and learning what they and their clients need
  • Providing recurring training to staff using in-person trainings, flyers, fact sheets, and desk guides
  • Offering legal assistance to individuals
  • Being strategic and systemic about looking for opportunities to improve the system for clients

Marx’s background afforded her some personal connections to organizations that focus on domestic violence, as well as a familiarity with the organization’s priorities, and even their language. So, while Marx was able to bring deep, technical knowledge about utility issues to the table, she could also talk with domestic violence advocates in their own language and with recognition of the realities of the work.

PULP partnered with three domestic violence organizations in Northeast Pennsylvania. Marx’s familiarity with domestic violence made her a stronger partner, says Mary Endrusick of the Women’s Resource Center, a pilot partner that provides services to adult and child survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and dating violence in Lackawanna and Susquehanna counties in Pennsylvania. There is “a lot you need to understand around the dynamics of domestic violence and how that shapes [a survivors’] decisions.” Where another attorney with utility expertise might have been able to provide good legal advice to clients, Marx’s background allowed her to take the next step.

The pilot program included two components—direct service and systems change.

PULP received referrals from partner agencies and provided their staffs with training and technical assistance. Over three years, and eight in-person trainings, the advocates’ knowledge of utility-related rights significantly improved during the course of the pilot program. For example, PULP handled more than 300 cases for clients referred to them from just three of the more than 50 domestic violence agencies across Pennsylvania. PULP was able to clear and/or defer approximately $80,000 in client debt and helped connect and/or prevented termination of utility services for over 100 clients. In addition, requests for legal assistance dropped over time. When coupled with discussions with partner agencies, this decline provides evidence that advocates are now better equipped to help survivors address some utility issues without attorney intervention.

In addition to addressing individual issues, the pilot program also worked to identify critical systems changes that needed to take place in order to make sure that survivors’ rights were being protected. The three partners that participated in the program are all located within the same territories that a large natural gas and electric distribution company services. That made it easier to spot and raise issues connected to those utilities’ policies and practices. When the natural gas company sought a rate increase, PULP intervened in the proceeding on behalf of its clients and secured critical changes to the company’s policies, including front-line staff training, written procedures for identification and case handling, billing and collections reforms, and enhanced confidentiality, which brought the utility into better alignment with Pennsylvania law. This change likely had a significant impact on the ability of survivors and advocates working on their behalf to resolve issues without attorney assistance. Not only did the pilot help the survivors being served by the pilot partners, it also changed practices for a utility company that serves almost 600,000 residential customers in Pennsylvania.

Through the direct representation of hundreds of clients in active transition, other systemic patterns also emerged. For example, PULP realized that many local housing authorities across the state have adopted practices to deny housing to applicants with existing utility debt—even if that debt was uncollectible or otherwise curable. That lesson led PULP to seek and secure a grant to partner directly with housing authorities to train staff on various protections, including the special rules for victims of domestic violence, and to reform policies that work to prevent transitional populations from accessing affordable housing and, in turn, achieving economic stability.

The pilot program is concluding, but to ensure that new staff members have access to the same materials, PULP has created a desk manual for advocates and anticipates creating a recorded training that agencies could incorporate into their staff trainings. In addition, PULP launched a legal hotline for Pennsylvania (they cover every county except Philadelphia, which is covered by Community Legal Services), which will allow them to continue to serve clients referred by their domestic violence agency partners. PULP is evaluating whether to try to bring the model of intensive training and partnerships to other portions of the state.

Moving into the Gaps and Accelerating the Pace

The rights afforded to low-income persons and vulnerable populations are often marked by diffuse responsibility, the thought that someone else is responsible for taking a specific action, like enforcement or teaching. In that context, gaps in knowledge and enforcement are to be expected. While there is movement to try to coordinate services for low-income persons and vulnerable populations, a related movement is needed on the professional services side—more of us need to step into the gaps between fields and try to find a way toward a common language and a path forward together.

Doing work in the gaps is vital to enforcing the rights of low-income people. It is especially true when those people have additional complicating issues, such as domestic violence. This work continues to require both individual assistance and systemic advocacy—a dual approach that is the hallmark of many legal services programs. It also requires a willingness to work across fields.

There are encouraging signs of shifts, such as at the intersection of health and housing, but to accelerate movement, organizations across the country will need to empower staff members to work across traditional boundaries. Advocates with sector-spanning expertise, when supported by organizations that value their contributions, can help us take large steps forward.

And, of course, for many organizations that work with low-income or vulnerable populations, very little is possible without the support of funders. Funders have a significant leadership opportunity in this area. They can accelerate movement into the gaps by investing in organizations that try to fill the gaps between fields; funding innovative projects at critical intersections; and helping organizations make the often very difficult jump from pilot to established program.

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