Hey Verizon: Stop Punishing Victims of Domestic Violence!

"Verizon should not charge fees for early termination of contracts if they are because the person has been a victim of domestic violence."

Sep 17, 2012 at 1:30pm | Leave a comment

It’s the call you hope you never get: A loved one calling you from the emergency room where she’s being treated for injuries from an episode of domestic violence, asking for help. It might be one of many, or the first step on a long road that ends with helping her get away from her abuser and into safety.

Victims of domestic violence have difficulty extricating themselves from abusive relationships for a whole host of reasons. While society often focuses on the emotional work involved, there’s also a serious economic and social factor to be considered as well. For people in long-term relationships with mingled assets, untangling resources after a final breakup is difficult, especially when you add in the hostility of the abusive partner. And one third of women can expect to experience domestic violence in their lifetimes, so this is a serious issue. 

Women may be left without any assets under their own control, struggling to get to safety and to reestablish their lives. That’s what happened to the sister of Cynthia Butterworth, who started a petition on Change.org to make at least one small part of the process a little bit easier.

After her sister separated from her abusive boyfriend, she realized she needed to cancel their joint Verizon account (established, like their other accounts, on her credit record) because he could make note of any calls she made from her phone in addition to identifying where she was calling from. That was a potentially explosive mix of information that could have endangered not just her, but the people who were helping her. Verizon wanted to charge her a $500 early termination fee for breaking the contract, despite the circumstances and despite the fact that she had no money because all her assets were locked in joint accounts with her abusive ex.

After some fighting, the sisters got Verizon to drop the charges, but Cynthia obviously felt like that wasn’t enough. And I can’t blame her; there are more cellphones in the US than there are people, showing how widespread they are, and how heavily some people rely on them for communications, especially in an era when payphones are dwindling. For domestic violence survivors on the run, having to deal with the difficulties of canceling a phone contract and fighting fees on top of everything else adds yet another layer of complexity to an already difficult situation, making it that much harder to get out.

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The Domestic Violence Awareness Mural: "A Survivor's Journey" (2010) by Joel Bergner, Washington DC

Verizon is obviously aware of domestic violence issues; the company’s Hopeline® program that provides recycled cellphones to families is well known, and the company also funds initiatives to help victims in other ways. It offers job training and other benefits to people trying to get back on their feet after escaping abusers, and participates in national campaigns against domestic violence. If you’re going to pick a target for a campaign like this to change practices in the wireless industry, in other words, you could do a lot worse than Verizon.

The key component of Cynthia’s petition:

Verizon Wireless [should] create a policy that does not punish victims of domestic violence for taking the brave steps necessary to keep themselves safe. Verizon should not charge fees for early termination of contracts if they are because the person has been a victim of domestic violence.

It’s a clear and simple request, and pushing a major player in the field might lead other mobile providers to do the same. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it sounds in her petition. While I support the spirit of her petition and think it’s fantastic that she’s drawing attention to the issue, I’m seeing miles of bureaucratic nightmares and snarls ahead.

The question here becomes: How do you prove to a faceless corporation that someone is a victim of domestic violence? Police reports? Copies of restraining orders and court documents? Medical records? Notarized witness statements? Mobile providers aren’t going to take a statement at face value, especially when it means avoiding the expensive fees associated with early termination; they’re going to argue that anyone could call to cancel a contract, claim to be a victim of domestic violence, and get out of paying for it.

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Domestic violence advocates aren't the only people angry at Verizon; the company is also involved in a protracted labor dispute with the CWA.

And victims may not have ready access to the tools to provide requested information; requests to fax material or bring it into local offices for examination are not so easily met when you’re trying to get to safety. Any system I can imagine for accommodating Cynthia’s laudable, reasonable, and important request is going to put a burden on victims; not as much of a burden as having to prove it in individual cases as her sister did, but still, a burden. At the very least, it would probably require people to pay now and submit documentation later for a refund, which might not be affordable or feasible for victims.

It’s one of the things I see as a major flaw with petitions like these; they highlight social issues, drum up interest, and get people talking, but they often don’t present a meaningful implementation of the request they’re making. How would you implement a system that waives early termination fees for victims of domestic violence, keeping in mind that you are a corporation focused on making money for yourself and shareholders, and that termination fees are a nice chunk of your revenues?

Image credits: Elvert Barnes, alexmh17.