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Giving abuse survivors a helping hand

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Pamelya Herndon, board member for U.S. Eagle and one of the people to spearhead the CU Safe program designed to help survivors of domestic violence in Albuquerque. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

A trio of credit unions has launched a unique program in New Mexico designed to help survivors of domestic violence find their financial footing when leaving their abusers.

CU SAFE, a partnership among U.S. Eagle Federal Credit Union, Rio Grande Credit Union and Coast360 Federal Credit Union in Guam, began operating in New Mexico at the end of August.

The program is designed to pair survivors who are referred from the Domestic Violence Resource Center in Albuquerque with one of the credit unions. The credit unions provide financial literacy assistance as well as specialized loans tailored to help people without a stable job or credit get on their feet.

“They’re getting the financial resources to get out of their situation,” said Walt Agius, CEO of CU SAFE.

Agius and others credited Pamelya Herndon, a board member at U.S. Eagle, with coming up with the idea. Herndon told the Journal that she’s seen a tremendous need for a service like this in New Mexico, which routinely ranks among the worst states in the country for reported domestic violence incidents.

Agius added that abusers frequently cut off their victims from accessing financial resources, meaning that people who flee their abusers often lack the ability to get a stable job or build credit. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says financial restrictions are one reason some survivors stay with their abusers.

“In a lot of cases, all their financial support is gone,” Agius said.

The CU SAFE program is designed to give people resources to transition toward being financially independent.

“We believe that if we can help people stabilize and build good financial habits over the next 12 months, that a lot of those people will be able to take that and run with it,” Agius said.

Marsha Majors, president and CEO of U.S. Eagle, said survivors are referred to a credit union through the DVRC, and assigned a specialist who can help with financial literacy assistance and a loan, depending on their situation. Majors said participants aren’t vetted the same way as most applicants would be.

Mike Athens, CEO of Rio Grande Credit Union, said the loans will be unsecured and will be structured so that recipients pay interest only on the portion of the loan they’ve drawn from for the first year.

“We know those payments would be too heavy just getting back on their feet,” Athens said.

Athens said the interest rate is lower than they’d pay at a typical bank.

Agius said he hopes the program will have 10 to 20 participants by the end of the year and eventually spread across New Mexico and the rest of the country.

Herndon said credit unions, due to their cooperative structure, have historically been a useful tool for addressing systemic inequality. She said she hopes this partnership can help remove some of the barriers that survivors of domestic abuse face.

“The credit union has absolutely been the place to lift up these communities,” Herndon said.

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