Melbourne project helps women recover from economic abuse by partners

Report finds abusive spouses ‘weaponised’ government or industry structures, using their partners as a ‘human line of credit’

Kate’s violent husband and his family racked up $86,000 worth of loan and credit card debt under her name.

Another woman accrued a $4,000 Centrelink debt because her abusive partner provided her the wrong reporting information about his income.

A third woman was lumped with $10,000 in traffic fines that her ex-husband had incurred while driving her car.

All three women suffered severe economic abuse when their spouses “weaponised” government or industry structures, a Victorian report has found.

The Transforming Financial Security project helped 137 clients with their legal and financial problems between mid-2018 and early this year.

A report into the project, run by WEstjustice and McAuley Community Services for Women, will be released on Thursday.

It found abusers used rental bonds, loans and credit cards, and traffic infringements as part of their patterns of control over victim-survivors such as Kate.

She was subject to severe physical, emotional and economic abuse, and every aspect of her life and her finances were controlled by her husband, who used her like a “human line of credit”.

He would be violent towards her if she did not sign loan or credit card applications for him, but she did not have any money of her own.

By the time she was involved with the project, she did not even know how much debt she was in. Through project workers negotiating with financial institutions, the debt was waived.

“It was the biggest struggle in my life,” Kate, not her real name, told Guardian Australia.

“[When the debt was cleared] that was the day where I really enjoyed the feeling of moving on.”

The project worked to improve procedures with a range of government and industry bodies, including the Victorian department of housing, VicRoads, banks, insurers and toll road operator Transurban, to ensure sufferers of family violence could more easily negotiate to be freed of debts linked to their abuse.

More than $900,000 was saved for clients on debt and legal fees during the project, at an average of $11,311 per client (not all clients needed financial or legal assistance).

“We also played a significant role in repairing their tarnished credit records, meaning they were no longer prevented from accessing essential services such as mobile phone and internet contracts, as well as future borrowing, due to a poor credit rating,” the report found.

“This positioned many victim-survivors to commence their post-separation journey to recovering from economic abuse.”

Of the clients, more than half had a level of income indicating that they lived below the poverty line, and 45% had children. The project also heard from clients – 61% of whom were born overseas – that their spouses used their migration status as part of their financial abuse.

Dacia Abela, a WEstjustice lawyer and program manager, said the philanthropically funded program should be government-funded so it can be delivered as widely as possible.

She said it had successfully stopped the “referral merry-go-round” experienced by many women, and provided a way out for women who often feel they have to remain in – or return to – violent relationships because the economic abuse means they cannot afford to be alone.

“We have this amazing model that has been tried and proved and codified, and can be delivered at scale,” Abela said.

“If it is more widely available, and more visible, it will give people more confidence they can leave that relationship and get that help at the time they need it most.”

Kate has since found secure accommodation with her children and retrained to work as a family violence case manager.

She is working, she says, to help women stop blaming themselves.

“[I] keep compelling daughters and mothers to … break that chain.”

•In Australia, the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the UK, call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid. In the US, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines may be found via www.befrienders.org

Contributor

Nino Bucci

The GuardianTramp

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