New research on debt problems caused by economic abuse

New research on debt problems caused by economic abuse

Financial counsellors working with survivors of family violence know that there are multiple ways in which perpetrators can use debt to exercise power and control over an intimate partner even after a violent relationship breaks down.

Coercing, deceiving or pressuring an intimate partner to take on debt, either solely in her own name, or in joint names, is a recognised form of economic abuse. Economic abuse is a common form of family violence, with 15.7% of Australian women and 7.1% of men experiencing it in their lifetimes.

Researchers at Melbourne Law School have published an article drawing on the views of financial counsellors, consumer solicitors and other advocates on their experiences of assisting women with debt problems resulting from economic abuse.

The article is the result of a study involving focus groups with consumer advocates employed by Victorian community organisations including Consumer Action Law Centre, Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand and WIRE Women’s Information. All of these organisations have been involved in the Economic Abuse Reference Group, which seeks to ‘[influence] government and industry responses to the financial impacts of family violence’.

This study was carried out by Evgenia Bourova (Research Fellow), Professor Ian Ramsay and Associate Professor Paul Ali as part of their work on the Financial Hardship Project. This is a research project funded by a Discovery grant from the Australian Research Council.

According to consumer advocates taking part in the study, economic abuse can have devastating consequences for the long-term financial security of survivors of family violence. Women fleeing violent relationships frequently forego essentials such as food and heating in order to pay both their own and their former partner’s share of joint debts, and thus avoid having a default listing on their credit history.

Legal protections are in place to allow Australians in financial hardship to negotiate payment plans and other arrangements with banks, utility companies and other creditors. In theory, these protections can provide women with debt incurred in the context of economic abuse with a temporary reprieve from debt recovery. 

However, as the study shows, family violence workers and other advocates require greater support in navigating a complex intersection of family law and consumer credit law to ensure that their clients can exercise their rights under these legal hardship protections.

The short-term solutions available through hardship programs are also of little use to many survivors of family violence, as they can only provide a temporary reprieve from repayments even in cases where the debt itself was taken out in circumstances involving pressure, deception or duress.

The research team is grateful to all of the financial counsellors who took part in this study. For more information on any aspect of the study, please contact Evgenia Bourova.

Interview with Joy Mason, Centrecare (WA)

Interview with Joy Mason, Centrecare (WA)

Please tell us about your background:

I grew up in country NSW and went to Sydney and Melbourne to attend university and nurse training. I returned to the country, then ended up in the wonderful Bendigo where I have bought a home. I came to financial counselling from a background in Nursing, Community Development and Mental Health. I stumbled across financial counselling when I saw an advertisement in the local paper and was lucky enough to gain the position and train as an FC at RMIT. Before that, I didn’t know there was such a thing as financial counsellors.

What motivated you to pursue financial counselling?

It’s an area of work where you can genuinely make a difference. To be truthful, I found working in mental health draining and sometimes unsatisfying. I was also a programme manager and started seeking work where I could just work with clients and not manage people.

I have had a background in being part of a low income family, have been a poverty stricken single parent, have worked and studied while children were young and have been in post marriage debt. So I feel I bring some life experiences to this role that are beyond my training and career skillset and I understand the stress of poverty and debt.

What are the unique aspects of your role or the area you work in?

My current role is unique in that I work remotely, work mainly with Aboriginal clients as well as with miners who are earning money that the rest of us only dream of!

The area I work in is economically subject to the changes in the gold economy and is therefore financially volatile. The outreach I provide is to remote communities, usually about 800kms per round trip and 4.5 hours to get there, I stay overnight in miners camps. Other staff who work in the organisation might travel to the lands, about a 12 hour trip on dirt roads. My role doesn’t travel so remotely but I get to see amazing scenery and incredible wild life – its been an adventure and a half. Aboriginal clients that I work with have English sometimes as their third language and live on Country.

What has been your proudest achievement to date?

To have the courage and the vision to travel to another state, to immerse myself into a remote community and to learn and learn and learn. It’s scary to leave your comfort zone, but it’s been so incredibly worthwhile and what I am coming home with cannot be priced.

I encourage anyone who has the ability to be flexible enough, to work in another state, to work remotely and to take up opportunities that the city or regional life will never offer you. Get amongst the red dirt and blue skys of WA – it is an experience that you wont regret. I am happy to be contacted to discuss possibilities and experiences, would love to chat about my experiences and possible opportunities you might have for employment in WA.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the financial counselling sector?

Funding, funding, funding! Always a challenge in the sector, but people need to have better job security and some certainty.

We are also an aging group – let’s encourage the younger folk. And proper training that allows new FCs to be an asset to an organisation – FCs training FCs.

What has been the most valuable resource or advice you’ve received?

The most valuable resource has been other FCs who are willing to share expertise and knowledge and who are a source of encouragement.

Advice: “Go west and give it a go – work remotely”, I am forever grateful to the person who offered that.

Oh, another piece of advice “be where your feet are” – it always grounds me.

What book are you reading at the moment?

I am reading “Dark Emu” by Bruce Pascoe. Read it and be amazed that White Australia didn’t know this stuff and it wasn’t taught/still not taught in schools.

What is your favourite podcast?

On my travels I listen to podcasts – I love Brene Brown and find her truly inspiring, enjoy her Ted Talks around shame and vulnerability.

For a laugh I listen to “The Guilty Feminist” – a reminder that we try but don’t always get it right.