Interview with Veronica Griffiths, VincentCare

Interview with Veronica Griffiths, VincentCare

Please tell us about your background.

I previously worked in community welfare within the education sector in student wellbeing. Prior to that, I worked in prevention and recovery care with people experiencing chronic mental health issues.


What motivated you to become a financial capability worker?

Financial problems were a major part of the work I did assisting students. Wanting to assist people to improve their financial literacy and understanding to enable them to manage their financial situations became a focus for me.


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

Seeing the difference it can make in a person’s life when they are able to use a budget to reduce their debt and begin to save for a goal for the first time is very satisfying. The client takes back control of their finances, their decision making, their own power and confidence.


What has been your proudest achievement to date?

There are two cases which immediately spring to mind, both very different.

Client A had fallen behind with their rates due to health issues and had received a court date. Advocacy and support was provided to negotiate with the council to reduce the debt, avoid court and initiate an affordable payment plan. Client A was able to keep their home.

Client B was a young person who had made some uninformed decisions and acquired numerous small debts on a limited income. Client B was extremely proficient with technology. Support was provided to develop a budget in Excel. Over 6 weeks, Client B had eliminated half the debts and was in control of the remainder, paying regular amounts fortnightly. Client B had new priorities and had developed a plan for the future.

When the client can look into the future with hope instead of dread you know a difference has been made.


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

This work does take patience and time and the issues don’t always have a swift resolution. I sometimes feel like whatever I do isn’t enough. One time when I was feeling this way, stressed and overworked, a wise lady said to me, “Someone’s mismanagement isn’t my crisis”. This probably sounds strange, but saying this to myself helps me to slow down and allow the calm to return. It helps me to keep things in perspective, remember self-care and implement the things I need to do to prevent burn out. I love what I do and I want to be around to keep doing it.


What TV show are you currently watching?

I tend to watch movies and series on Netflix. Currently watching “Cursed”.


Who are your favourite musicians?

John Butler, The Waifs, Ani DiFranco

Integrated Services Project – Our training program is in full swing!

Integrated Services Project – Our training program is in full swing!

The partnership between FCVic and Social Security Rights Victoria (SSRV), the Integrated Services Project (ISP) aims to improve client outcomes through financial counsellors and social security lawyers working together more effectively.


Training

We’re excited to report that our Continuous Professional Development (CPD) program is now in full swing online. Karl from the Integrated Services Project is presenting a series of CPD sessions for financial counsellors, with the next unit in the series to be presented on 4 August: Centrelink debts and why they have been raised against your client, which considers common reasons for debts being raised, and delves into leveraging the Freedom of Information (FoI) process to give you the information you need to understand why Centrelink has raised a debt against your client.


Following on from this, on 19 August is Debts and FoI in depth where we will look at interpreting the documents from Centrelink’s FoI process, applying the law, and tips on writing a review request to have the debt decision reconsidered.


This and other sessions will be available for FCVic members to register for soon – keep an eye on the FCVic Events Calendar!


Case Study

A Centrelink debt – like all large debts – can be a cause of enormous strain for our clients. A financial counsellor contacted us on the Worker Help Line in relation to Narelle’s matter:


Narelle* was overpaid more than $5 000 of Parenting Payment. Narelle sought assistance with appealing this debt. The reason for the overpayment was a failure by Centrelink to consider Narelle’s partner’s income when calculating her fortnightly payments.


Narelle had done everything Centrelink required of her and complied with the instructions they had sent her. Narelle completed her yearly income estimate for FTB and was never made aware that she had to report her partner’s income for Parenting Payment differently. Narelle didn’t receive any letters showing her partner’s income as incorrect, and that if they were sent to her myGov account they shouldn’t have been, as she had previously requested they be sent to her physically.


The financial counsellor was integral in connecting Narelle with SSRV. The financial counsellor first made contact via the Worker Help Line and requested for SSRV to review Narelle’s situation and the Authorised Review Officer (ARO) decision. She was also responsible for making the initial application to the AAT.


The connection with the financial counsellor helped to enhance SSRV’s interactions with Narelle. She was able to provide the hands-on support Narelle required, and assist her with things like filling in forms.


The financial counsellor’s expertise was also incredibly valuable in this matter. Preparing a “statement of financial circumstances” is not something that legal staff are generally experienced with, equipped for, or even qualified to do, but the information is crucial in showing Narelle had financial hardship for the purposes of a special circumstances waiver.


In short, the financial counsellor provided support, experience and expertise that a community legal centre such as SSRV can tend to lack.


The result for Narelle was a reduction in the amount of overpayment that would be recovered, and a refund of some of the money she had already paid back. For a client experiencing financial disadvantage, extra money in her pocket was a real win.


The integrated service helped to achieve this first through the referral pathway for Narelle into SSRV’s service, which may never had happened if not for her being linked in with a financial counsellor, and second through the support and enhancement of that service by the financial counsellor.


Latest Information on JobSeeker

Economic Justice Australia has released an update on their JobSeeker and COVID-19 webpage http://ejaustralia.org.au/latest-news/jobseeker-and-covid-19/ which incorporates last week’s announcements, including the re-instatement of the assets tests, and the larger income test free area limits of $300 for JobSeeker Payment and Youth Allowance.


Get in touch

Please contact Lawyer Karl Schaffarczyk (karl@ssrv.org.au) or Financial Counsellor Patricia Bove (Patricia@ssrv.org.au) at SSRV to discuss the Integrated Services Project and related services and activities. We are keen to hear from financial counsellors about issues impacting upon your clients and their social security entitlements and to discuss potential collaboration opportunities.


Advice Lines

Financial counsellors are invited to call the SSRV Worker Help Line (0429 450 346*/ 03 9481 0655 – 9.00am-5.00pm, Monday – Thursday) for information and support in assisting clients with Centrelink matters and to make referrals to SSRV.


Individuals can be referred the SSRV General Advice Line (0419 793 652*/ 03 9481 0355), which is operating between 9.30am -12.30pm, Monday to Thursday).


These are the primary pathways for intake and assessment for further legal casework and representation services.


*Direct mobile phone numbers to telephone advice services while SSRV delivers services remotely during the COVID-19 response period. Calls to the usual numbers will be diverted to these mobile numbers.

Chairperson’s message – July 2020

Chairperson’s message – July 2020

As Victorians we stand together fighting the scourge of COVID-19. We do this in simple ways: washing our hands, wearing a mask, maintaining 1.5m social distance. We also do this as an industry through our work, providing support for those who have lost their jobs, businesses, and their financial security.


For many agencies, referrals to financial counselling services have temporarily slowed and this has helped get waitlists under control. Overworked financial counsellors are finally getting a moment to catch their breath, but are not afforded the privilege of being able to relax as the spectre of the future looms over us.


Both tiers of government have brought us into the tent to help deal with the fallout from the virus. The Federal Government has provided additional funding to agencies to expand the sector for the projected surge in demand.


The State Government is providing extra funding to FCVic to work on key projects, and FCVic has been busy planning these new projects in the mental health, utilities and tenancy spaces.


FCVic has also been recruiting to help with workforce development and training, as well as feeding into various other projects and campaigns, such as the Raise the Rate campaign.


Work is being done to prepare a one-day industry summit for next year, as well as an electronic AGM as an alternative to the one normally held alongside the conference. Luckily, our new constitution when revamped last year included provisions for electronic, remote participation.


In dark times we have to remember what we are grateful for. I am grateful I am a financial counsellor. Whilst many other sectors are doing it tough right now, our sector looks like it will come out the other side of this crisis stronger and with a larger membership.


I am also happy that people on Jobseeker are finally getting enough money to live on. Hopefully, the government sees the light and raises the rate permanently, instead of leaving people to languish in abject poverty. With so many people stuck on Centrelink, the pressure to raise the rate can only help the cause.


Financial Counselling and Elder Abuse – Update

Financial Counselling and Elder Abuse – Update

Financial counsellors play a vital role in the prevention of financial elder abuse. Our elder abuse project is funded by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and aims to strengthen the links between financial counsellors and Victoria’s elder abuse prevention networks.


Throughout June, we held 21 webinars that aimed to strengthen the links between financial counsellors and other community services working with older Victorians. An incredible 600 participants registered for the webinars, which resulted in a great geographic coverage of Victoria – represented on the map below (click to enlarge the image).



Julie Watson of Merri Health, lead of both the North and West Metro Elder Abuse Prevention Networks, said “the relevance of this topic was demonstrated in the terrific response we had to the four webinars held over the last couple of weeks. In total the two Networks had around 100 community sector staff participate in the webinars. A useful and productive collaboration is possible even in the middle of a pandemic!”


Our delivery partners have included the ten Victorian Elder Abuse Prevention Networks, the Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria and Australian Multicultural Community Services.


“Great to know that there are experienced & willing financial counsellors out there to help our vulnerable clients! Thanks.”



“I feel that I have more confidence in asking those difficult questions to our clients knowing that I have the resources to assist them. Thank you again, the webinar was very informative.”


Focused on the theme – How can financial counsellors help? – these interactive webinars have provided valuable insights from practising financial counsellors. Mike Kirkness of Latrobe Community Health Services gave a rich account of how he works with older people and their other support workers. A cast of willing FCVic members were kind enough to volunteer their time for the live Q&A in each webinar.


“Good to learn more about the scope and breadth of financial counsellors’ role.”


FCVic’s project on elder abuse is continuing for the next three months – working on closing service gaps we have identified to date and broader community messaging around elder abuse prevention.


Contact: Project Lead Dr Suzy Goldsmith sgoldsmith@fcvic.org.au 0413 587 486 for more information.

Integrated Services Project – Introducing our Family Violence Project Lawyer

Integrated Services Project – Introducing our Family Violence Project Lawyer

The partnership between FCVic and Social Security Rights Victoria (SSRV), the Integrated Services Project (ISP) aims to improve client outcomes through financial counsellors and social security lawyers working together more effectively. SSRV has two other specialist projects: The Family Violence Project and Disability Support Pension Project. This month, we’d like to tell you about the Family Violence Project.

The Family Violence Project explores family violence and social security issues. Community Lawyer, Anna Morrow, leads the work in this area which includes providing legal advice and casework services to people affected by family violence and workers assisting them, researching the intersection of family violence and social security law, exploring opportunities to engage with family violence specialist services, providing community legal education/professional development, and developing further resources for workers assisting vulnerable clients.

 

Case Study from the intersection of Social Security issues and Family Violence

Sasha* a lawyer at a Community Legal Centre contacted the project worker in relation to her client, Jill*, who had a $27 000 Centrelink debt. Sasha had been assisting Jill in relation to Family Violence Intervention Order proceedings as well as other legal matters related to the family violence. Sasha was looking to refer Jill to SSRV for assistance with the Centrelink debt.

The SSRV lawyer accepted the referral and took the matter on for representation. Jill had moved house multiple times and did not know where all her relevant paperwork was. At Jill’s request, the project worker liased with Sasha to obtain copies of evidence issued in her other legal matters. The CLC lawyer also provided a letter in relation to the assistance they were providing Jill to corroborate Jill’s evidence. While the project lawyer was in the process of preparing Jill’s appeal for debt waiver, Sasha contacted them regarding another issue that Jill had raised in relation to her child support. The project lawyer assisted Jill with this as well.

The collaborative relationship between SSRV and other community organisations is crucial to achieving the best outcomes for clients as it ensures access to crucial evidence and information and prevents other legal issues from falling through the cracks.

 

Intersection between family violence and social security

Family violence intersects with social security matters directly, where the social security system is used as a tool to perpetrate family violence, and indirectly, where social security issues arise out of the presence of family violence.

Social Security matters where family violence intersects include:

  1. Centrelink debts due to the ex-partner making false reports to Centrelink about the victim being in a relationship or having the care of their child;
  2. Family violence perpetrator threatens to ‘dob’ the victim into Centrelink. This impacts the victim’s capacity to leave the violent relationship;
  3. Where a family violence perpetrator withholds information about their income and this results in the victim receiving a debt;
  4. Where someone is unable to comply with their obligations to Centrelink due to trauma from family violence or having to flee a family violence situation;
  5. Residency or visa issues resulting in an inability to access income support and flee a family violence situation;
  6. The rate of payment is insufficient to secure safe accommodation;
  7. The person has difficulty establishing their entitlement due to not having access to their identity documents, or not meeting strict eligibility criteria.
 

Collaboration with Financial Counsellors

Social Security matters where family violence is a direct factor generally enter SSRV via a community support worker. Financial counsellors in particular, play a crucial role in the safety and wellbeing of someone who is experiencing family violence. Financial issues impact a person’s ability to flee a violent relationship and often it is financial counsellors who are the first to identify these issues and provide support or link the client to appropriate legal services.

The Family Violence Project aims to work closely with financial counsellors and other community workers to strengthen referral pathways and work collaboratively from the advice stage to the legal representation stage, so that victims of family violence receive wrap-around and trauma informed support.

 

Get in touch

Please contact Anna Morrow (anna@ssrv.org.au) at SSRV to discuss the Family Violence Project and related services and activities. We are keen to hear from financial counsellors about family violence issues impacting upon your clients and their social security entitlements and to discuss potential collaboration opportunities.

 

Advice lines

Worker Help Line – 0429 450 346* or 03 9481 0655

Financial counsellors are invited to call the SSRV Worker Help Line, Monday to Thursday, 9.00am- 5.00pm, for information and support in assisting clients with Centrelink matters and to make referrals to SSRV.

General Advice Line – 0419 793 652* or 03 9481 0355

Individuals can be referred the SSRV General Advice Line, which is operating between 9.30am -12.30pm, Monday to Thursday.

These are the primary pathways for intake and assessment for further legal casework and representation services.

 

*Direct mobile phone numbers to telephone advice services while SSRV delivers services remotely during the COVID-19 response period. Calls to the usual numbers will be diverted to these mobile numbers.

Chairperson’s message – May 2020

Chairperson’s message – May 2020

With the change of season upon us we also have a change in our lockdown restrictions. The winter chill is here but hopefully this will be offset with an increased warmth in our hearts brought about by interactions with friends and families now possible with the easing of restrictions.

In the words of Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin’. With change comes hope. Hope that things will be better somehow. That Jobseeker will get fixed. That we as a nation will restructure our economy to be greener, and kinder to the less privileged – our clients amongst them.

These changes may or may not come about in our country, but at the very least, it looks like financial counselling will continue to extend its reach and grow as a sector. This means a bigger voice and greater impact.

Whilst there has been a dip in referrals for a lot of agencies, the feeling out there is that what we are experiencing is comparable to a tsunami. Currently the water has receded, and we are bracing for when it surges back in. All indications are that economically the hard times are ahead, especially when people exhaust their hardship with the banks, and JobSeeker and JobKeeper are rolled back. So it’s time to batten down the hatches and prepare ourselves for what is coming.

If we can be grateful for something it is that we have time to prepare for what is coming. We can also feel grateful that both State and Federal Governments are looking to our sector to be part of the solution.

FCVic is receiving funding in a package developed by the Department of Health & Human Services, as part of the State Government’s response to COVID-19, to help flatten the mental health decline curve. It is well established that there is a comorbidity between financial hardship and poor mental health outcomes. This opportunity reflects increasing recognition of financial counselling as an essential social support service and an opportunity to not only lift mental health skills and knowledge of financial counsellors, but to include financial counselling as part of mental health services as we advocated in our submission to the Victorian Government’s Royal Commission into Mental Health. On top of this financial counselling was recognized in an energy support package developed by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. This includes funding for additional financial counsellors, and for FCVic to coordinate and advocate on energy issues. There is hope that we will secure further funding to assist with other pressure points for our clients in the coming weeks.

FCVic and its Board are mindful that now, in the lull, it is time to get our house in order and as such Sandy has written to the heads of the financial counselling agencies in Victoria, following up on the Counting the Costs report and seeking their assistance in making sure things are sustainable and workloads are safe for when the waters come rushing back in.

When the waters come back in and people are thrown in the deep end, we will need to line up all the supports we can to help people in hardship stay afloat.

Integrated Services Project (Year 1) report launch

Integrated Services Project (Year 1) report launch

Specialist social security lawyers and financial counsellors working together to improve client outcomes, the report into the year one implementation and evaluation of the Social Security Rights Victoria (SSRV) and Financial Counselling Victoria (FCVic) Integrated Service Project (ISP) was launched on Monday 25 May 2020. Many thanks to all who attended and to those who sent their best wishes.

Included in the report are a number of case studies illustrating how financial counsellors have worked closely with SSRV lawyers in relation to client matters. Helena’s story below is one of those. Integrated approaches to client services and collaborative work on systemic advocacy issues are key priorities for the ISP in year two.


Helena is a survivor of cancer. She has arthritis, severe depression, anxiety and several other serious health conditions. She cannot work due to poor health. She lives week to week, has no savings and survives on a minimal income insurance payment.

Several years ago Helena applied to Centrelink for the Disability Support Pension (DSP). Centrelink rejected her application. However, on appeal the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) found her eligible for the DSP. Helena commenced receiving payments. The Secretary of the Department of Human Services then appealed the AAT decision and won. Helena’s benefit was cancelled and she was left with no ability to work, no social security and a Centrelink debt of greater than $10,000 to pay back.

The existence of the debt caused Helena severe financial hardship and drastically affected her mental health. Helena asked SSRV for help. SSRV helped Helena appeal the debt at the AAT. In preparation for the AAT hearing, an SSRV lawyer and the SSRV financial counsellor worked with Helena to put together arguments about her financial hardship and personal vulnerability.

During the hearing, the AAT Member heard arguments from Helena’s SSRV lawyer about why it was appropriate to waive the debt. The AAT found there were special circumstances to warrant waiving the entire debt – noting Helena’s significant financial hardship, the profound negative impact on her mental health and that even if the debt were reduced to a minimal repayment of $15 a fortnight it would take many years to repay.

Helena told us – “I was worried, stressed and confused about where I was going to find the money to pay back the Centrelink debt. It took an emotional toll on me and my family. The debt meant I struggled to pay my bills on a fortnightly basis. Sometimes I had the money but sometimes I didn’t. I had to get help from my adult daughter the majority of the time. I had a very tight budget.

I didn’t understand why they had been raised, and I felt very judged. Without help from the SSRV lawyer and financial counsellor I would still be stuck in a position where I’d have to pay off the debt. Now that the debt has been waived I don’t have to worry about how I was ever going to pay it off. I don’t have to worry about how to find the money each fortnight to keep up the payments. Knowing that I am debt free has lifted a burden off my shoulders. I can finally breathe again. I am able to go to bed at night and wake up the next morning knowing that the debt is not there. I feel happy and relieved, walking around with the biggest smile on my face.


Further case studies can be found in the report which is now available on the SSRV website. The report provides a detailed outline of project implementation, learnings, outcomes and recommendations for year two.

The ISP offers the opportunity to focus on the points at which integrated legal/financial counselling service provision may benefit vulnerable Victorians in their engagement with the social security system. The report shows that integrated service provision can take a variety of forms and that it can have significant benefit for shared clients.

Both SSRV and FCVic are keen to receive your feedback about the report and the matters it addresses.

Worker Help Line – 0429 450 346 or 03 9481 0655

Financial counsellors are invited to call the SSRV Worker Help Line, Monday to Thursday, 9.00am- 5.00pm, for information and support in assisting clients with Centrelink matters and to make referrals to SSRV.

General Advice Line – 0419 793 652 or 03 9481 0355

Individuals can be referred the SSRV General Advice Line, which is operating between 9.30am -12.30pm, Monday to Thursday.

Keep an eye out for upcoming social security law and integrated practice professional development and resources.


Get in touch – please contact Karl (karl@ssrv.org.au) or Patricia (patricia@ssrv.org.au) to discuss the ISP and related services and activities. We are keen to hear from financial counsellors about how the COVID-19 crisis and government/other responses are impacting upon your clients and communities and their engagement with the social security system.

Executive Officer’s message

Executive Officer’s message

COVID 19 poses many challenges for financial counsellors in Victoria. ‘Working from Home’ isolates workers and expands their needs for support and risks to wellbeing, and FCVic has an important role to play in supporting our members and responding to those needs. We are holding regular zoom meetings of networks and working groups to reduce isolation and provide avenues of support.

At the same time, proper welfare assistance from the Commonwealth has shown how quickly a difference can be made to poverty and hardship where there is political leadership. There has been a clear reduction in need for financial counselling assistance in many areas. Yet an air of unreality pervades. We can anticipate a looming hardship crisis, as relatively generous jobseeker and jobkeeper allowances are reduced or ceased, but unemployment remains at high levels and the economy struggles. There is a small window at present to prepare for what is likely to be an unprecedented wave of demand. The Federal government has put funding into the sector to help it expand and prepare, and we are urging the State Government to partner with us in planning for this in Victoria.

Integrated Services Project Update – April 2020

Integrated Services Project Update – April 2020

The partnership between FCVic and Social Security Rights Victoria (SSRV), the Integrated Services Project (ISP) aims to improve client outcomes through financial counsellors and social security lawyers working together more effectively.


Priority to clients

During 2020, the ISP will prioritise integrated service provision to clients. We will increase the number of integrated legal/financial counselling services and continue to explore ways that financial counsellors and social security lawyers can effectively work together on Centrelink matters. As we established in 2019, integrated service provision by different professionals (or joined up or wrap-around service) can take many forms and occurs along a continuum. This may range from warm referrals to supported casework or even to active co-casework on a matter that is appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The following case study is an example of the type of integrated service undertaken in 2019 and the benefit derived for the client.


Jane was overpaid more than $5,000 of Parenting Payment. Jane sought assistance with appealing this debt. The reason for the overpayment was a failure by Centrelink to take into account Jane’s partner’s income when calculating her fortnightly payments. Centrelink’s position was that Jane had to report her partner’s income each fortnight, and that the reporting, usually done on a yearly basis as an estimate, was not sufficient. Jane maintained that she had done everything Centrelink required of her, and had complied with the instructions they had sent her.

Jane was referred to SSRV by her financial counsellor.  The SSRV lawyer worked closely with Jane and her financial counsellor and represented Jane at the AAT Social Services and Child Support Division (Tier 1). Unfortunately the outcome was unfavourable for Jane. SSRV assisted with lodging an appeal to the AAT’s General Division (Tier 2). However, the appeal did not proceed to hearing as a Centrelink legal representative contacted SSRV with an offer to settle. The offer involved reducing the debt significantly, and meant Jane would be entitled to a refund of some of the recovered money. Jane instructed SSRV to accept this offer.

The connection with the financial counsellor helped to enhance SSRV’s interactions with Jane who lived in a regional area. The financial counsellor was able to provide the hands on support. The financial counsellor prepared a statement of financial circumstances which was crucial in showing Jane had financial hardship for the purposes of a special circumstances waiver.

Jane provided the following feedback about how it felt having a financial counsellor and SSRV working together to take her case – Really good. Having the support of both was helpful and stopped me making mistakes. It was good to have the financial counsellor specifically, as I could sit down with someone face to face, ask questions, and go through the paperwork together.


Working with Financial Counsellors

We are now well into Year 2 of the ISP. Patricia Bove (Financial Counsellor) and Karl Schaffarczyk (Community Lawyer) continue to work with FCVic staff to build on the achievements and learnings of 2019. The report into the implementation and evaluation of the ISP during year one will be launched in late May. Keep an eye out for invitations to the event.

ISP staff will continue to engage with the Victorian financial counselling sector and provide information, resources and training during the year. This will include involvement in an upcoming FCVic organised professional development session relating to migrants and refugees.

In 2020, the ISP will prioritise systemic advocacy work to address policy and procedural issues and concerns arising through common clients/issues/services and broader collaborative activities between the financial counselling sector and SSRV. The FCVic Centrelink Working Group is anticipated to play a central role in joint approaches to systemic advocacy. In 2019, the Raise the Rate campaign was a key focus for the working group, perhaps maintaining the new rate will be a focus in 2020.


Continuity of Advice Lines

Financial counsellors are invited to call the SSRV Worker Help Line (0429 450 346*/ 03 9481 0655 – 9.00am-5.00pm, Monday – Thursday) for information and support in assisting clients with Centrelink matters and to make referrals to SSRV.

Individuals can be referred the SSRV General Advice Line (0419 793 652*/ 03 9481 0355), which is operating between 9.30am -12.30pm, Monday to Thursday).  These are the primary pathways for intake and assessment for further legal casework and representation services.

*Direct mobile phone numbers to telephone advice services while SSRV delivers services remotely during the COVID-19 response period. Calls to the usual numbers will be diverted to these mobile numbers.


Get in touch

Please contact Karl (karl@ssrv.org.au) or Patricia (patricia@ssrv.org.au) at SSRV to discuss the ISP and related services and activities. We are keen to hear from financial counsellors about how the COVID-19 crisis and government/other responses are impacting upon your clients and communities and their engagement with the social security system.

Interview with Sandra Blake, Small Business Bushfire Financial Counsellor

Interview with Sandra Blake, Small Business Bushfire Financial Counsellor

Please tell us about your background.

When you are born and raised on a farm as I was you have dirt in your shoes from a young age and once you’ve got dirt in your shoes its really difficult to get it out. Apart from a few years in my twenties, home has always been my farm. It was an upbringing I was keen to replicate with my own three daughters.

As a library technician I worked in public libraries, sometimes driving a large bookmobile. Later I added training quals and a decommissioned bookmobile was transformed into a computer-learning centre with desks and laptops in the back where basic computer skills were taught to indigenous and newly arrived refugees in an unthreatening space. My handsome printer husband was keen to be his own boss so we bought a printing business. I have always done the books for our business while pursuing my own career path.


What motivated you to pursue financial counselling?

While teaching in the training van it became evident that those I was trying to help would benefit from financial literacy. I came across a course called Financial Counselling, completed the diploma then used the points as credits towards a degree in Social Science/Welfare.

By working in various fields as a financial counsellor I’ve built valuable, strong, supportive networks across a wide genre. Those roles have been: solo generalist financial counsellor (FC) in a busy welfare agency where I saw far too many clients, burnt out and got compassion fatigue; FC for students at a university; Telephone FC at MoneyHelp (now National Debt Helpline); Financial Literacy educator; Rural FC visiting farmers from broad acre crops in the Riverina to dairy farms in the Upper Murray talking issues from debt management to succession plans; Outreach FC, and two current roles: Small Business Bushfire Financial Counsellor and Older Person’s Financial Counsellor.


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

It felt important to help however I could after the recent devastating fires. I evacuated from our farm and the fire-fighter printer husband was away for many days and nights with the CFA, so I do relate. When Fiona [Guthrie] asked if I would help establish a new telephone service to assist small businesses in bushfire recovery I accepted the challenge. It happened quickly; treasury offered funds on the proviso that the service was up and running within the month. There was so much to organise.

Now we have a full team of specially trained FCs and while we have capacity, answer calls from small business affected by COVID-19 not only bushfire. We talk through what grants, assistances or loans they may be eligible for and debt problems. Business owners are passionate about their livelihood; it consumes their total being. Their distress is clearly audible over the phone, but callers are always left with something. Working on this project with the team at Financial Counselling Australia (FCA) has been invigorating.

I also have a part-time role as Older Person’s FC at Royal Melbourne Hospital. This is the first time an FC has been directly employed by a hospital. Melbourne Health hope to write a paper on this work with a vision towards financial counsellors becoming employed more regularly in hospitals. There are two parts to this job: educating staff about what a financial counsellor does, and assisting older people in their home who have been identified as victims of financial abuse.


What has been your proudest achievement to date?

As an FC: Successfully advocating for positive changes that assist the masses. I’ve long been advocating for reform of payday lending and rent-to-buy services after witnessing widespread harm they cause in my community. I took time off from work to volunteer with independent MP Cathy McGowan and met with various other MPs. With regard to passing the Small Amount Credit Contract (SACC) bill, Cathy said we “kicked a goal along the way to winning the match”.

That’s definitely been a marathon and continues. I still follow this closely and have spoken at two senate hearings. I do believe it will pass, hopefully without too many amendments. Change isn’t always so onerous to achieve, e.g. advocating for policy change with your local credit union to benefit the vulnerable. Getting to know your local leaders, and ensuring they know you and what you do is a great way to bring about change. These people will come to you for opinions when they know what you have to offer.


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

It’s taken two unmatched disasters this year to bring about industry funding. From this arises the challenge of sourcing and adequately training new staff to execute our work. Then support, recognition and respect for financial counsellors is needed.

FCVic has made sound progress towards educating agency managers about our needs. Hopefully this advocacy continues and results in supportive, respectful agencies that rightfully acknowledge the true value of our work and knowledge base. Our sector can ill afford to lose quality, experienced members.


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

Garry Rothman told me once early on: “Remember, if you can’t help them, don’t harm them”.
Thanks Garry.

The Hume Region Network of FCVic has always been a terrific support and resource for information sharing.


What book are you reading at the moment?

Adele Ferguson’s Banking Bad. I remember Adele announcing at an earlier conference the need for a Banking Royal Commission. It was a privilege to hear her again at the FCVic conference in 2019 speaking about her book written on that topic. My eldest daughter is a librarian and with my own library background we are never short of a good read in our home.


What is your favourite app?

Words with Friends. Anyone up for a challenge? I’m sandylea.