August 20 2018
Legal help instrumental in waiving debt for family violence survivors
Embargoed until 6am August 20 2018
In just four months 24 women who have experienced family violence have been relieved of more than $100,000 of crippling debts through a new partnership between WEstjustice and McAuley Community Services for Women.
‘Economic abuse is present in virtually all family violence situations,’ says Stephanie Tonkin, Policy Director at WEstjustice, who led the project. ‘It keeps women trapped and unable to leave because they have been denied access to their own money, and even when they do, they are saddled with their abusers’ debts, fines and other legal issues. Their debts often spiral out of control, placing women at risk of poverty and homelessness.’
One of the women who has been helped, Diana, had been homeless for months with her two children after she separated from her violent partner. As a New Zealand citizen, she was not entitled to social security. While dealing with significant health problems she was struggling to repay old debts including an overdraft from a joint account that only her ex-husband had access to. He had drawn down $13000 on the account on the day they separated.
Within weeks of McAuley putting her in touch with WEstjustice, a waiver of the debts with which she had struggled over all that time was secured.
‘The debt had caused me years of sweat, tears and stress and it was taken off my hands and then solved right away,’ says Diana.
‘The help WEstjustice provided was something I couldn’t do myself. It may have been a tiny amount to some, but it wasn’t just the $20 I had to pay per month. It was the phone calls and letters after I missed a payment. It was having to provide an explanation.’
Ms Tonkin says: ‘WEstjustice had begun working with industry such as energy providers and banks on improving their response in situations where financial hardship and debt are caused by family violence. Industry were making real progress in introducing family violence reforms, but we realised we weren’t reaching women early enough, when they needed our help the most. Too often their legal and financial problems had escalated and had become entangled.
‘This is why it made sense for us to bring legal help right where it was needed, by forming a partnership with McAuley and break down the silos in our sectors.’
McAuley, Victoria’s first 24/7 family violence crisis response service, was ideally placed to link women into the legal help they needed. ‘This has been a missing part of the puzzle for many women,’ says Sonja Hood, Chair of McAuley’s Board. ‘We have the safe house and secure setting for women to get help; WEstjustice have the legal expertise and know-how.
‘Women are often overwhelmed and exhausted by the many aspects of family violence they are dealing with, including navigating the legal system. With WEstjustice working closely with our case managers, women don’t have to tell their whole story from the start which many find traumatic and distressing.
‘We have seen the impact on women on having these debts, which had weighed on them for so long, lifted. They can start to rebuild their lives without that huge burden. McAuley cannot do without this service any more.’
A report on the project, Restoring financial safety, will be launched on the morning of Monday, August 20 by the Hon. Gavin Jennings MLC.
A video about the project can be accessed https://vimeo.com/285216624/23e13d6b53
Stephanie Tonkin, Diana, and Sonja Hood are all available to speak to the media.
Media contact: Kerrie Soraghan, Communications Advisor, McAuley Community Services for Women, 0422 966 513 or KSoraghan@mcauleycsw.org.au