"I have been a victim of financial abuse and my bank has provided me with the same case officer to assist with my case over the last 12 months, whilst the bank has a lot of improvements they can make in their policies and practices, it has been great to be able to deal with an empathetic, compassionate person who knows my circumstances and not have to constantly re-explain my story."
There are many ways you can support a client experiencing family violence or financial abuse. If a client discloses that they are experiencing family violence the most important thing you can do is listen to them and support their decisions. Keep in mind that their safety should always be the main consideration.
If your client is in immediate danger, call the police on 000.
Give them a safe space to talk, this may mean moving your conversation to an office or another private space where other clients or colleagues can’t hear you. Take the time to listen to their story. Respect what they are saying and their choices. Try to understand that they may not be ready, or feel safe enough, to leave the relationship. Separation is the most dangerous time for a person experiencing family violence, and violence often escalates during this time.
1800 RESPECT has more tips on how to respond to a disclosure of family violence.
Referral to a specialist family violence service
Although you may be able to provide some assistance to your client, it’s crucial that they also receive specialised support from a family violence service. 1800 RESPECT is the national sexual assault, domestic family violence counselling service. They provide free, confidential support 24 hours a day to people impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence and abuse. If your client is not already linked in with family violence support services, you can connect them with a support service in your local area. 1800 RESPECT have a service directory to help you find the relevant services.
Referral to a financial counsellor
Financial counsellors are non-judgemental, qualified professionals who provide information, support and advocacy to people in financial difficulty. Working in community organisations, their services are free, independent and confidential. Financial counsellors can be a crucial resource to someone experiencing financial abuse, particularly during separation and property settlement processes. Many people are unaware of this free service, so referral to a financial counsellor as soon as possible is recommended. You can find out more on the Financial Counselling Australia website.
It may be helpful for your client to start putting away small amounts of money to have access to for emergencies or if they do decide to leave the relationship. This can be particularly helpful if they are experiencing financial abuse. You may be able to assist them in setting up a secret bank account or giving them ideas of how to put away some cash, e.g. by taking cash out when grocery shopping.
It’s important to discuss safety issues before going ahead with actions such as opening a bank account, as it may be too dangerous for your client to do this. It may depend on how closely the abuser is monitoring the finances and whether your client has to account for the money they spend.
If setting up a secret bank account for your client, it’s important to consider the following things:
Your client is the best person to judge whether opening a secret account is too risky for them. Trust them to make the decision as they know their situation the best.
Ensure no paper statements or promotional materials are sent to their home where the abuser may read them.
Is it possible that their phone, computer or tablet are being monitored? This can be done in a number of ways — the abuser may know their passwords or they could be using spyware on their devices. Spyware is sophisticated software that tracks how a person is using their device; it is often undetectable so it could be installed on your client’s phone without their knowledge. If this may be the case your customer may need to take action such as changing their passwords or setting up a new email address from a safe computer. Read more about our online safety tips here.
If your client feels safe enough to open a bank account keep in mind:
They may only be able to deposit small amounts of money into this account so an account with no fees would be ideal. This means their emergency fund won’t be drained by fees.
(If your company doesn’t provide a no-fee option try speaking to your manager to see if the fees could be waived for special circumstances.)
They will need to keep their debit card in a safe place where the abuser won’t find it, but somewhere where it is accessible in an emergency.
Ensure no statements or promotional materials will be sent to their address. They could also use the address of a trusted person as their mailing address to avoid this happening.
If your client doesn’t feel safe opening a bank account, they may be able to hide away cash to use in an emergency. Some ways they may be able to do this include:
Taking extra cash out when buying groceries. (Check with their bank first to see if taking cash out is listed on their bank statements. This tactic may not work if the abuser is checking all receipts.)
Putting away all spare change. It might not seem like much but it can really add up.
Selling things on social media or having a garage sale.
Doing odd jobs for cash.
Buy items and then return them for cash. (this will depend on the store’s returns policy)
Walking instead of catching public transport.
This money should be hidden in a place where the abuser is unlikely to find it such as in an envelope taped to the back of a picture frame or in a tampon box.
Online services such as Paypal can also be used to hide emergency funds, but accounts like this need to be linked to a bank account or credit card. Unless your client has a secure bank account this might not be an option. If you are assisting a client in setting up an online account, make sure the email address linked to the account is secure.
Financial institutions need to have formal procedures in place that protect women in family violence situations.Bec's Story
No or low interest loans
Your client may be eligible for the No Interest Loans Scheme (NILS) where people on low incomes can borrow up to $1,500 for essential goods and services such as fridges, washing machines and medical procedures. Repayments are set up at an affordable amount over 12 to 18 months. This is a great alternative to Payday Loans that can leave women in a greater amount of debt. Take a look at the Good Money website for more information.
Speckle provide loans up to $2,000 with no hidden costs and flexible repayment options.
Applying for financial hardship
Make sure you let your client know about any hardship policies, that your organisation has that may be helpful to them. You can also let them know about other organisations that have similar policies such as their utility companies. Many of these institutions now have family violence policies and processes to support their clients experiencing family violence.
It is possible that the abuser may be monitoring your client’s computer, phone or tablet. This might be done overtly, by demanding access to online accounts, or covertly, by guessing passwords or installing spyware on a device. Spyware is made to be undetectable and won’t appear as an app on their home screen. Warning signs that spyware might be installed on a device include: the battery draining faster than usual, high data usage, receiving cryptic text messages and hearing static or feedback during calls. Online safety is an important consideration when assisting a client who is experiencing abuse.
Online Safety Tips:
Use a safe computer — like a public access computer at a library.
Change passwords to make them more secure.
Create a secret email address that the abuser can’t access.
Delete browsing history.
Disable geotagging on smartphones and tablets.
If your client has children with mobile devices, they might also be monitored and need settings changed to prevent them from sharing locations etc. For more tips and details on online safety, head to Technology Safety Australia’s Women’s Technology Safety & Privacy Toolkit.
Leaving the relationship
Your client may be planning to, or in the process of, leaving the relationship. This can be a very dangerous time, with violence often escalating during separation. Your client may be moving in to a family violence refuge or going to stay with friends or family where they feel safe. Leaving a violent relationship can be stressful and traumatic and often has huge financial repercussions. Many survivors leave with nothing, or just a few important possessions. There are a few things you can do that might reduce the financial shock to your client.
If your client is planning to leave the relationship they should try to take important documents with them if they can.
Important documents include:
Birth and marriage certificates
Citizenship papers and visas
If it’s too dangerous to take the physical documents having copies, either physical or online, can be another option. You could assist a client by scanning their documents and emailing them to a private email address, or helping them set up online storage such as Dropbox.
Close joint accounts
Your client should close, or freeze, any joint bank accounts as soon as they leave so their partner can’t drain the account or rack up debts. The same goes for joint credit cards. If your client doesn’t already have their own account they should set one up as soon as possible. Make sure their pay, or any income support payments, are going in to their own account and not the joint account. If your client has a joint mortgage or loan, remind them to cancel their redraw facility. Your client may also want to change their PIN number and online banking passwords. Take a look at ASIC’s Money Smart website for more information on separation and money.
Lease and utilities
If your client is renting and they decide to leave the rental property they should take their name off the lease, otherwise they could be liable for any arrears or damage done to the property. If your client plans to return to the rental property ensure they don’t return their key to the real estate agent. Returning the key may make it more difficult for them to return to the property later. They should also have their name removed from all utilities or they could be liable for any unpaid bills. If your client is unsure of what to do they can call the Tenants Union in their state.
Australia Post offers twelve months free mail redirection for victims of family violence. To qualify your client will need:
A completed mail redirection form.
Proof of identity.
An intervention order, statutory declaration from the police, or notice on an approved letterhead from a supporting agency confirming the situation.
Please note: All applicants will be sent a letter to their old address to confirm that they are aware of, and authorise, the redirection of their mail. Make sure your clients are aware of this as it could be a safety concern. To avoid the abuser finding out about the mail redirection it may be safest for your client to redirect their mail after they have left. You can find out more on the Australia Post website.
Thinking about financial abuse in terms of family violence; I didn't really equate the two.Mim's Story
If your client has joint debt with their abuser there may be some ways you can help them, especially if the debts were accrued through financial abuse. Your client may be released from a credit facility if they do not benefit from it, for example if they have a sole or joint loan that only benefits their partner (or another abusive family member) or if they have a credit card that is only used by the secondary card holder. It is the responsibility of the financial service provider to recognise financial abuse. If they are aware that your client would not benefit at the time of the loan they should release them. A lender may also give an individual borrower assistance if they are experiencing financial difficulty. If this is the case you should refer your client to a financial counsellor or the Financial Ombudsman Service.
It is likely that your client will need legal advice, depending on their situation, but particularly if they own property with their ex. If financial abuse has occured it may be continued through legal systems such as the property settlement process, so it’s important for your client to get legal advice as soon as possible. If they are married they should be taking note of important dates, such as when they separate to assist with the divorce process. A couple must be separated for a year before they can file for divorce. They will also need to change any documents that have their ex as the beneficiary such as their will, superannuation or insurances.
If your client is receiving income support payments they will need to contact Centrelink to advise them of their change in living situation. Your client may become eligible for Centrelink payments when they leave the relationship. You can find out more on the Centrelink website.
If your client has a job they may want to let their employer know their situation. A lot of workplaces now have family violence policies in place to support their employees who are experiencing violence. This may include extra days of leave and flexible working arrangements. By explaining the situation to their employer your client may receive the support they need to keep their job, which can be crucial in keeping them out of poverty and socially connected.