The cost of family violence

domestic-violenceBy NIGEL TAPP

Family violence is no longer an issue to be kept ‘behind closed doors’. High profile cases, such as the tragic murder of Luke Batty at the hands of his estranged father, have brought the reality faced by many families into sharp public focus.

Prior to the last Victorian state election, the ALP promised to establish a Royal Commission into Family Violence. The Commission opened last month and has been tasked with providing practical recommendations on how Victoria’s response to family violence can be improved. The Commission is due to provide its report and recommendations to the government by Monday, 29 February 2016.

A forum recently held at Kildonan UnitingCare examined one area of abuse where practical assistance can make a huge difference.

More than half of the women who suffer violence at the hands of their partner also experience economic abuse within the relationship.

Kildonan wants utility providers, banks, telecommunications and debt collection companies to understand the direct link between financial hardship and family violence, and take responsibility for tackling it with their customers.

The forum was attended by almost 100 frontline staff, team leaders and managers keen to investigate ways to help reduce the impact of family violence on their clients.

Kildonan UnitingCare chief executive officer Stella Avramopoulos said about 1.86 million Australians experience economic abuse each year.

“In many cases abusive partners will refuse to contribute to household bills, transfer utility bills into the victim’s name leaving the victim to accrue substantial debts, or get the energy or water disconnected as a means to control, manipulate or punish their partner,” Ms Avramopoulos said.

Young mum ‘Jane’ from Wollert in Melbourne’s north, experienced physical and emotional abuse shortly after her daughter was born, when her partner started using ice.

“He was very violent, I don’t even know where to start,” said Jane, who declined to reveal her name for fear of reprisal from her former partner.

“He was earning enough but he wasn’t supporting us at all. He used all our savings to feed his drug habit and I was depending on benefits to pay the bills.”

Jane said becoming a client of Kildonan prevented her from spiralling into overwhelming debt.

Kildonan’s new community and corporate partnership, CareRing, adopts a holistic early-intervention approach to vulnerable people by addressing the issues that can  cause significant financial pressures.

Forum keynote speaker OurWatch chief executive officer Paul Linossier said violence against women and their children cost the Australian economy about $14 billion each year.

“Primary prevention is at the heart of our strategy – we want to ensure women and their children are safe and can thrive with support from the community. Banks and utility companies have a large role to play in helping people get back on their feet,” Mr Linossier said.

Mercedes Lentz, from the Consumer Utilities Advocacy Centre, said most energy retailers did not list domestic or family violence as a criterion for hardship.

“We’d like to see, among many things, industry guidelines specifically addressing the treatment of customers who are victims of domestic violence,” Ms Lentz said.

“We find these women and their support workers experience great difficulty resolving utility debts and dealing with call centres and hardship departments.

“Economic stress, such as the liability for significant debts, can also hinder a victim’s ability to free themselves from an abusive environment.”

The forum also featured representatives of Yarra Valley Water, Western Water, NAB and the Energy and the Water Ombudsman.

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