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‘Humiliating’: How Centrelink ‘traps’ women in violent relationships

·5-min read
Image of Centrelink with shadowy image of someone's hand
Australia's social security system is broken and works against women, advocates have said. (Source: Getty)

Australia’s social security system inadvertently “traps” domestic violence victims in relationships, advocates have warned, as the country reckons with a national domestic violence crisis.

Around one woman is killed by a current or former partner every nine days in Australia. And every year, 9,120 women become homeless after leaving an abusive relationship.

One major way to address this would be to overhaul the social security system, Financial Counselling Australia CEO Fiona Guthrie told the National Summit on Women’s Safety this week.

“It would be fantastic to see the National Plan [to end violence against women and children] address that head on,” she told a panel on fighting financial abuse.

“We’ve got a system that’s not supporting people, it’s actually obstructing their economic security.”

JobSeeker is too low: Advocates

Around 23 per cent of women and 7.8 per cent of men have experienced domestic violence in Australia.

The first challenge in escaping is often the level of unemployment payments, Guthrie said.

Unemployed Australians are entitled to $620.80 in fortnightly JobSeeker payments, or $44.35 a day.

That increases to $667.50 if they have children, or $47.70 a day.

“People stay in abusive relationships, or when they leave, they find themselves in poverty and return,” Guthrie said.

This is borne out by the statistics: NSW Communities and Justice data finds that the average woman will attempt to leave a violent relationship seven to eight times before she successfully flees.

And every year 7,690 women return to a violent partner as they have nowhere else to live.

The second challenge is that Centrelink and Services Australia payments can be weaponised against women and children who leave violent relationships, Guthrie added.

“If a person doesn’t report their income separately, or put in their tax return, then that will result in a debt for the woman receiving a Family Tax Benefit payment,” Guthrie said.

“She will end up paying back that debt because of something that that person has done, and done on purpose.”

‘Extraordinary’: Australia has $1.7 billion in unpaid child support

A similar problem occurs with child support, Guthrie added. Across Australia, there is nearly $1.7 billion in outstanding child support payments yet to be paid to single parents.

Guthrie said some of her clients have seen their Family Tax Benefits and rent assistance payments reduced on the assumption that they are receiving child support payments, when that isn’t actually occurring.

“That kind of systemic problem needs to be fixed so that we don’t perpetuate violence,” she said.

The Centre for Women’s Safety founder Rebecca Glenn agreed, saying Australia needs to do a better job of holding perpetrators to account for their financial abuse.

For the purposes of determining child support payments, the social security system will assess the income and assets of a couple together.

Then, it operates off the assumption that the breadwinner will support their partner.

“The problem is that when they don’t, the rule increases the victim’s reliance on the perpetrator,” Glenn said.

“But more importantly, we don’t hold the perpetrator to account. So we’ve designed the system on the assumption that they’ll do the right thing, and there is no penalty for not doing the right thing.”

She said this is playing out in the “extraordinary levels” of unpaid child support.

ParentsNext ‘overhaul’ needed as 1,000 have payments cut

Parents with children under six years old are generally required to take part in the ParentsNext program if they have been receiving income support for at least two years and haven’t completed Year 12 and are older than 22.

Services Australia describes it as a way to “plan and prepare for future study or employment”, with eligible parents connected with a provider who they meet with to set work and study goals and access services.

But if they don’t comply with the requirements, their parenting payments may be cut off.

The Government needs to urgently “overhaul” this program, Glenn said.

“The program is compulsory, so people don't have any choice about participation or what participation looks like. We know that 80 per cent of participants are women, many of whom have had domestic violence in their past,” she said.

“Women are being penalised because they didn't turn up to an appointment with their job provider because their child was sick and they didn't realise the payment had been stopped until their card was declined at the supermarket, paying for groceries.”

One third of ParentsNext participants have had their payments suspended, while 1,000 have had them cancelled entirely, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights recently found, while calling for the scheme to be made voluntary.

The same committee warned Indigenous mothers are disproportionately represented and penalised among ParentsNext participants, making up 21 per cent of the cohort, despite only making up 3.3 per cent of the Australian population.

Once a payment is suspended, they then need to wait 28 days before re-applying. It’s a situation that Glenn described as “humiliating” and “incredibly stressful”.

Instead, the Government needs to redesign the program entirely, turf the penalties, make it voluntary and include participants in the design process, Glenn said.

Guthrie said that ultimately, while the Government and Services Australia has improved on some fronts, there is still work to do in ensuring women aren’t hurt by systems designed to support them.

“If the system overall traps people in abusive relationships, or allows the perpetrator to continue to abuse [the victim] when they leave, there’s something fundamentally wrong.”

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