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It costs $18,000 to leave a violent relationship: Is Australia doing enough?

Close up of clenched fist, cowering women in background. Australian police vehicle.
Ahead of next week's Women's Safety Summit, domestic violence is in focus. (Image: Getty)

When Felicity Cook left her abusive relationship after three years, she was only 22 and had years ahead of extricating herself from the trauma.

Her abusive partner at the time would keep her up throughout the night so she’d be exhausted at work, and he’d hit her so it was hard to move and to concentrate. He’d make her worry that when she was at work, he would have other women over.

She was studying at the same time, and her partner would destroy her assignments.

“While he never had control of my accounts, for me, it was everything that led up to the ability to make money,” she told Yahoo Finance.

“The long term effects of that have been that I’ve felt I’ve always been on the back foot because of that… I never really understood how to hold onto my money.”

When she left, she didn’t know anywhere she could go and was unaware of support services. She couch surfed for a while until she could figure out a plan.

“I had to find a way to be presentable to go to work every day, while also dealing with someone who was at that point, stalking me to try and make me come back.”

Twelve years on, Cook is in a happy relationship and has two toddlers. But she still struggles to talk about money, which she says takes her to a “really dark place”.

Coercive control has unique challenges and victims need unique support

Woman hides in cupboard after experiencing domestic violence.
Around one woman every week is killed by someone she called a partner. (Image: Getty)

Now an advocate for domestic and family violence survivors, Cook says her experience is just one of many.

“Some women are not allowed to work at all. Some of them have their accounts controlled, so they don’t have access to money,” she said.

“The biggest driving factor behind [women returning to abusive relationships] is the support for women who come out of them. Because there’s not enough.”

CEO of early intervention housing program Safe Haven, Jaeneen Cunningham agrees. Safe Haven is a service that connects women at risk with spare rooms across the country.

It’s been risk assessed by Minter Ellison to ensure the system is safe for all parties involved with all parties vetted, and it works directly to help women who have experienced coercive control.

Coercive control is a form of domestic abuse which covers a pattern of behaviours including threats, humiliation, intimidation and assault that is designed to frighten or harm the victim and grant the perpetrator greater control over their partner. It’s often a predictor of future physical violence.

It takes $18,000 to leave a violent relationship

Image of rows of houses, one with bubble around it - safe haven concept. Safe Haven managing director Jaeneen Cunningham.
Jaeneen Cunningham likens Safe Haven to the French Resistance. (Image: Getty)

A woman who has been abused will attempt to leave her abuser seven to eight times before leaving for good, according to NSW Communities and Justice data.

And when she does leave, it’s going to cost a lot. The Australian Council of Trade Unions has found it takes the average victim $18,000 and 141 hours to extricate themselves from an abusive relationship.

One of the problems with Australia’s response to the domestic violence pandemic is its understanding can often be limited to physical abuse.

That means that when victims of coercive control, who may not have been physically harmed, attempt to access services, they are naturally prioritised below victims in immediate physical danger.

If a female is being economically abused… they end up staying with the abuser. And then if they get a bit courageous and start mouthing back at them, that can lead to physical violence and danger.

But, as Cunningham said, those women still need a place to go.

“We have 375 registered rooms around Australia. These people donate those rooms and we look at assessing those people, security checking everybody, we have quite a rigorous program and we only take low-risk people,” she said.

Safe Haven is “like the French Resistance”, Cunningham said, but safety is a priority.

“If someone is leaving coercive control, and I know that that perpetrator is not going to chase that female, then I’m happy to put that female with [a safe house].”

If a woman is the subject of financial abuse, Cunningham said they need to get them into a safe environment as quickly as possible.

“If a female is being economically abused… they end up staying with the abuser. And then if they get a bit courageous and start mouthing back at them, that can lead to physical violence and danger,” she said.

“So we want to get those women out in the beginning.”

And it’s incumbent on businesses to step up their own awareness of what abuse looks like, she added.

It could be the worker who never goes out for drinks after work, or who doesn’t attend the morning tea and clocks off promptly at 5pm every day, because their partner knows it takes exactly 15 minutes to get from the office to the house.

Government eyes prevention, support payments

Women's Safety Minister Anne Ruston walks through the halls of Australian Parliament House.
Women's Safety Minister Anne Ruston. (Image: Getty)

Around one woman is murdered by her current or former partner in Australia every week, while 23 per cent of women have experienced violence at the hands of a partner, compared to 7.8 per cent of men.

And according to 2015 analysis, domestic violence is a crisis that costs Australia $2.17 billion a year, and is a leading cause for homelessness among women.

In a year which has seen the Government attempt to appeal to female voters, this has been a major discussion.

Federal Minister for Women’s Safety Anne Ruston on Monday announced a $4.2 million plan to trial a new domestic violence deterrence program.

Perpetrator interventions are an important part of the suite of tools that can be used to reduce domestic violence and we are committed to building the evidence base on what works.

The plan is designed to deter perpetrators from reoffending through overt monitoring and heavy consequences for repeat offending.

The scheme was first introduced in the United States after being developed by the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College in New York.

Reoffending fell from 80 per cent to 16 per cent among participants in the US program.

“In the US this program has shown evidence of making real inroads into preventing repeat offences and therefore helping women to become free of violence. We are keen to see if those results can be replicated in Australia,” Ruston said.

“Perpetrator interventions are an important part of the suite of tools that can be used to reduce domestic violence and we are committed to building the evidence base on what works.”

The trial will begin at the end of the year, and perpetrator intervention programs will be a key topic at the National Summit on Women’s Safety, held on 6 and 7 September.

It’s part of the Government’s $1.1 billion investment in women’s safety, announced in the 2021-22 Budget.

Victims will be able to access emergency payments of $5,000 under a trial to begin from June 2023, and an extra $261.4 million will be funnelled into the domestic violence sector.

Domestic violence leave, housing focus not on the cards

Aerial view of houses in regional Australian suburb.
If women are going to leave a violent relationship, they need a safe, long-term place to live and an income to support themselves. (Image: Getty).

While these new payments and support have been introduced, the Government has stopped short of offering paid domestic violence leave.

On Wednesday, the Government voted down an amendment to the National Employment Standards to provide 10 days of paid Family and Domestic Violence leave, while passing the Respect @ Work bill.

As it stands, victims can claim five days of unpaid family and domestic violence leave each year across Australia.

But in NSW, public service employees are able to access a significantly more generous 10 days of paid domestic and family violence leave.

You simply can’t talk about women’s safety without talking about safe and affordable homes.

Domestic violence is also a problem tied to Australia's booming property market.

Every year, 7,690 women return to an abusive partner as they have nowhere to live, and 9,120 women become homeless because of domestic violence.

Homelessness advocacy group Everybody's Home is calling on the Government to include housing as a priority in next week's National Summit.

"Failing to include housing for women’s safety on the Agenda at the National Summit on Women’s Safety highlights the lack of focus on this critical issue. You simply can’t talk about women’s safety without talking about safe and affordable homes," a statement urging the Government to include housing in the summit reads.

The bottom line: More support needed

Woman on phone with head in hands, stressed.
If women don't think they have anywhere safe to go, it's much harder to leave. (Image: Getty).

Both Cook and Cunningham agree that the most critical thing victims of domestic violence need is greater support when they do leave the abusive relationship, and for the support to be made long term.

Of women who have experienced violence at the hands of their partner, two-thirds report it began or escalated during COVID-19.

“A lot of women don’t leave, because they think: ‘How would I survive?’” Cook said.

When she left, she wondered what sort of life was possible out there, and felt the future was hopeless.

She’s been speaking publicly for years now to drive this point home: there needs to be more support, and awareness of the support, for women leaving violent relationships.

“It’s definitely not funded enough, and it’s not long-term enough,” Cook said.

Cook agrees. “If you have been in a physically violent, controlling situation for any length of time - but especially if it’s been a very long time - the time it takes to heal, find strength and become human again, it can take years.”

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