Navigating the path to financial security: Restoring safety for family violence victim/survivors

WEstjustice has developed a new model of economic abuse[1] service delivery that has improved the financial security[2] of family violence victim/survivors.  Our Restoring Financial Safety project culminated in a partnership with McAuley Community Services for Women (McAuley), a provider of family violence crisis accommodation and support services in Melbourne’s west, to achieve extraordinary client outcomes. 

In just four months, we:

  • prevented escalation of legal and financial problems arising out of family violence through early intervention;
  • provided holistic legal and financial counselling support to 24 victim/survivors with the complex processes and laws related to family violence; and
  • saved our clients over $90,000.

Tamara’s story

Tamara[3] and her husband were married for 10 years and had two children.  Tamara’s husband was violent, abusive and controlling over Tamara; she wasn’t allowed to have friends, a driver’s licence or buy clothing. 
After the loss of their daughter, Tamara’s husband refused to pay funeral expenses and continued using her Centrelink benefit to fund his lifestyle.  With the money she could access, Tamara paid for her daughter’s funeral and the family’s rent, school fees and her husband’s fines.  Tamara incurred more than $25,000 in debts for unpaid utility bills, credit cards and a personal loan she used to pay for her daughter’s tombstone.
Tamara came to the McAuley program soon after she separated from her husband.  She had to leave her son with a close friend so he could continue his studies.  Tamara was skipping meals while living in a safe house to make ends meet.  In just five hours, WEstjustice sought and obtained a waiver of Tamara’s $10,000 personal loan thanks to our contact at a bank.  That loan was causing Tamara enormous stress and tipping her into destitution.  In just one week we also obtained waivers of Tamara’s telephone, utilities, other banking and debt collection debts. 
By clearing Tamara’s debts, she could afford to return to a private rental and live with her son again.

Why responding to economic abuse is so important

Researchers now have evidence that of the women who present to family violence support services, up to 90% experienced economic abuse.[4]  Economic abuse is also cited as the main reason a woman remains in, or returns to, a violent relationship.[5] Family violence is the major cause of homelessness among Victoria’s growing population of homeless women.[6] This is the next step in advancing women’s rights. 

Almost all victim/survivors cannot fully recover from family violence without an effective model of economic abuse casework support.  The majority of victim/survivors are forced to self-represent through the justice system and with creditors.  Their legal and financial issues are intertwined and spiral out of control, risking homelessness and poverty and further impeding emotional recovery. 

Some financial counsellors and lawyers provide economic abuse casework support, but we cannot keep up with demand.  Most services begin helping with economic abuse issues well after the client has separated, around 18 to 24 months, when the legal, financial and emotional issues have compounded (and are much harder or impossible to resolve).  Clients tell us that they didn’t know about the legal assistance or financial counselling sectors until long after separation.

Restoring Financial Safety: collaborating on a response to economic abuse

We developed the McAuley program following extensive work with industry and the community sector on responding to family violence.  Industry (top tier companies, regulators, ombudsman schemes and peak associations) was making real progress but this didn’t always translate into improved financial security for victim/survivors.  

The McAuley program breaks down the ‘silos’ referred to in the Royal Commission into Family Violence’s report by partnering the legal, financial counselling and family violence sectors.  Integrating our services allows us to:

  • reach clients earlier in the cycle of their legal and financial issues to prevent escalation;
  • provide holistic legal and financial counselling support to complement the family violence, emotional, employment and housing support services provided by McAuley – meaning we can resolve more issues to help clients regain financial security; and 
  • provide space, time and emotional support for clients to work through complex and multiple issues.

Our clients present with multiple and intertwined legal and financial issues showing the need for both disciplines to provide best practice support.  Resolving just one or some issues does not lead to financial security because the next issue holds victim/survivors back from recovery.  Half of our clients had immediate and unresolved problems with the intervention order process, including mistakes on orders and baseless cross-applications.  One quarter of clients had new legal issues arise within weeks of our initial appointment, such as spurious criminal charges that we had dropped through negotiations with police.

The way forward

We know that the most vulnerable in our community do not walk into a community legal or financial counselling service seeking help with economic abuse issues.  Our work shows that economic abuse issues are difficult to identify and resolve and require a holistic, multi-disciplinary approach. 

The McAuley program has proven highly effective in supporting victim/survivors to regain financial security by addressing the many barriers to moving on from a violent relationship, at the right time, in a supported environment.  Government should invest in an expansion of this successful partnership model.

A project report that details our Restoring Financial Safety work and makes recommendations for reform will be released soon.  More information is available on the WEstjustice website here.

Stephanie Tonkin is Principal Lawyer and Policy Director at WEstjustice, a community organisation that provides free legal help to people in the Western suburbs of Melbourne. Stephanie and WEstjustice are also leading contributors to the Economic Abuse Reference Group, an informal group of community organisations which influences government and industry responses to the financial impact of family violence.

Posted by @jrostant

[1] “Economic abuse” is used to include economic abuse and economic consequences of family violence.

[2] “Financial security” is used to include financial security and financial safety.

[3] Our client’s identifying information has been modified to protect her privacy.

[4] Prue Cameron, WIRE, Relationship Problems and Money: Women Talk About Financial Abuse (2014) <>.

[5] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Specialist Homeless Services Data Collection 2011-12 (2012) Cat. No. HOU 267 <>.

[6] Ibid.