For women and children fleeing violence, timely and effective social security support is vital

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Last week, an important research report was launched by the National Social Security Rights Network. Entitled "How well does Australia’s social security system support victims of family and domestic violence?", author Sally Cameron lays out the many and complex ways the welfare system too often increases women’s financial insecurity following a separation due to domestic violence, and in the process compounds trauma. Today’s blog post provides a summary of the main findings from the report.

Domestic and family violence is increasingly understood as needing holistic support

The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children: 2010-2022 aims to achieve a significant and sustained reduction in family and domestic violence. Access to social security income is a critical component of that plan, and the broader strategy to support women to permanently leave violent relationships. Moreover, social security accessed at times of greatest vulnerability can be critical to victims of violence re-establishing themselves so they may rebuild their lives and move on.

The National Social Security Rights Network (NSSRN) recently undertook a research project to consider the relationship between the Australian social security system and family and domestic violence and to identify areas where support for victims of family and domestic violence could be improved.

The social security system’s response to family and domestic violence has improved enormously since the early 1970s. Improvements include numerous specific provisions in the Social Security Act 1991 (‘The Act’), A New Tax System (Family Assistance) Act 1999 (FA Act) and related legislation, explanations in the Guide to Social Security Law and Family Assistance Guide, procedures relating to staffing and protection of client information, as well as numerous other critical points of intersection. Despite significant efforts to increase support to people who are experiencing or have recently experienced family and domestic violence, some significant issues remain.

To jump or not to jump; will the safety net hold? Women are forced into making very difficult decisions when choosing between leaving a violent relationship and being reliant on social security.  Photo credit: Cincinnati Fire Dept. Drill School

To jump or not to jump; will the safety net hold? Women are forced into making very difficult decisions when choosing between leaving a violent relationship and being reliant on social security. Photo credit: Cincinnati Fire Dept. Drill School

Centrelink doesn’t always get it right the first time

The NSSRN research found that domestic and family violence intersected with eligibility and rate of social security entitlement across a broad range of issues. In most cases, violence had been perpetrated by partners or ex-partners, but also by parents, siblings, adult children, other family members and carers. More than one third of cases involved a Centrelink debt, often incurred without the debtor being aware they were not being paid the correct payment or rate of payment.

NSSRN members intervened in a range of ways, including providing advice directly to clients to support their interaction with Centrelink, interacting directly with Centrelink on clients’ behalf, and/or providing legal assistance/representation through formal appeal mechanisms. Notably, in many instances, cases were resolved in the client’s favour following NSSRN’s intervention, suggesting that Original Decision Makers and Authorised Review Officers are not always ‘getting it right the first time’.

The consequence of those decisions is that vulnerable clients who have recently experienced family and domestic violence are forced to go through unnecessary and often drawn-out appeal processes, adding significantly to their stress and trauma. In some instances, cases were not resolved because clients had become so stressed or fatigued by the appeal process they felt they could not continue despite a high likelihood of success. The level of distress experienced by some clients as a result of their interactions with Centrelink cannot be overstated.

Homelessness often goes hand in hand with experiences of violence

One of the most striking observations from the research was that in 60% of cases  individuals also experienced homelessness or a risk of homelessness . This finding supports other recent research, which has found that family and domestic violence often disrupts housing security and is the leading cause of homelessness for women in Australia – see for example here, here and here..

Non-residents are particularly vulnerable

The situation is particularly dire for women who do not fulfil residency requirements because, despite wanting to leave, their inability to secure independent income meant they were unable to secure housing and therefore were left little option but to stay with the violent perpetrator. The Newly Arrived Residents Waiting Period (NARWP) remains an obstacle to some women accessing social security, and consequently escaping family and domestic violence.

The social security system includes particularly harsh treatment of New Zealand permanent residents who arrived in Australia on or after 26 February 2001 and fall into the non-protected Special Category Visa holder category. Unlike other migrants, New Zealanders are automatically granted a Special Category Visa under which they have the right to immigrate to Australia and remain indefinitely to live and work, while contributing to compulsory superannuation and paying tax. Unlike other nationalities, New Zealanders are not required to apply for permanent residence. Consequently, unlike other newly arrived migrants (who may have arrived much more recently), and even if their circumstances change (including if they have lived here for years, worked and payed tax), New Zealanders are generally not eligible for social security payments. This places women from New Zealand at particular risk of violence, as they are more likely to find themselves unable to leave given they cannot access income support.

Verifying relationship status puts some women at increased risk of abuse

Further, we found that Centrelink’s obligation to assess whether a person is in a relationship continues to pose enormous challenges for staff, particularly where relationships are complex, are ‘on again/off again’, or where there are complex income and assets arrangements (which may take considerable time to disentangle post-separation). The system’s presumption of couples sharing income placed some women at increased risk of violence and/or pushed them to provide limited information to Centrelink, which resulted in debts being raised against them. Cases included:

  • Men refusing to share their income with their female partner and dependent child/children
  • Men taking (stealing) their female partner’s money
  • Men withholding information about income or assets, thereby making it impossible for their female partner to accurately inform Centrelink
  • Intimidation and physical violence by men to force their female partner to not declare income or to claim social security payments to which they were not entitled
  • Men delaying tax returns as a means to delay Child Support payments

In cases where Centrelink believes that the debt is a result of intentionally providing false information, there is also the risk of prosecution for social security fraud.

Experiences of family and domestic violence not a ‘special circumstance’

The consequences of family and domestic violence can be long lasting, including the ongoing impact of economic abuse post-separation. The research identified a number of cases where women had received sizeable compensation payments and, as a result, were subject to lengthy compensation preclusion periods during which they could not receive social security payment. Over time, their violent partners had coerced them to allow access to those funds but, post-separation, refused to repay them or provide any other financial support despite their ongoing inability to access social security income. Centrelink did not recognise their history of family and domestic violence as reason to waive the remaining portion of the preclusion period. Similarly, in many cases Centrelink did not recognise family and domestic violence as contributing to ‘special circumstances,’ which would allow debts to be waived, including cases where individuals had no idea they had been receiving incorrect payments.

What about the Crisis Payment?

The review found that the Crisis Payment, which can be paid to support a person leaving a violent relationship, continues to be undermined by a number of factors.  For example, Crisis Payment:

  • Can only be paid if claimed within seven days of the crisis, which can be too short for some people escaping a violent relationship who may be traumatised, seriously injured or hospitalised, and/or who may face difficulties accessing the required documentation within the short timeframe.
  • Can only be paid if the perpetrator or victim has permanently left the family ‘home’, which means that some of the most vulnerable people in crisis are excluded from obtaining Crisis Payment, including: those who are living in substandard accommodation or experiencing homelessness; those who have left the family home but are forced to move again when the perpetrator tracks them down and recommences harassment and/or violence; and those whose circumstances regarding their removal from the home may be considered ‘temporary’.
  • Is equivalent to a single week’s payment, which may be vital in a crisis situation but often is insufficient to enable victims of family and domestic violence to start re-organising their living and financial arrangements to stabilise their situation.
  • Is limited to four payments a year, so although that may suffice to support some victims of violence, it may not be enough to support the needs of some women trying to leave a violent relationship, particularly clients who are most vulnerable.
  • Is not available to victims of family and domestic violence who are not receiving income support but are experiencing or anticipating severe financial hardship resulting from their efforts to leave a violent relationship.

Children are often a pawn used by perpetrators

Having children adds considerable complexity to relationships where there is family and domestic violence. Care of children, whether it is classified by social security as ‘residence’ or ‘percentage of care’ remains a weapon used by perpetrators to continue family and domestic violence post-separation. Misleading claims about child residence by perpetrators are not uncommon. More care needs to be taken in establishing residence of children, and the system would be greatly improved if payments could continue to a parent where care is interrupted for a short period (of up to three months), as a means to secure stable accommodation and ongoing care for the child.

The critical role of staff, for good or ill

Generally, Centrelink staff members do an impressive job supporting people to access their social security entitlement, often in difficult circumstances. Capacity in this area appears to have been bolstered by the development of the Department of Human Services’ Family and Domestic Violence Strategy 2016-19 and the delivery of targeted family and domestic violence training. The development of key performance indicators to track performance is critical to ensuring the investment leads to real impact. The designation of expert positions in the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Department of Social Services (DSS) would help to achieve this, along with a mechanism coordinating the interface between those Departments, including access by community and other government agencies.

The research suggests that more staff support is needed to ensure consistent, high quality levels of service. The report recommends consideration of ways to increase the availability of safe spaces for disclosure of family and domestic violence, and an increased emphasis on staff training so that they are able to assist clients with complex needs and/or requiring greater levels of support.

The case data indicates that access to social workers remains pivotal to the effective management of issues relating to family and domestic violence, particularly when access to social workers is granted quickly and on-site. A greater reliance on information and communication technologies (over face-to-face interactions) has left many clients feeling unsupported and stressed by requirements to manage much of the claim process themselves, inhibiting disclosure of violence. These issues are amplified for those with limited access to, or understanding of, computer-based technologies.

While not necessarily typical of the majority of victims of family and domestic violence seeking social security entitlements, many clients in this report reported a sense of the social security system having failed them when they most needed support, including some staff appearing to act as gatekeepers and not facilitating their access to the system. This perception is at odds with the social security system’s mandate to operate as a safety net to support vulnerable people. The social security system remains a critical support mechanism for victims of family and domestic violence. It is vital that this overarching purpose is not lost in both the development of laws and policy, and during daily considerations about how specific laws and policies relate to individual cases.

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.