Federal domestic violence back-patting and concurrent single parent benefit cuts

In our first post of 2016, Dr Kay Cook (@KayCookPhD) of RMIT and Dr Kristin Natalier (@KrisNatalier) of Flinders University argue strongly for recognition of domestic violence in its socioeconomic context rather than in isolation. In particular, federal policies associated with a 'zero tolerance' approach to domestic violence are at odds with policies that disadvantage single mothers.

There is a disconnect between the federal government’s tough talk on domestic violence and the welfare and family policies that undermine single mothers’ financial autonomy and wellbeing post separation. Until we recognise the intersection between domestic violence and wider government policies, any attempt to reduce and respond to domestic violence will fail.

The federal government has been earning political currency for its strong condemnation of domestic violence. A new era of respect has been heralded, in which domestic violence will be taken seriously. In a promised context of $100 million committed to embedding preventative practices, extending services and refuges, improving supports for women who experience domestic violence, and strengthening training for service providers, women will simply need to seek help to begin the process of turning their life around.

However, at the same time that the government has been lauded for its approach, it is simultaneously making life harder for single parents, the majority of whom are single mothers.  Moving single mothers from Parenting Payments to Newstart, imposing demanding welfare to work requirements, and cutting family tax benefits contribute to poverty, financial insecurity and a sense of entrapment. These policies undermine single mothers’ financial agency and their financial futures. At the coalface, many single mothers’ interactions with Centrelink, family law courts, and the Department of Human Services (Child Support Program) are characterised by humiliation, surveillance, disempowerment and control.

We need to recognise that domestic violence and the government policies that intensify single mothers’ poverty are intimately connected, in three key ways:

  1. Poverty is a barrier to women leaving abusive partners, as women rightly recognise the challenges of making ends meet as single mothers. Further, women who have been the victim of their partners' physical abuse are likely to have also experienced economic abuse. Economic abuse includes limiting a partner’s employment and training opportunities and access to material resources. Thus, many women leaving abusers do so with little money or household resources, and a skill level and work history that makes it difficult for them to find adequate employment. An unforgiving welfare regime makes it difficult for women to regard leaving as a better option than staying in a violent household.
  2. Women’s experiences of government agencies can mirror the financial and psychological abuse experienced at home. Our research has shown that dealing with the Department of Human Services (Child Support Program and Centrelink) often erodes women’s self- worth and insecurity, and exacerbates financial insecurity when payments are stopped or docked for reasons outside of women’s control.  This reinforces financial precarity and the sense of powerlessness women experience at the hands of their abusive former partners.
  3. Institutional processes governing single mothers’ access to resources are used by abusers to extend abuse post-separation. ‘Paper abuse’ is a type of procedural stalking, where legal and bureaucratic processes are initiated and used to exert power over women, forcing them to have ongoing contact with their abuser, burdening them with the costs of these processes, and eroding their sense of self and autonomy.

To date, the federal government’s much heralded dedicated funding and zero tolerance towards domestic violence exists as promises, not practice.  However, in order to move towards more supportive practice, the following two principles must inform the implementation of any given approach to domestic violence:

  1. Domestic violence must be positioned within its socioeconomic context. Supporting women to leave abusers requires more than criminal justice responses and support in the immediate post-separation period. Governments should recognise women’s need for financial autonomy and stability, and social standing – and the role of government policy and institutional practice in limiting or building these resources.
  2. Domestic violence needs to be conceptualised as a question of power, not simply physical violence. This in turn broadens the focus to the multiple forms of abuse: economic, psychological, emotional as well as physical abuse impact upon women’s short and long-term wellbeing and life chances. This more conceptually nuanced and empirically grounded approach offers a foundation for recognising the role government institutions can play in facilitating perpetrators’ ongoing abuse. Recently, advocates have argued for a change in family law rules that allow abusers with no legal representation to cross examine their victims. There is also a longstanding (but, we have found, underused) exemption to the maintenance action test that does not require women to seek child support from physically abusive former partners. These are important in limiting the power of individual and obviously violent men, but we need to do more to dismantle institutional processes that enable abusers’ ongoing control over women’s lives in less obvious ways.

Recent policy reviews, such as the 2011 Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into the Impact of Commonwealth Laws on those Experiencing Family Violence and the 2015 Inquiry into the Child Support Program have begun to examine the ways that government policies support or exacerbate women’s vulnerability post separation. However, a formal response to either of these processes has yet to be made by government, although some recommendations have been enacted. While both inquiry reports call for family violence to be a key consideration of the DSS/DHS when making policy and program changes, these initiatives remain focused on preventing women’s ongoing abuse by an ex-partner, rather than providing women with opportunities for independence, autonomy and respect. Until government takes a holistic approach to responding to domestic violence, attempts to intervene in this social problem will likely prove unsuccessful.

Posted by @MsSophieRae