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The latest report from the National Social Security Rights Network, How well does Australia’s social security system support victims of family and domestic violence? considers the relationship between social security and domestic and family violence, drawing on the casework experience of our member network of community legal centres. 

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Family and domestic violence is a national emergency, affecting thousands of people – predominantly women – every day. Domestic violence is about coercion and control, and includes emotional and financial abuse as well as physical assault.

For people escaping domestic and family violence, social security is critical. Centrelink support is vital in helping people affected by violence get to safety and start rebuilding their lives. But many people who spoke to our caseworkers and lawyers across the country said they felt the social security system had failed them when they most needed support.

The NSSRN network of community legal centres speak to thousands of people every year who are affected by domestic violence, and assist them with social security issues of all kinds.

The report draws on this depth of frontline experience to examine the Australian Social Security system from the point of view of people affected by domestic and family violence, and to offer a roadmap for positive change.

The report was authored by Sally Cameron.

Research findings

The research found that:

  • domestic and family violence cuts across all social security payment types. Many clients contacted the centres while experiencing genuine financial distress, with homelessness and risk of homelessness common.
  • significant issues for people experiencing domestic violence relate to the structure and payment of social security payments. These include delays in payment for people in crisis and debts resulting from administrative error and/or opaque Centrelink correspondence regarding reporting obligations.
  • Often women deemed to have been living as a member of a couple are left with large social security debts while their violent partner or ex-partner has no financial liability.
  • The social security system’s expectation that people in relationships will share income and assets ignores gendered power imbalances in many relationships and increases some women’s risk of domestic and family violence.
  • The inability to secure income support forced some women (and their children) to stay in the home where they were subject to violence, with those whose residency status did not meet social security criteria particularly at risk.
  • Many clients reported significant distress in understanding their social security entitlements and dealing with Centrelink and its offices, which are not conducive to disclosure of domestic and family violence. Clients’ access to social workers and social workers’ capacity to support clients and influence Centrelink decisions appears to have been eroded.

Case studies

When Mia* got divorced from her violent husband, she applied for income support but was rejected by Centrelink, forcing her to remain in the same rented house as her abuser with her three children. She had no money at all. Her ex-husband worked but would not give her any money unless she begged and he would routinely humiliate her before he gave her a few dollars.

Samira’s drug-abusing husband threatened to choke her to death if she didn’t tell Centrelink she was single. She was too scared to go to the police. After he died from an overdose, she was worried about getting into trouble for giving Centrelink false information and too embarrassed to tell anyone about his violence. She’s now facing prosecution.

Lisa’s violent husband forced her to give him the compensation she’d been awarded after a serious accident. She applied to Centrelink for support, but was told she wasn’t eligible, leaving her in debt and struggling to support her three small children. (‘Lisa’ is available for interview – read a longer version of her story here)

Claudia’s partner was sent to jail for attacking her, leaving her in the family home to care for her five young children. Centrelink rejected her claim for a crisis payment because she told a Centrelink worker he might return home when he was released.

Basia and her 10-year-old daughter were living with her mother. She was seriously ill and had no savings or source of income. She applied for Family Tax Benefit, but Centrelink told her they could not process her claim until her violent ex-partner signed the paperwork confirming the child was living with her. She could not get in contact with him, and ran up custody-related legal bills of almost $30,000.

When Elizabeth’s husband was sent to jail for assaulting her, Centrelink decided she was not eligible for a crisis payment, despite her having no savings. She eventually got the payment. However the struggle to understand and claim what she was entitled to took over five months. During this time she had no income for herself or her five children, but went through sixty-two separate pieces of correspondence, telephone calls or face-to-face meetings with Centrelink.

*names and images changed to protect privacy

Media enquiries

For more information and interview opportunities please contact Leanne Ho, Executive Officer: tel 0448 007 201 or Sally Cameron, report author: tel 0432 109 476