Economic Justice Australia
Ten years after the commencement of the first National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, domestic and family violence (DFV) continues to be a pressing issue in Australian communities, with COVID-19 creating the conditions to increase the incidence of DFV. Social isolation, financial and family pressures have all had a negative impact people at risk of DFV. Every day, eight women are hospitalised with injuries inflicted by an intimate partner.
The social security system plays a key role in empowering women to escape situations of DFV, as detailed in EJA’s 2018 report on the issue, our recent submission to the Senate inquiry into DFV (to be published), as well as and ANROWS’ 2019 research report (Social security, domestic violence and the couple rule). However, aspects of the current system may be inadvertently contributing to coercion and control of victims, specifically Centrelink’s information gathering processes and compliance mechanisms.
Case studies from our member centres indicate that the way Centrelink collects and uses information from third parties about recipients’ circumstances may be making it more difficult for victims of DFV to extract themselves from situations of violence. Centrelink receives information provided by third parties by various means, including emails and letters, and through the fraud tip off line – the dedicated line for community members to make allegations regarding social security recipients. Allegations can also be made by third parties in the course of reviewing third party entitlements, including with regard to shared care of children.
Perpetrators use the threat of ‘dobbing in’ a victim to Centrelink to invoke a fear of incurring a debt or of prosecution where they have coerced the victim into misreporting their circumstances, or as a way to make false allegations against the victim. This contributes to women’s fears of being ‘caught out’ by Centrelink, giving the perpetrator leverage to force the victim to stay in the violent home.
The case studies below, from EJA member centres, show the various ways in which women experiencing DFV have been impacted by third parties making allegations about their circumstances to Centrelink, and highlight the importance of creating reporting and investigation procedures that are not used to re-victimise survivors of DFV.
Natalie contacted a member centre when her Family Tax Benefit was suspended. She was under investigation by Centrelink due to a report by her abusive ex-partner that she had falsified care arrangements for their child for the past 3 years. Natalie had left the relationship when her son was 12 months old, following a long history of abuse. She had been in a long Family Court dispute with her ex-partner, which was finalised in December 2019 in her favour. Her partner was disgruntled with the result, and shortly after the decision reported to Centrelink that he had a greater share of the care of the child going back to 2017.
Centrelink informed Natalie that she was at risk of a $2,500 debt and was required to submit evidence to support her claimed level of care. Centrelink informed her that they sent her a letter with forms requesting information in December 2019 but Natalie never received this letter and the member centre believes she was not informed of the investigation and report until her payment was cancelled on 31 January 2020.
Natalie was able to submit:
- personal diary notes – Natalie had kept diary notes of the child’s overnight stays with her ex-husband, including dates circled going back 3 years;
- letters from her son’s psychiatrist who was involved in the mediation and access negotiations;
- parts of a report done by the court appointed expert psychiatrist supporting the level of care;
- hand-written notes made by Natalie about access; and
- emails from the ex-husband where he cancelled access days.
Natalie was referred to Centrelink Social Worker who stated he would intervene on her behalf but he never re-contacted her and she was not given any means to get in contact with him herself. Natalie also called the Families line a number of times but they told her they were not able to give her any information about what was happening and would pass a message along to the dispute team. She was not able to talk to the dispute team herself.
Natalie did not have her payments reinstated until a month after submitting her evidence.
Keira contacted a member centre when her Family Tax Benefit was suspended. She is an Aboriginal woman who has four children between the ages of 4 and 18 years of age, who reside with her. Keira and the father of two of the children are separated, and the father is subject to an ADVO.
Keira’s FTB was cancelled because of misinformation provided by her ex-partner about who currently had care of the children. She had no prior warning that the payment would be stopped, and there was no record of an attempt by Centrelink to contact her. A letter from Centrelink which Keira received a few days later informed her that FTB had been stopped but gave no reason why and did not include any information about Keira’s options; nor did it request Keira to provide any further information.
Keira phoned Centrelink to ask why her FTB payment had been cancelled. She explained that apart from one week, the children were in her care and that she needed the FTB payments to support her children. After this phone call, Centrelink sent Keira a further letter requesting additional information about her family circumstances. Keira provided documentary evidence that the children had been in her care.
Keira’s FTB was reinstated a month after the cancellation with arrears paid. However, Keira did not receive the funds as they were allocated to a debt that had arisen because Centrelink believed that the children were not in Keira’s care for some time during a previous period, likely as a result of misinformation from her ex-partner. This debt has been appealed to an ARO and is awaiting a decision.
Irene was in a long-term relationship with a man who physically abused her and had a previously violent criminal history. He came and went from her home at different times and she lived in fear of him.
Centrelink received an anonymous tip-off that Irene was getting the single rate of payment while partnered and raised a debt of around $50,000 against her. Irene had a record of minor offences and a history of poor health and she did not find it easy to connect with services or advocate for herself, so she had not told Centrelink that her partner was violent. Centrelink referred the matter to the CDPP. At the time of prosecution, Irene was on the run from her now ex-partner because she feared violence from him.
Irene sought assistance from the member centre who helped her prepare a submission addressing the violence and her current situation. The CDPP desisted from prosecution. However, the Centrelink debt remained and the client did not seek legal help to appeal it as she was concerned with finding a safe place to live.
Jean lived with her partner who was violent and controlling. He controlled her finances and deliberately under-reported his income to maximize the payment Jean would receive from Centrelink and which her partner would then take control of.
Centrelink received a tip-off that Jean was getting the single rate of payment while partnered and raised a debt against her as a result of her member of a couple status and her partner’s under-reporting of his income.
At the Social Services Division of the AAT Jean’s debt was waived because the member held that her partner had diminished capacity due to his mental illness and couldn’t be held account for under-reporting.
The social security system has a key role to play in enabling Australian women to flee situations of domestic and family violence.
Anecdotal evidence from EJA’s member centres suggest that changes to the Guide to Social Security Law in response to recommendations made in our 2018 report have led to fairer outcomes for victims of DFV. In particular the Guide now makes reference to DFV as a factor to be considered when determining whether a person is a member of a couple.
However, the case studies profiled here show how compliance processes like the tip off procedures are still being used to disempower and control victims. These case studies suggest that these issues require more in-depth study with a research project focusing on compliance and issues of domestic and family violence.