DOB-INS AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: HOW AUSTRALIA’S WELFARE FRAUD TIP OFF LINE MAKES WOMEN LESS SAFE

admin Social security rights review

Dr Scarlet Wilcock, University of Sydney

Professor Nan Seuffert, Legal Intersections Research Centre, University of Wollongong

Dr Lyndal Sleep, University of Queensland

The provision of social welfare payments is widely recognised as a vital component of strategies to reduce violence against women.[i] However, as a recent report by Economic Justice Australia demonstrates, the introduction of welfare compliance measures and policies can inadvertently create new risks and harms for victims/survivors of violence, which can undermine the role that welfare systems can play in promoting women’s safety.[ii]

One issue that emerged during this research was the way that Services Australia’s welfare fraud tip-off regime can be weaponised by perpetrators of domestic and family violence. The tip-off regime enables members of the public to anonymously report suspected welfare fraud, including by phoning the Services Australia Fraud Tip Off Line or by completing an online web form. This regime is promoted as an ‘integral part’ of Services Australia’s efforts to tackle welfare fraud.[iii] However, our research identified instances where perpetrators threatened or made malicious reports to the tip-off line about a current or former partner.[iv] For example, according to one social security caseworker interviewed for this research:

I’ve had clients say their partners or ex-partners threaten to use the tip-off line. I’ve seen prosecution briefs [and] I think once or twice I’ve accidentally seen who tipped off and it’s been the perpetrator … They’ll threaten that ’unless you comply with my wishes I will tip off’. So they’ll threaten their ex that ‘I can go back five years, you know, you were living with me, remember, when you’re living with me for two years and then we separated then you came back and lived with me again. Uh well I can punch you with debts …’

According to another caseworker, in some cases perpetrators threatened to or made tip-offs to get a ‘leg up’ in other proceedings, such as family court proceedings.[v] Similarly, in the case study involving Natalie, the perpetrator made a false report to Services Australia after a Family Court dispute was settled in Natalie’s favour. This indicates that the tip-off was made by the abuser as a means to harass Natalie and/or to seek revenge.[vi]  

When a malicious tip-off is made, it can set in train a series of compliance processes to assess the victim/survivor’s ongoing eligibility for welfare payments. This can include requests for information, a full-scale compliance review and/or criminal investigation. These processes can be lengthy and stressful for victims/survivors, contributing to and extending the impacts of violence.  As one caseworker explained, 

If the tip-off line is used and that prompts Centrelink to start making demands for information from the person or their payments are suspended, it can really add to the difficulty for them in relation to all the other things that are going on.

In many instances, including Natalie’s case referred to above, the substance of the tip-off was false; no breach of social security rules had occurred, so the victim/survivor’s entitlement to welfare payments remained unchanged. This suggests that the compliance processes should never have been initiated in the first place. But, even in circumstances where there is evidence of a breach of social security rules, it is arguably inappropriate and potentially harmful for compliance processes to commence at the behest of perpetrators and in the context of domestic and family violence. It signals the prioritisation of enforcing welfare compliance (and the inadvertent facilitation of abuse) over ensuring women’s safety and access to payment.

As these examples demonstrate, perpetrators may use Services Australia’s tip-off regime to harass, intimidate, control and/or seek revenge against victims/survivors, including in the post-separation period. In other words, perpetrators can commandeer this welfare compliance measure as a tactic of abuse. Due to the underreporting of domestic violence and the anonymous nature of tip-offs, among other factors, it is impossible to calculate the scale of this problem. But the fact that it is occurring at all should be cause for concern, particularly considering the Australian Government’s commitment to a zero-tolerance response to domestic and family violence.[vii]

In particular, the role of the welfare state in preventing, enabling and/or intensifying this violence deserves closer scrutiny, and this is a topic of further inquiry by the authors. In theorising the role of the welfare state in this process, we draw on the concept of ‘systems abuse’.[viii] As Douglas explains, systems abuse occurs when abusers manipulate legal or administrative systems, such as the family law or child protection systems, to exert coercive control over victim/survivors.[ix] The form and impacts of systems abuse are many and varied and can continue in the post-separation period. In fact, as Douglas notes, systems abuse often commences or intensifies in this period as more direct methods of abuse may no longer be available to the perpetrator.[x] As a consequence of systems abuse, victims/survivors can experience legal and administrative systems that are supposed to protect and support them, as an extension of the abuse. This can cause further harm and disruption to women’s lives and interfere with their recovery from violence.[xi] We adapt and apply the concept of systems abuse to the welfare compliance context. 

While acknowledging perpetrators as the principal aggressors, the concept of systems abuse helps to draw attention to the ways that Australia’s welfare fraud tip-off regime offers resources and opportunities for perpetrators to extend their abuse. The structure and nature of the regime can facilitate violence by making tip-offs easy, free and anonymous. This may facilitate public reports of suspected fraud but it also provides a ready resource to abusers to enact their abuse through the welfare system. Furthermore, the anonymity of the system enables perpetrators to provide false information without fear of consequence. In contrast, if a victim/survivor appeals a welfare debt, their name and personal details are generally made publicly available by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.[xii]

According to Services Australia, specialist staff assess tip-offs before commencing compliance action.[xiii] However, as the examples above suggest, this assessment process may not adequately consider domestic and family violence risks. In any case, the message to perpetrators is that Services Australia treats ‘all reports of suspected fraud seriously’.[xiv] This message can embolden perpetrators to use or threaten to use the tip-off line as a tactic of abuse.

As this ongoing research illustrates, the operation of the welfare fraud tip-off regime can be a source of harm and risk for victims/survivors of violence, which can jeopardise the important role that the Australian welfare system can play in reducing violence against women. It is thus imperative that welfare policy makers and administrators are cognisant of these risks and consider the development of policies and procedures that prevent rather than facilitate domestic and family violence.

[i] See, e.g., Rochelle Braaf &  Isobelle Barrett Meyering, Seeking Security: Promoting Women’s Economic Wellbeing Following Domestic Violence(Report, 2011) ; Ana Maria Buller, Amber Peterman, Meghna Ranganathan, AlexandraBleile, Melissa Hidrobo, &  LoriHeise, ‘A mixed-method review of cash transfers and intimate partner violence in low-and middle-income countries’ (2018) 33(2) The World Bank Research Observer,218. 

[ii]  Sally Cameron,  Linda Forbes,  Nan Seuffert,  Scarlet Wilcock &  Lyndal Sleep, Debt, Duress and Dob-Ins: Centrelink Compliance Processes and Domestic Violence (Report, 2021) <https://www.ejaustralia.org.au/wp/wp-content/uploads/EJA_Full-Report2021_DebtsDuressDobins-FINAL.pdf.>

[iii] Services Australia, Annual Report 2020-21 (Report, 2021)  152<https://www.servicesaustralia.gov.au/sites/default/files/annual-report-2020-21.pdf>

[iv] Cameron et al n ii. 

[v] Ibid, 37.

[vi] Ibid, 38.

[vii] Council of Australian Governments, The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010 – 2022 (9 August 2019) <https://www.dss.gov.au/women/programs-services/reducing-violence/the-national-plan-to-reduce-violence-against-women-and-their-children-2010-2022>

[viii] See  Heather Douglas, ‘Legal systems abuse and coercive control’(2018) 18(1)Criminology & Criminal Justice 84;  Ellen Reeves , ‘Family violence, protection orders and systems abuse: Views of legal practitioners’ (2020) 32(1) Current Issues in Criminal Justice,  91; Heather Douglas& Emma Fell , ‘Malicious reports of child maltreatment as coercive control: Mothers and domestic and family violence’ (2020) 35 Journal of Family Violence, 827.

[ix] Douglas (n viii).

[x]  Ibid. 

[xi] Ibid; Reeves (n viii); Douglas & Fell (n viii).   

[xii] Lyndal Sleep & Luisa Gras Diaz, ‘When transparency can be deadly: Reporting of identifiable and locatable personal information in Administrative Appeal Tribunal couple rule decisions that involve domestic violence’. (2020) 8(1) Griffith Journal of Law and Human Dignity. 11.

[xiii] Services Australia (n iii), 152.

[xiv] Services Australia,  ‘Reporting Fraud’ (Web Page, updated 10 December 2021)  <https://www.servicesaustralia.gov.au/reporting-fraud?context=26266>