How well does Australia’s social security system support victims of family and domestic violence?

26 Aug 2018

Family and domestic violence is common and its impact is far reaching. It occurs across all ages, and socioeconomic and demographic groups, but predominantly affects women and children.

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 leave and not return to 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.

Between March and June 2018, the National Social Security Rights Network (NSSRN) 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. Primary research, comprising a review of NSSRN files (January 2017 to March 2018) and a survey of NSSRN members, identified a number of systemic issues and trends.

The social security system’s response to family and domestic violence has improved enormously since the early 1970s, as have other community and government services, now including targeted measures to respond to family and domestic violence. These 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.

The NSSRN research found that domestic and family violence intersected with eligibility and rate of social security entitlement across a broad range of payments and 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 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.

One of the most striking observations from the research was the high proportion of cases that intersected with homelessness or risk of homelessness: 60% of cases. 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 Australia1 . The situation was particularly dire for women who did not fulfil residency requirements because, despite wanting to leave, their inability to secure independent income meant they were unable to secure housing and stayed 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 can move to Australia, and are automatically granted a Special Category Visa under which they have the right to remain indefinitely and to work, thereby 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), even if their circumstances change (including if they have lived here for years, worked and payed tax before becoming destitute), New Zealanders are not eligible for social security payment. 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.

The research found that Centrelink’s obligation to assess whether a person is a member of a couple 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.

The consequences of family and domestic violence can be long lasting, including the ongoing impact of economic abuse postseparation. 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’ allowing debts to be waived, including where the person had no idea they had been receiving incorrect payments.

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