Financial abuse was the focus of the commission’s public hearings on Thursday, with a number of experts from support, legal and crisis services for women and the elderly.
This happened in a number of ways, the commission heard.
Victims may be forced to hand over their pay cheques to their partner; may not be given access to bank statements and other financial documents; may have money withheld or be forced to leave their job so that they are financially reliant; be coerced into signing bank loans and other financial documents; may lose their job because of the stress of family violence affecting their performance.
“In 2011 we noticed we were getting more and more women calling us and saying they were living in dire poverty, unsure how they were going to get enough food for the next week and pay the rent,” Kun said.
“We noticed a theme that they had left a relationship, or were still in a relationship where there had been financial abuse. Women themselves weren’t using the term financial abuse, so we thought there was a real disconnect of this experience happening to women but it not being labelled and not being dealt with as a form of family violence.”
It made leaving an abusive relationship particularly difficult, Kun said. Victims are left without money to find accommodation or to support themselves. This often resulted in homelessness, and poverty often carried into old age.
It was important to acknowledge a gendered component to financial abuse.
“We as a society see women as being less mathematically capable,” Kun said. “There needs to be training available for women about financial capability so they can understand they can control their finances. That needs to start really, really early, and men need to also understand they don’t have a God-given right to control the finances and to control women.”
Employers should include family violence leave as part of existing leave entitlements, including sick and carers leave, and staff must be explicitly informed the leave could be used for family violence purposes.
Human resources managers needed training to recognise signs of financial abuse and other forms of family violence and to respond to it by offering counselling, leave, and other support.
“By having this in the workplace, it clearly shows women they have support and the perpetrator that their actions aren’t tolerated,” Kun said.
“We do know people get support through their workplace; it’s a significant place where women get support. For some women it’s the only safe place they have.”
Emma Smallwood, a lawyer and researcher with the Women’s Legal Service Victoria, said creditors and financial institutions needed to more critically assess loan and credit applications to detect signs of someone being coerced.
Financial counsellors were often critical to helping victims to recover their money and escape debt, she said.
Denis Nelthorpe, the CEO of the Western Community Legal Centre, told the commission financial service providers, including government agencies, must become more practical in their approach to collecting debt in family violence situations. Debt should be waived in situations where financial abuse was known to have occurred, he said.
The commission is holding one month of public hearings at Melbourne’s old coroners court as part of its work examining how family violence can be prevented and better responded to.
The Victorian government has promised to adopt all recommendations handed down by the commission when its work finishes in December.
On Thursday the commissioners will also hear from experts about the impact of elder financial abuse, where elderly people are taken advantage of by family members, friends, carers and other trusted people in their lives.
The commission will hear that elderly people experiencing financial abuse were often coerced into handing over assets, signing legal documents, and parting with their money.
The hearings continue.