Family finances and family violence: the conversation we need to start

 Financial disagreements can be a serious bone of contention for some couples. Even the most loving and respectful partnerships have the potential to encounter tensions when there are differing opinions about household purchases. And money’s getting tighter for many.

As the cost of living rises more rapidly than wages and the affordable housing crisis spreads further across our cities and regions, we live in an age of unsustainable credit.

Growing numbers are one pay packet away from not being able to meet the next mortgage or rental payment. There’s a lot to negotiate and juggle in the average family budget these days.

But there’s a significant difference between debating whether it’s Bali or the Gold Coast this year, and having to ask your partner for permission before you make a purchase.

Economic or financial abuse is one of the most insidious ways of exercising power and control over a partner or family member. And it is more common than you probably realise.

Globally, prevalence estimates differ because there is no standard way to identify financial abuse. The Canadians have a three-question tool, whilst British researchers recently used a 31-question risk assessment process.

RMIT researchers this year looked in detail at the ABS Personal Safety Study, which is the best litmus test that we have on indicators and prevalence of domestic violence in Australia.

Of the 17,000-plus people surveyed, it found that almost 17 per cent of women and just over 7 per cent of men had been financially abused in their lifetimes. British research found 18 per cent had experienced financial abuse in a current or former relationship. So why aren’t we talking about this more?

In the US last week, Serena Williams joined the Allstate Purple Purse campaign to raise awareness about intimate partner financial abuse. The campaign’s 2.5-minute Lost Purse opens with a scene in which ride-share passengers find a women’s purse and mobile phone that have been left in the back of the car – all captured on a hidden camera.

A series of abusive text messages begins to come through, and we watch the back-seat witness react in real time to the violent, controlling threats.

“The longer u wait the worse its gonna be”

“How hard is it to stick to a ******* budget?!”

“Just where do you think you’re gonna live?”

“I cancelled your card, good luck paying for a lawyer when you have no money”

The mobile rings and we watch the passengers struggle to decide what to do. It’s the woman, and she desperately wants her bag back. I won’t spoil the ending but it’s worth a watch.

Purple Purse claims that 99 per cent of domestic violence cases involve some sort of financial abuse and that 78 per cent of Americans don’t know what financial abuse is. Serena’s patronage will doubtless help grow awareness – but as with all types of domestic violence, it can be hard to immediately recognise it as abusive behaviour; victims often fail to understand the grip of the control until someone else names it.

Financial abuse cuts across all demographics of our society. It’s not just people at risk of homelessness or elderly or people with a disability, although all these groups have extra vulnerabilities.

Financial abuse can be one of the most powerful weapons an abuser can use to wield power over their victim and keep them in a place of fear. It’s rife in the Family Court – I know countless women who have been financially and emotionally abused through an extended Family Law process to the point of bankruptcy.

The threat “if you leave me I will take the kids and make sure you have nothing” is not an idle one. Financial abuse has many forms and faces.

I remember speaking to a man (let’s call him Joe) who was being seriously abused by his male partner in regional NSW. The hospital social worker had found my number and called me, she was scared for Joe’s life and didn’t know where to get help. Joe’s partner was his carer; he received and tightly controlled all the income and outgoings in their household. Joe told me that it wasn’t the severe beatings or the regular sexual abuse that hurt the most, it was the fact that he was given a small ration of tobacco and three cigarette papers every morning and that was his allowance – it was all that he could smoke all day.

Joe had no means to buy cigarettes, a coffee, a newspaper or catch a bus. He was completely isolated from family and few people knew that he and his carer were in an intimate relationship. Joe’s partner had run up debts in his name, a car loan, credit cards and a personal loan. Joe was on a pension and had a chronic illness. He had no control over any financial decisions in his life or relationship.

I recently met a woman in our Prime Minister’s electorate who was fabulously wealthy and the director of several companies and family trusts on paper. She wasn’t allowed to fill her car up with petrol and had to account for the number of kilometres driven in her Mercedes at the end of every day. If she couldn’t explain where and who she had been with, her husband would accuse her of infidelity and force her to sleep in the car.

She was still expected to maintain the illusion that all was well in their relationship. Even her children had no idea that Daddy held the purse strings and wouldn’t let their mother work or access their joint bank accounts.

Then there’s the 76-year-old grandmother who has never been given access to her joint bank account, and still has to wait for her husband to come home and give her the housekeeping money. This is despite the fact that she was the main breadwinner for much of their family life and neither of them has worked for a decade. Her allowance has not changed in that time. He broke her wrist last time she tried to explain that she couldn’t keep feeding them for $ 100 a month.

She told me that when she agreed to marry him at the age of 17, marriage was for life and her children would never forgive her if she broke the family unit up.

Economic abuse is now recognised in some Australian states and territories as a type of domestic violence – but there’s still a long way to go before police, support services and public awareness are on the same page.

To get there, we need to examine complex questions about generational and cultural attitudes to economic independence. Banks, financial counsellors and specialist women’s services all have a significant role to play.

It’s time for financial literacy to be embedded into educational settings. Perhaps we need a champion like Serena to get Australians talking?

As with the fight to end all types of relationship abuse, the most effective answer has to be conversation and collaboration.

Moo Baulch is the CEO of Domestic Violence NSW. Her team has been working with Commonwealth Bank to create a financial abuse toolkit for specialist workers to identify abuse and support people on the pathway to recovery.

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