The Government’s Escaping Violence Payment Is A Step Forward, But Advocates Have Concerns

We took a closer look at how the $5000 payment actually works.

escaping violence payment photo

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People fleeing domestic violence now have access to a one-off $5000 support payment, as part of a two-year federal government trial to help address the financial barriers to escaping abuse.

Minister for Women’s Safety Anne Ruston announced the Escaping Violence Payment last week, and it became available on Tuesday 19 October via the UnitingCare Australia Consortium — the service provider selected by the federal government to run the trial. The $144.8 million trial forms part of the government’s $1.1 billion women’s safety package, included in this year’s federal budget.

There is no doubt that this payment is a positive step forward. On average, it takes $18,000 and 141 hours to leave a violent relationship, according to the Australian Council of Trade Unions. This payment will go some way to financially empowering victim-survivors to leave an abusive relationship.

But while frontline family and domestic violence workers on the one hand welcome the payment, some have concerns over aspects of the trial.

Who Is Eligible For The Escaping Violence Payment?

According to UnitingCare’s website, payments are available to Australian citizens over the age of 18 who are experiencing family and domestic violence.

To apply for the payment, victim-survivors need to show financial stress and evidence of domestic violence; this can include a referral from a domestic violence service provider with a risk assessment and safety plan, an Apprehended Violence Order, a court order, or a police report.

In all its messaging, the government has said that the payment is designed to help women escaping violent relationships. But Junkee understands the funding is available to victim-survivors of any gender, whether they are fleeing an opposite sex or queer relationship.

You Don’t Receive The Full Payment Upfront

One criticism of the program is that victim-survivors won’t receive the full $5000 upfront; only $1500 will be given to them as a cash payment.

The remaining $3,500 will be available “for goods and services or direct payments of bonds, school fees or other support to help establish a safe home,” according to the government’s press release announcing the trial.

Junkee understands that, in practice, this means the person fleeing domestic violence and a caseworker from the UnitingCare Network will decide what the remaining $3,500 will be put towards and alternative ways it can be paid out. For example, if the person needs a fridge to help set up their new home, they might receive a voucher to a store where they can purchase one.

Minister Ruston told Junkee that there is no set list of things that the victim-survivor can ask to spend the money on and that each person “will be in control of making decisions about how the financial assistance can best help them get set up and stay safe after escaping violence”.

She added that the victim-survivor won’t have to decide straight away how to use the $3,500 funding. Instead, the caseworker will have 12 weeks to “support [the victim-survivor] in deciding how best to use the financial assistance”.

Minister Ruston told Junkee that they decided not to pay the full $5000 in cash to help “protect the funds from being taken by a perpetrator or having banking records misused by a perpetrator”.

Minister Ruston stressed that the government program “is all about giving control back to women and it is extremely important they are the decision-makers.”

But requiring a victim-survivor to ask their caseworker for permission to spend the money in a certain way — even if the permission will almost always be granted — could mimic the kind of financial coercion that person experienced in their abusive relationship.

Requiring a victim-survivor to ask their caseworker for permission to spend the money in a certain way…could mimic the kind of financial coercion that person experienced in their abusive relationship.

Hayley Foster, CEO of Rape and Domestic Violence Services, said she was very supportive of the trial program, and acknowledged it is important to give the funding to victim-survivors in a way that can’t be accessed by their abuser.

Though Foster said there are ways that service providers can do this while also ensuring that victim-survivors are given full autonomy over how they access and spend the funding.

“We know that people in these situations are the experts of their own situation and they themselves know the best way to use those funds. Any specialist who works in this field knows that the fundamental principle of our work is to be empowering, to help these people start over their own lives again and take autonomy,” Foster said.

Rape and Domestic Violence Services have currently partnered with insurance provider NRMA to provide grants between $1500 and $5000 to those fleeing domestic abuse. Foster explained that this funding is often paid out in full as a cash grant and caseworkers have no control over what the victim-survivor spends it on.

She said that caseworkers will talk to the victim-survivor about their circumstances, and brainstorm ways to make sure that they receive the money safely if there is a risk of the abuser getting their hands on the funds.

In some cases, the victim-survivor may ask Rape and Domestic Violence Services to pay for purchases directly but, Foster said, “the important point is that they have all the information at hand and they are choosing [how the money is being given to them]”.

When the government announced the trial, they provided examples for what the $3,500 could be directly put towards, including school fees or items to set up a new home.

Foster said that she’s concerned that the “message that [victim-survivors] are getting is that ‘there are things that are responsible use of funds. And of course, let us know which of these you’d like or something else you think that you need, but it’s up to us to approve that’”.

“Even if you are saying that you aren’t going to disapprove of a purchase, you are still putting the onus on the victim-survivor to ask for permission. Ultimately, we are very supportive of this payment… but this is why we would encourage the government to consider making it more flexible,’ Foster explained.

There’s A Lack Of Information Around The Program

Another concern is the government hasn’t provided frontline family and domestic violence workers with enough information about the trial and how they can help their clients access the funding.

One domestic violence worker from Western Sydney, who spoke to Junkee on the condition of anonymity, said that “it just felt like a rushed announcement, that came to service providers at the same time as it did the public”.

“If we, as the domestic and family violence specialist services, don’t completely understand what the payment looks like and how to access it, how can we expect victim-survivors to? Especially while they are in crisis and urgently require support?” She said.

The domestic violence worker said that victim-survivors often feel hesitant about accessing financial support given the amount of paperwork and evidence they need to supply to prove their situation. It can be hard for them to produce bank statements or copies of fees or bills.

“This is especially true for victim-survivors who have fled their homes with only a bag of their belongings and for those who don’t have their own bank accounts or have cyber-safety concerns,” she said. “I know the payment isn’t designed to solve all these issues, but it would have been helpful to announce this payment alongside information about how victim-survivors of disabled, culturally and linguistically diverse, and Indigenous communities can get assistance in accessing this support.”

“How can we expect victim-survivors [to understand]? Especially while they are in crisis and urgently require support?”

Even the UnitingCare website page about the Escaping Violence Payment, which the government links to in its original press release announcing the trial, provides contradictory information.

At the time of writing this article, UnitingCare’s website says that the payment will provide “up to $1500 in financial assistance such as vouchers for essential items”. Meanwhile, Minister Ruston’s press release says that up to $1500 will be provided in cash.

Ultimately, Minister Ruston said that this payment is the first of its kind to be offered at a national level, and that is why the government is running it as a two-year trial.

She said that the program will be independently evaluated to assess “the benefit of the payment, including demand, adequacy of support provided, eligibility criteria, needs of specific cohorts and how it works with related services to ensure we get all the settings right”.

Justine Landis-Hanley is Melbourne-based journalist. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Saturday Paper, and the Sydney Morning Herald. She is on Twitter.