9 October 2017
• It can often lead a woman to return to an abusive partner, especially if there are children
• Survivors often discover thousands of dollars of debt, fines signed in their name by partner
• Women’s Legal services pushing financial institutions to be more aware of family violence
Deciding to leave your partner is hard enough, especially if you’re a survivor of family violence, but imagine realising your abuser left you with a huge amount of debt?
Financial experts say it can be a problem that lingers long after a relationship ends, and can often cause a woman to return to an abusive partner.
Donna Letchford, a financial counsellor at the Women’s Legal Service Victoria, helps survivors manage such debts.
She and a survivor of economic and physical abuse, Christine Craik, spoke at a public forum at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre to encourage women to have greater awareness of the dangers of economic abuse.
“Economic abuse is probably one of the main things a perpetrator can do after a survivor has fled the relationship,” Ms Letchford said.
“They mightn’t be able to get to them physically, still might be able to emotionally or psychologically, but economically they can do some real damage.
“And money is one of the reasons that people will return back to the relationship, especially if there are children around.”
Ms Letchford said economic abuse could come in many forms, such as household debt like gas and electricity bills.
“You may have fled a property, but you may get chased down the line for a debt when the other party’s running up the bills in your name if you haven’t done anything about it,” she said.
“There’s also things like fines. I’ve seen tens of thousands of dollars of fines put in a survivor’s name, when it is actually the perpetrator that has run up those fines in the first place.”
While 80 to 90 per cent of family violence survivors experience economic abuse, Ms Letchford said due to it remaining an area many people did not understand well, she feared there could be even more out there.
“I’ve dealt with women all the time who have suffered physical abuse, not realising they have also suffered economical abuse,” she said.
“They just think, ‘Ok these are debts I have to deal with and they’re my problem because I signed the contract … so it’s my responsibility’.
“But the coercion, pressure and control put on to do those contracts in the first place means that it is a form of family violence and we can look at that.”
Ms Letchford explained her clients’ stories of abuse to banks and electricity companies when she tried to challenge their debts.
And she said since the Victorian royal commission into family violence, they had been getting better at listening and understanding family violence.
“Should the loans have been given in the first place? Were there flags that the creditor should’ve realised there were some issues there and asked more questions?” she said.
‘I knew leaving him would involve a huge debt’
Ms Craik said during her relationship with her physically abusive partner she felt trapped.
“He did say if I tried to leave that I wouldn’t leave alive, and that was on my mind too because I didn’t want my children not having a mother,” she said.
But a decade after her partner began physically abusing her and her four children, the relationship ended.
Ms Craik knew breaking up would involve a huge financial cost.
Not only did she pay her partner for his share of the house, he had also been racking up credit card debts in her name, and refused to contribute significantly to household bills.
She said by the end of the relationship she was close to $170,000 in debt.
Ms Craik took on a second job to try to pay off her debt, but said she had yet to return to the financial position she was in before the relationship soured.
“And it’s just so hidden because it’s not always, ‘I’m not going to give you money for this and I’m not going to give you money for that’, it’s just an insidious creeping up of debt because someone feels entitled to do that.”