‘It was like a lifeline’: the money clinics helping women escape financial abuse

“Welcome to the money clinic,” laughs Sally Renfrey, pointing to her dining room.

The sunlit dining room table, set with his laptop, coffee, an A4 notebook, two phones and some white chrysanthemums, is where Renfrey conducts financial advice sessions, usually with his black Labrador, Piper, lying at his side. feet.

She is one of three financial counselors employed by the Center for Women’s Economic Security (CWES) who explain financial options to women in an abusive relationship.

Today, Renfrey has three virtual appointments and one in-person meeting.

The first call is at 10 am, with Lydia*, a new client who contacted the money clinics through the CWES ​​website.

Lydia appears on Sally’s computer screen. She is in the process of leaving her partner, the father of her children, who, she claims, has subjected her to coercive control.

First, Sally goes over a safety checklist with Lydia, asking her if it’s safe for her to talk today. Lydia says she does: “My husband is at work and as far as I know there is no surveillance at the house.”

While there are financial counselors at many domestic violence shelters and community legal centers, the bar for accessing them is often high. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

Safety planning is crucial, as research shows that when victims of family violence attempt to leave a relationship, even by taking steps toward financial independence, the violence toward them can escalate. Sally had a client who could only safely call her from the landline at her son’s physical therapy clinic because her partner monitored her movements and phone records.

Lydia says a classmate at school who works in domestic violence support told her about the money clinic. “She said something like ‘my spidey senses are tingling, are you okay?’ and then we chatted a little and she told me about you,” says Lydia.

“Those spider senses, aren’t they powerful?” says Sally, who is an effervescent presence throughout the session, reassuring Lydia and praising her for the work she’s done so far in trying to get her finances under control.

For most of the hour, the couple goes over Lydia’s financial situation. At several points, Sally stops writing and returns to the line that Lydia introduced at the beginning. “It’s okay, my spidey senses are tingling there,” Sally says.

She says this when Lydia tells her that her husband keeps opening new bank accounts and that Lydia can’t keep track of the different usernames and passwords; when Lydia tells him that she discovered a recently closed joint bank account and that her husband told her it was nothing; that her husband put a large asset in her name “for tax reasons” and she is not clear what the asset is.

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“My spider sense,” Sally says after this last one, wiggling her fingers. “Is there any way there could be a loan in her name? When did you sign those documents?

“Shit,” Lydia says.

“’Shit’ is a good answer, but I’ll explain how to do it,” says Sally.

They make a plan to obtain Lydia’s credit report, contact their banks to obtain records of all accounts in Lydia’s name, and schedule an appointment in a few weeks to discuss what they find.

Lydia, who has been alert and focused throughout the hour-long session, pulling documents from piles of papers near her computer, finally exhales and slumps her shoulders. “Thank you,” she says before ending the call.

The ‘stealthy’ nature of financial abuse

While there are financial counselors at many domestic violence shelters and community legal centers, the bar for accessing them is often high, requiring women to have very low incomes or have incurred significant debt.

That makes CWES money clinics, which accept a wide range of clients, unique in Australia.

Rebecca Glenn, executive director of the Center for Women’s Economic Security, says what may seem like normal behavior in a healthy relationship can be used to control or exploit. Photography: Tom Greenwood

“What we find is that it doesn’t matter what people come to our service with: it may be debt, it may be that they don’t know their financial situation, or they may be thinking about leaving an abusive partner but aren’t sure what’s next. – Often what will happen then is that we will discover a variety of other financial concerns that… only come to light once you start to discover or delve into other issues,” says Rebecca Glenn, founder and CEO of CWES.

In the first four months of 2024, the money clinics supported 191 women in 328 sessions.

It is estimated that financial abuse is present in between 79% and 99% of domestic and family violence cases. Across Australia, 16% of women and 7.8% of men will experience financial abuse from a partner in their lifetime.

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Glenn says women’s sessions with financial advisors are often the first time many women recognize that they may be victims of financial abuse.

This could have to do with shame, a lack of understanding of what financial abuse looks like, or the “sneaky” nature of financial abuse, Glenn says. It may seem like normal behavior in a healthy, loving relationship (like one partner doing both people’s tax returns or having a shared bank account), but when there is abuse, it can be used to control or exploit the other person.

“I think we’ve seen significant progress and changes in the last three years in more public conversations about financial abuse, that people are starting to recognize it, but it’s still less known than some of the more stereotypical ideas of domestic and physical violence. violence.”

Going through the tangle of problems ‘step by step’

Sally’s second client of the day cancels, sick with Covid, and then after lunch she goes out to meet a client, Penelope*, who she has been working with for over a year.

Penelope’s case is one of the most complicated that Sally has encountered. Over the course of an hour, sitting side by side in a café, both talking at breakneck speed, Penelope and Sally barely manage to unpack everything. the complicated intricacies of the financial situation Penelope’s partner left her in.

Long story short, Penelope’s partner, who was having financial difficulties, made Penelope the manager of his business. She says she signed the paperwork under duress. Her husband then took out a business loan totaling tens of thousands of dollars, which he spent on himself, leaving Penelope, as the company’s director, in a bind. The lender started chasing her for her money.

One of Sally Renfrey’s former clients. It is estimated that financial abuse is present in between 79% and 99% of domestic and family violence cases. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

Her husband did not file tax returns for his company and, as a director, she now waits, terrified, to find out how much taxes the company owes. Penelope says her wait to find out what debt the ATO will bring her is “terrifying”: “we don’t know if it will be $50 or $50,000.”

In recent years, her husband relapsed into addiction problems, became physically abusive, took a car insured by her and crashed it, destroying it along with several other vehicles. The insurance company came after her for the debt. There were also traffic tickets against Penelope’s name when her husband took her car away from her.

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All of this drastically complicated his Centrelink application, meaning he received no payments or income for months.

She hasn’t worked for many years, partly because of the responsibilities of raising her children and partly because “I had a problem with my ex-husband, who was a control freak and said ‘you better not work.'” This gap in her employment history, which she believes she cannot truthfully explain to potential employers, has made it difficult to get a job.

“People who experience domestic violence should be able to go to an employer and say, ‘look, I’ve been out of work for almost 10 years because of what I’ve been through, give me a chance’… but you can’t. Do it, because no one will accept you.”

Unable to make the mortgage payments, he was on the verge of losing his apartment. It was at that time, last April, that she was put in contact with Sally.

Sally remembers the first meeting. “I remember the first thing you said was ‘I’ve been told I have to go bankrupt, there are no other options.’ It’s a disaster, it’s too much.’ And do you remember what I said? ‘Let’s analyze everything step by step.’”

Financial advisor Sally Renfrey says she had a client who could only safely call her from the landline at her son’s physical therapy clinic. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

So far those steps have included: months of back and forth for Sally with the loan company over the business loan taken out in Penelope’s name (Sally eventually escalated this to the Australian Financial Complaints Authority and days before mediation began, the insurance company wrote off the debt); a protracted battle to get the insurance company to drop charges against Penelope over the car, which was successful; negotiations with the bank to give Penelope a more manageable mortgage payment schedule (Sally praises the bank’s case manager, who, she says, “has really gone above and beyond to help us.”)

Now they are trying to deal with the tax situation and Sally has linked Penelope to one of the government-funded tax clinics at a university.

Sally estimates that she and Penelope have had about six formal counseling sessions and dozens of calls and text messages. Sally is so familiar with Penelope’s case that she knows the day of the month the mortgage payments are due.

For Penelope, things are not resolved and the rounds of financial battles feel relentless, describing them as “quicksand.” But the most important thing for Penelope is that she is not going through it alone.

“My whole world was turned upside down in the middle of nowhere. “When I met Sally it was like I was given a lifeline… No one knows the crux of it all except Sally.”

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