Could access to superannuation help the victims of domestic violence to flee to safety?
Domestic violence affects families from all backgrounds. While domestic violence often includes emotional, verbal and physical abuse, it can also include financial abuse. One young woman been through two relationships involving violence and financial hardship. Her last partner left her with a huge amount of debt, the stress of which resulted in a miscarriage. She knew her options were limited, and most of those involved her attending court and spending money in court fees and solicitors, which may have resulted in more debt.
“I was young, I had never experienced domestic violence before. I didn’t know how to deal with it,” she told HuffPost Australia. “Growing up, I was your typical person who read ‘Dolly’ magazines with stories about family violence and always thought ‘why didn’t you just leave?’ But when you are in a relationship like that, it is insidious and it just creeps up on you. It is a form of grooming.”
This young woman now struggles with depression and PTSD, common and serious consequences of violent relationships. However, she is using her experiences to support a call by super fund HESTA to allow victims of domestic violence to access their super.
Industry super fund HESTA has called on the Federal Government to change legislation to allow access to superannuation on compassionate grounds.
She says having access to ready money would have made all the difference in giving her time to recover. “It would have given me some breathing space to go ‘right, I can take the time that I need for myself to sort out my mental health issues’,” she said.
HESTA wants the Federal Government to allow access to super of around $10,000. Debby Blakey, HESTA CEO “The issue that we really understand is that financial control and financial abuse is so often present where there is family violence,” she said.
“We believe that family violence is really one of those rare situations where the short-term financial need is so compelling that the need to preserve super for retirement is really a secondary issue.”
Karen Willis, from the NSW Rape Crisis Centre, said women often chose to remain in violent relationships out of fear that if they left they would end up “living in a car with the kids and feeding them baked beans”.
“Anything that we can do… to allow people to access that money in that immediate circumstance… so that they don’t have to live in poverty, so they can re-establish a life for them and their dependents — I think that’s a terrific idea,” she said.
People are already allowed access to their super in emergency situations such as extreme debt, medical expenses and arrangements involving funeral costs. However, there is no access provided to those affected by domestic violence. Instead, the only avenues open are to survive on Centrelink benefits, ask family for help, or risk going to court. However, because some forms of domestic violence are hard to prove, this is seen as a high-risk strategy. Victims worry that if they lose the court case, they will then have to pay the court fees of the other person.
HESTA recognises that many women are affected by domestic violence and that while some victims wish to escape their relationship, they are trapped in their relationship in fear of no longer having any financial support. HESTA’s push will allow the victims to access their super fund for emergency support. HESTA suggests that for victims to access their super fund, they obtain a certificate from a social worker in family violence support.
Financial Counselling Australia CEO, Fiona Guthrie supports HESTA’s initiative. She says financial counsellors see first-hand how family violence and financial hardship almost always go hand in hand.
“In the right circumstances, superannuation has an important role to play in helping women affected by family violence get back on their feet,” she said.
But it will only ever be a short-term solution, and one that further disadvantages women. On average, Australian women retire with almost half the superannuation of men.
In advocating for the change, HESTA acknowledged that it was an “interim ‘band-aid’ measure” and women shouldn’t have to resort to this, but the move would nevertheless provide immediate relief for victims and survivors in the absence of a coordinated national strategy by the Australian government.
In emergency situations, the added financial support is beneficial for victims suffering from family violence. It allows victims to escape a dangerous relationship and to be protected financially if no other help is available. The added bulk payment beside Centrelink benefits could mean the difference between escaping a relationship and remaining in a violent home.