Where to get help if you're fleeing abuse
When I was a child, my mother Rosemary would tell me she wanted to leave my father, but said she had no money to do it. My dad controlled the purse strings. Everything was in his name: the house, the bank account and the car. She had to ask him for money and he would scrutinise her spending.
Rosemary stuck with him for more than four decades until one day he finally told her he had a secret second family.
Financial dependence is one of the biggest barriers to escaping an abusive relationship, says Hayley Foster, CEO of Full Stop Australia, which provides services for those experiencing sexual assault and family violence. The definition of violence includes physical, verbal, sexual, emotional, psychological or economic abuse.
Around 2.2 million Australians have experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner while 3.6 million have experienced emotional abuse.
Fleeing an abusive relationship can be financially overwhelming as it disrupts a person's working life, plus they have to fund a new, safe place to live. It can cost a family around $20,000, according to research by the ACTU. It's time consuming, too, with the ACTU estimating it takes 141 hours to set up a new home and deal with the legal issues of a separation.
Many people who leave can't afford to set up a new home. More than 116,000 people escaping domestic violence, including a proportion of men, were assisted by specialist homelessness services in 2020-21, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
"The most important things they need are a roof over their head, food, transport to school and something nice for the kids," says Foster.
But it is so tough to manage financially - particularly as they cope with the trauma of their life with an abuser - that thousands of people return to their perpetrators each year.
During the pandemic there has been a surge in controlling behaviours towards women, particularly in lockdowns. When women are trapped at home and isolated with abusive partners, it is hard for them to get help.
Foster says technology has meant abusers can closely monitor their partner's movements, emails, phone messages and finances. Often this can be done externally.
Perpetrators are using vaccination status as a way to isolate women so they can't see friends and family. With digital records, women aren't able to hide their status if they go against their partner.
Domestic and family violence has been an area underfunded by the government and philanthropists for decades, but recently it has been given a boost with a series of announcements for more frontline services, as well as a direct 'escaping violence' payments to individuals.
The harrowing plight of a woman and her two-year-old daughter leaving in the middle of the night is the subject of a hit Netflix series called Maid, which tells of Alex, who leaves her abusive boyfriend.
Alex moves into a domestic violence shelter and gets a job cleaning for a firm called Value Maids while navigating the red tape of government aid. It is based on the memoir by Stephanie Land called Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive. Margaret Qualley's compelling performance as Alex has led to a string of best-actress nominations.
Life is so hard for Alex, as she juggles a two-year-old, poorly paid part-time work and mounting bills, that she eventually returns to her abusive partner, who takes away her phone and car, and is re-traumatised. What saves her both times when she flees her controlling partner is the domestic violence shelter and its understanding, non-judgemental staff, and some government support.
"Talk to a service such as 1800 RESPECT or 1800 FULL STOP to find out what is available. We have a lot of clients who say, 'We have no idea that this support is available. Now maybe I can leave'," says Foster.
Since the end of October last year, women leaving a violent relationship are able to access a one-off payment of up to $5000 to help set themselves up. The assistance comes in the form of $1500 in cash and the remainder in goods and services or direct payment of rental bonds, removalists and school fees and other support to establish a safe home. Various state governments also offer payments and services, with the most generous one for individuals available in Victoria.
People on temporary visas who are experiencing family, domestic or sexual violence can receive up to $3000 through the Red Cross. Its pilot program, started in March last year, helped 1000 individuals and their families with secure housing and access to financial support and services so they could start a life free from violence.
Some companies, such as NRMA Insurance, have partnered with the rape and domestic violence service Full Stop Foundation. The first donation of over $1 million helped with a free, confidential, 24/7 trauma specialist telephone and online counselling.
The second donation of $750,000 helped people make their own financial decisions. The money has been distributed to 30 frontline agencies, which then select eligible clients and work with them to purchase essential items to support their safety and wellbeing.
Some of the life-changing purchases included $4400 spent on car repairs that meant Julie was able to do her own shopping, get to medical appointments and mix with people. She wasn't dependent on people who were controlling and negative.
Another woman, Sally, spent $1850 on home security, installing cameras that trigger alarms if her abusive partner breaks in. She feels more secure as he has broken into her house three times.
Another woman who had been sleeping on the lounge after her sexual assault, because her bedroom triggered the trauma, spent $1800 on a new bed, pillows, sheets and a cover to have
a good night's sleep, her first in years.
Foster and other experts would like to see strategies set in place to keep women and their children in their home and have the perpetrator removed.
Support services and financial aid are essential for women who escape with their children and leave their life behind. It would have helped Rosemary.
Where to get help
Two important phone numbers to call are 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) or 1800 FULL STOP (1800 385 578). If you are experiencing family violence and need immediate confidential support or advice, you will be helped with information about support services and payments.
Time off work. Employees can take five days of unpaid family and domestic violence leave from the day they start their job. This includes part-time and casual employees. They don't have to build it up over time. The five days renew each 12 months but don't accumulate from year to year if they aren't used.
$5000 escaping violence payment. This runs for a trial period of two years through Uniting and eight other organisations around Australia, such as the Wesley Mission. The definition of violence includes physical, verbal, sexual, emotional, psychological or economic abuse.
You can qualify if you are the intimate partner who has experienced violence and the relationship has ended, or you've experienced violence in the past 12 weeks, have had to leave home for safety reasons or you remain in the home where the perpetrator is no longer living. There are also state payments, with one of the most generous (up to $10,000) available in Victoria.
Check what your state provides. Every state has special services to assist people experiencing family violence. Victoria offers one of the most generous family violence packages as well as supporting services, such as counselling, education, housing stability and other practical needs. The average payment is around $3400.
There are also rent supplements. Around 1.7 million Australians receive Commonwealth rent assistance (up from 1.3 million in 2019). For a person who is temporarily separated, the maximum per fortnight is $134.60. Then there is targeted rent relief from some state governments.
For example, NSW offers the Start Safely program, to support people without a stable and secure place due to domestic or family violence. The renter pays 25% of their weekly income and uses 100% of Commonwealth rent assistance and the NSW government pays the rest. The program assists for up to three years.
Support for women and children on temporary visas. A $13 million pilot program for women on temporary visas who are experiencing family, domestic or sexual violence provides direct financial assistance of up to $3000, which is paid through the Red Cross. As well there is legal and migration advice.
Lighthouse Project. Access the project to fast-track family law proceedings. It helps families that have experienced violence. It is available through three registries: Brisbane, Adelaide and Parramatta. You don't have to live in those areas to file for assessment.
Crisis payment. There is a one-off payment for family and domestic violence from Services Australia. You must make contact within seven days of your crisis to be eligible for the payment. It's equal to a week's pay at the maximum basic rate of your income support payment
or Abstudy living allowance.
Smartphone with $30 credit. Telstra has donated 34,000 new 4G smartphones with $30 prepaid credit for women escaping violence. The telco runs a dedicated customer service team - the Safe Team - to help women activate their new phone through The Women's Services Network (WESNET).
If you plan to leave
Collect essential documents, such as your licence, passport, birth certificate and passwords. Take screenshots of abusive messages and other evidence.
Get stories like this in our newsletters.