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11 July 2024

PARENTS ROBBED OF CHANCE TO HELP KIDS

Financial abuse rife in WA

Grants for struggling WA parents to help cover their children’s school costs are being plundered by non-primary carers who get to the cash first.

Consumer Credit Legal Service WA wants better safeguards on State Government-issued grants amid claims the other parent was able to grab the one-off payments for personal use.

Chief executive Bev Jowle said impacted parents were met with “inadequate” dispute resolution processes when they contacted the Department of Education to request reimbursement.

She said staff on a departmental helpline had encouraged victims to negotiate with their financial abusers to resolve issues.

“It appears in designing the system, they didn’t think about what could go wrong,” Ms Jowle said. “It was well intentioned. But it was naivety on the Government’s part.

“That’s part of the problem, we’re not thinking about ‘what happens if it goes wrong?’ when we design anything — from cost-of-living relief to a banking or insurance product.”

She wrote to WA Education Minister Tony Buti about the issue, but said his response was “lukewarm”.

Ms Jowle raised the matter alongside fellow WA Economic Abuse Reference Group members during their testimony to a Federal parliamentary inquiry into financial abuse on Wednesday in Perth.

The inquiry was examining the role government, private and community institutions played in detecting, responding, and mitigating financial abuse.

Committee member and Swan MP Zaneta Mascarenhas proposed the inquiry after hearing of domestic violence survivor Shenane Hogg’s struggle to pay debts her abuser accumulated in her name while she was in a coma. “It’s a real privilege to have the opportunity to bring this national issue to my hometown. To have the opportunity to raise voices like Shenane’s is really important,” the Labor MP said.

“It’s an incredible story but unfortunately, it’s not a unique story.

“There is systemic failure and what I want to do is create positive change so we can support more people that are experiencing financial abuse.”

Ms Hogg welcomed the Perth hearings and hoped they would lead to more accountability in financial institutions and trauma-informed care by those interacting with victim-survivors.

“We’re not just a number. We’re not just repayment. We’re actual people,” Ms Hogg said.

Committee chair and Labor senator Deborah O’Neill said the national hearings had highlighted an urgent need for action to address financial abuse, particularly in intimate relationships.

Amid the national spotlight on gender-based violence, evidence to the inquiry had highlighted strong links between financial disputes and the manifestation of physical abuse, she said.

“Australians should pay attention to this because this is not who we are. We’re better than this,” she said.

A Government spokesman said parents can request a review through their disputes process.

“While the complainant does need to provide some evidence to support the dispute, the process is not onerous,” he said.

“The process is confidential and can result in the payment being redirected in cases where the original claimant was ineligible.”

If fraud was identified it would be referred to WA Police.

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