24 Nov 2022

Separate offence needed to protect victims of economic harm, advocates say

9:54 pm on 24 November 2022
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Women are sometimes having to beg for money when they are already in dire situations, a charity worker says. Photo: Pxfuel free image

Advocates are calling for financial abuse to be made a stand-alone offence, saying it is hidden in current legislation and the country cannot afford to fall behind.

They say compensation must also be considered so that victims, who are mostly women, can avoid spiralling further into debt because of their abusers.

When Amy* left her abusive partner several years ago, she had to choose between violence and poverty.

"I left everything behind ... only took the clothes me and my children had with us. I had a serious concussion from the beating, bad credit history, and $15,000 worth of debt that we had both incurred."

Amy was left to deal with that debt on her own, and was sent further into the red as she tried to pave a new life free from her abuser.

"I kept a notebook with names and numbers of people and organisations I needed to work with - to start there were 20, six months later when I left [Women's Refuge housing] there were at least 40," she said.

She was met with confusion, resistance, and a lack of understanding in the beginning by the Ministry of Social Development, banks, debt collectors and utility companies.

"I had sympathy because I was in Women's Refuge, but a lot of places didn't understand what that meant. I was always on the end of the phone asking to delay payments or set up and make new arrangements because of my situation. I wasn't allowed without incurring more fees."

Hutt Valley's Women's Refuge's Rachel Williams said there were many victims like Amy.

"Every single person who walks in that door for support is experiencing some sort of economic harm or financial abuse.

"I'm working with women who have to beg for money; they have to use their good credit to be able to buy items. Some of the women are not allowed to work and those that are often never see any of that money."

In one example, an abuser had intercepted their partner's credit card payments for a large item and banked it themselves - taking her money and compromising her credit score before selling the item later.

There were too many examples of this kind of abuse and not enough awareness, Williams said.

Under New Zealand law, financial abuse was treated as a form of psychological harm, but Good Shepherd New Zealand, a charity organisation supporting affected women, wanted the law changed.

Good Shepherd's head of purpose and impact Nicola Eccleton said unlike psychological abuse, financial harm had a clear trail of evidence and needed to be a stand-alone offence.

"We have people saying to us 'we didn't realise what was happening to us, that there was a name for it and that there was support out there'," Eccleton said.

Support should be readily available to help victims of financial abuse get out of debt, she said.

"People should be compensated because it's illegal - so in the same way that hitting someone and leaving them with an injury you deserve support to recover, you deserve support to recover from financial harm."

Prevention of Family and Sexual Violence Minister Marama Davidson was at Good Shepherd's event today alongside representatives of banks, police, support workers, and other community groups.

The government's strategy, Te Aokerekua, was just the beginning of eliminating family and sexual violence, she said.

"We have a vision of where we need to get to together. We have issues that we need to talk to together and work on together, that's all this work is."

Some speakers at the event recalled times they, or their clients, had to lie to government agencies to get financial support after their abuse, or re-traumatise themselves having to retell their story on each phone call to an agency.

"Crown systems need to change, if people are being forced to defraud government agencies, then the agency needs to change," Davidson said.

Amy was able to get half of her debt slashed by her bank.

Banks and creditors around the country are working with social services to reduce or write off debts for victims of economic harm.

Good Shepherd has been piloting a support service for victims like Amy, and in its first year has helped more than 170 people.

Last year, BNZ identified 12,000 abusive online banking transactions in the space of just six months.

Westpac has also stopped 120 customers from sending abusive transactions and is building an algorithm to better identify and stop payments being sent to harass others.

*Names have been changed to protect people's identities.

Where to get help:

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Women's Refuge:(0800 733 843

It's Not OK 0800 456 450

Shine: 0508 744 633

Victim Support: 0800 842 846

HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): 04 801 6655 - push 0 at the menu

The National Network of Family Violence Services NZ has information on specialist family violence agencies.

Good Shepherd NZ provide support with the financial challenges of family violence.

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