CASE STUDY: Tara moved to Australia on a working holiday visa after falling in love with an Australian, Colin. The relationship lasted on and off for more than seven years in which time they got married and had two children. In that time, she experienced physical, sexual, psychological, and financial abuse. His abuse has continued post-separation. This is her experience, in her words.

** Contains descriptions of domestic violence and abuse **

Colin is the king of systematic abuse. That’s all he has now. The systems don’t make it easy for survivors.

Immigration

Within a couple of months of moving here, I decided, “right I need to sort out my visa,” and apply for a professional working visa. I contacted Immigration and that’s when I was told that it would take about a year to apply for, and once my working holiday visa ran out, which would be before then, they wouldn’t be able to bridge the visa pending the other one going through. That basically meant my only option to stay was to apply for a partner visa. I was very reluctant to do that, even before the abuse. I wanted to come here in my own right. I really didn’t want to be reliant on him, but it was either that, or I had to pack up and go home. I think that was the first fault in the system. We decided to apply for the partner visa and that was granted, and I was then a temporary resident for two years. You can apply for permanent residency after you’ve been on that visa for two years.

In the meantime, I got a job nannying for a rich family in an affluent area. I started to realise Colin wasn’t great with money. We didn’t have to pay rent because we were living in a house his family owned. He was a gambler and he’d gamble his money away and then expect me to pay for household expenses and dinners and stuff.

Colin started to get verbally aggressive. He’d scream at me for getting lost because I wasn’t yet familiar with how public transport worked here. On his birthday, he decided he was going to start a new diet. I’d already bought him a cake before he announced that, thinking it would be a nice way to celebrate but he went berserk. “I can’t believe you would order a cake,” and then he threw the cake across the room.

I left Colin for the first time because of his abuse after about a year. The family I was nannying for were lovely and extremely supportive. They paid for me to go to immigration lawyers and I got my permanent residency sooner because of the domestic violence. I put that down to my white female privilege. But what if English isn’t your first language? What if you can’t understand what they’ve got on their website? And what if you’re not working for a family that are millionaires? I had the backup of that family financially and emotionally. And if I was going to have to leave and go back home, I wasn’t going to be shamed by my family, or going back to a war zone or anything like that.

That was the first time I left him, but within a few weeks he was being supportive and loving, and I pitied him so I went back.

Housing

The last time I left him was six years later, with the kids. I’d been to Housing and applied for this rental assistance program for people who don’t have a stable and secure place to live because of domestic violence. We’d temporarily moved into a one-bedroom apartment, a friend of a friend’s place, which was empty because it’d just been sold. And it was a really short turnover time before it settled; three and a half weeks. So we had applied for this program and we were told that that would be approved and the normal timescale was 28 days, but we were identified as the highest level priority at the Safety Action Meeting because we’d had two assaults in one week, I had no family here, and nowhere to live. So I was hoping we’d be able to leave that apartment and move straight into our own place.

But then they said that there had been some allegations made that I had money back home, and I had hidden that money. And that I was more than able to afford my own housing. It was an anonymous allegation, but we all knew who had made it. The woman at Housing even said, “your ex-husband has made these allegations,” and I said, “oh, you know who it was?” and she said “no, but it’s an anonymous allegation; who else would do it?” I had to go into the Housing office to make a statement and provide bank statements, to show the allegations were false.

So my application for Housing got put on hold and delayed and we ended up homeless. We had to go to Housing after the three and a half weeks and have them declare us homeless. But they couldn’t find any crisis accommodation for us, so they put us in this little motel. At first, I thought it was kind of cool because you got clean towels every day, but it wasn’t practical. I remember I was looking for properties to rent when we were there, and I had to sit outside the room at night, in the corridor on my laptop, because my kids were inside asleep. All you’ve got is a kettle, a toaster and a microwave. I had two small children; I couldn’t cook for them there.

Then you have to go back to Housing every few days to be declared homeless again – that’s the process. When we went back, the lady at Housing said, “there’s still nothing available.” I said, “that’s not good enough. You have to find us somewhere.” She went away and she came back and said, okay, “we’ve found a place for you, to share with another woman, and you have to pay.” It was like $20 a day or something, which I’d have to pay out of my Centrelink income. And I said, “no, I’m entitled to 28 days of crisis accommodation at no cost. I’m not paying.”

So they finally found us somewhere and we moved into this two-bedroom apartment, with a kitchen and a bathroom. The other lady who was living there who didn’t speak English but her daughters did and one of her daughters translated for her and she said the second bedroom had been empty since the week before. I was not happy because we could have been there instead of the motel.

I loved that place. I could cook in the kitchen. And they were so accommodating. They got brand new Porta-cots for the boys to sleep in, new sheets. With the help of my friends, I ended up bringing in high-chairs, and then I went and got my TV out of storage and put that in there because you know, I just wanted it to be like our little home.

Once Housing realised the allegations were false, the process continued, but we lived in seven places in five weeks. Why are we not protecting the victim-survivor to continue processing the application? It’s all built to support systematic abuse.

Emergency payment from Centrelink

I got one of those emergency payments from Centrelink and I bought myself some nice, new designer jeans. I knew it would be the last time I could get myself something like that; I knew I was going to be poor for a long time, so I was like, “I’m going to wear the shit out of these jeans.” I don’t care about the judgment; my children have never, ever gone without, but I’ve gone without plenty of things. I was going to be poor for a long time. I was already bankrupt. There was no one else going to be helping me out. So I decided I was going to give myself these jeans.

AFP Watchlist

Before I left Colin, we had bought plane tickets to go overseas. My oldest friend was getting married in my home country. She’d come out for our wedding, so we were going over to her. I was going with the kids for six weeks and Colin was going to come for three. He was going to come in the middle. He didn’t want to fly with us because he didn’t want to help with the children. But then I left him.

I had been checking the Watchlist every day. My family lawyer had warned me about this, that Colin might put the kids on the Watchlist so they wouldn’t be allowed to leave the country. You have to send in a form to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to find out if your child is on the Watchlist and they get back to you within 24 hours. I’d been sending in forms every day. They’re very, very good. I can’t speak highly enough of them. And at about 5 o’clock the day before we were due to travel, I got a call saying, “your children have just been placed on the Family Law Watchlist.”

My heart sunk. It was late in the day, so I couldn’t speak to anyone to work out where I could get help. Instead of going to the airport, the next morning I went to Legal Aid and we went to court the day after that to try and have it overturned. I was still desperately hoping I’d be able to get there for the wedding which was a few days later. But Colin didn’t appear in Court and the judge ordered him to be there the next day. So that was another day delay.

He knew I wasn’t going to move back. I had statements from my caseworker, from friends, from my parents saying this was just a holiday. There was proof of the domestic violence. I had a new lease for a rental property I had just signed, my Dad had agreed to put up a bond but the judge wasn’t convinced because I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have a car and I didn’t have any money here because he’d gambled it all away.

I was devastated. I didn’t get to go to her wedding. I can’t ever get that time back. You can’t get those things back. And you know, the systems backed him up in that abuse.

We lost lots of money too because you only get refunded a percentage of your cancelled flights. I think the airlines should change that policy. If people get put on the Watchlist, they should be entitled to a one hundred percent refund.

Family Court

Unfortunately, if you’ve had children with your perpetrator, that’s it. The relationship is never really over. He’s still in our lives. I think that any time domestic violence has been proven, sole parental responsibility should be automatically granted by the Family Court. That doesn’t mean they can’t see them, it just means they can’t control you in the same way. I’m not talking if there’s an accusation of DV that’s never been proven, but where there’s a history and a conviction and where there’s a domestic violence order in in place, why are we still allowing them to have joint parental responsibility?

Consequences

Over the course of the relationship, he’s cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars. The financial settlement, my wedding fund which he gambled away, the baby bonus, two engagement rings pawned and never returned, and it’s not even just the actual dollar figure. It’s what it costs you in your future life. I can’t just go and get a home loan now because I’m a former bankrupt. All the time I spent in family court is time that I’ll never get back. That’s what it really costs. I think that it’s difficult to explain to people that you can’t put a dollar figure on is what it costs you mentally and emotionally.

* All names have been changed.

Support and resources

If you are reflecting on your own experiences of abuse, you may be interested:

  • To explore services and information that may be helpful in relation to experiences of economic abuse, visit economicsafety.org.au
  • To explore Insight Exchange’s My Safety Kit which includes contact details for services across Australian states and territories that may be able to support you in your next steps.
  • To access counselling and support 24/7, you can call the national sexual assault, domestic or family violence and abuse counselling hotline, 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).

Internationally

Disclaimer: Details of this person’s identity have been altered to protect their safety. Whilst great care has been taken to assemble these insights to contribute to improved responses to domestic economic abuse, CWES assumes no responsibility for how this resource is used by other parties.