Water companies must step up as frontline domestic violence responders, research says
25 May 2021 at 8:25 am
Experts say that water companies can play a critical role in helping survivors of domestic violence, but many women are falling through the cracks
Many might not equate water companies with playing a critical role in supporting victims and survivors of domestic violence. But it’s something researchers are trying to change.
In a study for Monash University, law honours graduate Eliza Venville found that while people in abusive and controlling relationships were often restricted by their partner as to who they could speak to, they were commonly allowed to speak with essential service providers such as water companies.
“So in a way, essential service providers are frontline responders to family violence because they might be some of the first professionals or services that people experiencing violence come into contact with,” Venville told Pro Bono News.
Household essential service accounts such as water and power can be used to perpetrate economic abuse, for example where a perpetrator refuses to contribute to a jointly held account or places an account into a person’s name without their permission.
For Amina*, one of the women interviewed by Venville for the report, with her perpetrator leaving her in immense debt
“Financially they walk away and just leave you in debt. Everyone is chasing you. I had phone calls… texts… from [credit providers] that he’s meant to pay. They keep harassing me,” Amina said.
Women falling through the cracks
Following recommendations made by the Royal Commission into Family Violence, significant reforms were made back in 2017 to the Victorian water business code of conduct that include training and support for frontline staff dealing with customers affected by family violence, helping customers access payment plans, and referring customers to appropriate support services.
But Venville said that of the women she spoke to for the research, many didn’t know their water companies provided this support, or the women she spoke to weren’t willing to disclose that they were being financially abused.
She said that’s why it was important that training and resources focused on how to identify economic abuse, which was often harder to spot than other forms of family violence.
“The research found that the way economic abuse was manifesting in the survivors wasn’t being picked up by the current practices that water companies were using to identify family violence,” Venville said.
“We’re still only really beginning to understand that family violence is so much more than physical and sexual violence.”
So what does the research suggest?
- Water companies must try harder to ensure customers are aware of the support available for victim-survivors.
- Water companies must train their customer service staff to recognise economic abuse.
- Water companies must only sell customer debts to debt collectors with a family violence policy.
- An inter-industry risk assessment tool for identifying economic abuse must be developed.
- An inter-industry reference group must be established to share knowledge and solve problems.
Venville said that the findings highlighted a need for policy to be informed by survivors of domestic violence.
“Before this study there hadn’t been any policy evaluation of the 2017 policies that had included the voices of survivors, and to me, that’s just a big problem because there’s nobody that knows better what needs to change than the people experiencing this hardship,” she said.
An opportunity for collaboration
She said that this was an opportunity for community organisations to partner with private companies to overcome the problem.
“There’s such a wealth of expertise out there from family violence specialist organisations who are working so closely with people affected by family violence and so well-placed to teach the private sector and especially the essential services industry about how to best do that,” Venville said.
She also said that it was vital that these companies were equipped with the correct tools to tackle this problem, so that everyone could play their part in ending family violence in Australia.
“We know now that it’s not just the job of family violence specialist organisations… ending family violence is a community wide initiative,” she said.
Read a full copy of the report here.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call 1800 RESPECT.