Women struggle to get federal government’s $5,000 payment to escape domestic violence

Women escaping domestic violence say they are struggling to access a $5,000 government payment designed to help victims leave an abusive relationship.

Women have reported delays and poor communication with service providers about the escaping violence payment (EVP), which has been allocated $240m as part of the federal government’s $1.3bn investment in women’s safety.

Since the program launched last year, more than 7,000 applications have been made for the payment which offers up to $5,000, including $1,500 in cash to help move to safety.

Rachael Humphris, a social worker with the Illawarra Women’s Health Centre, said women had faced difficulties in getting the payments quickly. She said a woman in refuge accommodation who recently applied for the payment had not heard back.

“A week later, she hasn’t heard anything. This is someone in refuge accommodation with two kids looking to try and set up a life and really being in limbo and relying on a very limited income to do so. Having exhausted all of the available cash support [she’s] just running out of options,” she said. “So we just think improving on the time would really help.”

The West Australian reported in February a woman had waited 12 weeks for payment, with staff resourcing issues being blamed for the delay.

A spokesperson for the Department of Social Services said women who inquire about a payment will be contacted by UnitingCare network within 48 hours to go through the application process, after which a case worker is assigned to help the person through the 12-week program.

The spokesperson also pointed to the upfront $500 emergency payment that is available under the program, but Humphris said that payment can be exhausted quickly through rent payments and other requirements. The department did not say how many payments had been made, but in February the government said more than $2m had been paid out.

Guardian Australia has sought comment from UnitingCare.

In Senate estimates in February, the social services minister, Anne Ruston, said the government was working to fix the delays.

“We are absolutely going to be working to rectify these issues as soon as possible. It is a brand new program,” she said.

“It’s a trial and it’s new, but we do need to make sure that we are making these turnaround times much better than they are.”

The government committed an additional $240m to fund the payment in Tuesday’s budget as part of the $2.5bn investment in women’s safety in five years of the 10-year National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children. The additional funding would support up to 37,500 women fleeing violence.

As part of the new funding the department would work with UnitingCare and conduct an independent evaluation to ensure the settings of the program were meeting the needs of women escaping violent relationships, the spokesperson said.

The other major criticism of the payment is only $1,500 of the $5,000 is available in cash, with the rest to be spent on goods or services or paying for bonds or school fees. The department spokesperson said this was to reduce the risk of harm to women with large amounts of cash, but Humphris said women were best placed to know where to put their money and how to support themselves.

“We know that that cash really gives women agency around being able to make their own choices about what the money is for, and not be limited by vouchers, so we are really keen to see an improvement to the EVP around making it [cash] support because women know what they need and need to be able to make those decisions themselves.”

The Illawarra Women’s Health Centre is establishing the Women’s Trauma Recovery Centre, after the government allocated $25m in the budget over five years to the project. It will provide specialised and dedicated services for women to address the impacts of domestic and family violence, and to research recovery responses.

So far in 2022, the Red Heart Campaign has recorded 32 child and women killings, with 23 classed as domestic violence.

On Tuesday, as politicians were busy getting ready for Josh Frydenberg’s budget speech, the artist Dans Bain and News Corp journalist Sherele Moody, who set up the Red Heart Campaign, laid out the names of the 2,000 people who had been killed since 2008 on the lawn out the front of Parliament House. It was 30 metres long.

Moody said politicians who attended, such as the Labor MP Tanya Plibersek, were shocked at the number of names.

“There’s always a lot of shock and awe when people actually see the names and photos of victims together. It really brings home the reality of how widespread violence is against women and children, especially violence by people known to them – whether it’s intimate partner domestic or close associate violence like colleagues and friends and neighbours.”

The government’s billion-dollar investment in the next 10-year plan comes after the House Standing Committee on Social and Legal Affairs reported in March last year that the previous plan had “not achieved its objective of a significant and sustained reduction in violence against women and their children”.

“Over the life of the National Plan, governments of all jurisdictions and all political persuasions have spent over $3bn in an attempt to reduce family, domestic and sexual violence. It is clearly not for the want of trying that we as a nation have not reduced these shocking statistics that see the death of one woman on average every eight days at the hands of her partner or former partner,” the report stated.

“Addressing family, domestic and sexual violence remains an urgent challenge. Behind every shocking statistic is the life of an individual, cut short or often irreparably damaged by someone who once cared for them.”

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