News + Views

Financial counselling for women in the criminal justice system – a crucial ingredient in a multidisciplinary, positive intervention

The CIJ has just concluded its ground breaking pilot delivering financial counselling services to women in Dame Phyllis Frost Centre.

Part of the multidisciplinary Inside Access program run by the Mental Health Legal Centre (MHLC), this pilot was funded by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation (VRGF) following the release of the CIJ’s 2017 report, Compulsion, Convergence or Crime? Contact with the criminal justice system as a form of gambling harm. This report highlighted the links between gambling and offending – whether as an issue actually driving offending, or as one of many co-occurring issues ‘in the mix’ of many offenders’ lives.

While our 2017 report indicated that gambling harm was prevalent amongst people in contact with the criminal justice system, this work also indicated that it remained a ‘sleeper’ issue in terms of the system’s overall understanding, as well as in terms of the willingness of offenders to identify it as a factor with which they may need help. This means that it is often not disclosed until a client has developed a trusted relationship with a relevant practitioner.

Conscious of this, as well as of the significant wider financial issues facing people in contact with the criminal justice system, the CIJ and VRGF collaborated, with the vital support of MHLC and the Programs staff at DPFC, to deliver a pilot addressing women’s broader financial issues within the context of criminalisation. In keeping with our goal of offering life-changing experiences for students, this pilot also facilitated clinical placements for a number of RMIT Financial Counselling students.

With the help of our crack team of Financial Counsellors, Sarah Davidson and Raylene Carnie, and in discussions with MHLC and DPFC Programs staff, a plan fell into place. From August 2019 to June 2020, Sarah Davidson then attended DPFC for a full day each week, delivering information sessions to women on remand in the mornings and individual advice and casework sessions to women in the afternoons. The focus of the pilot was on providing support for women on remand, establishing a referral pathway between our pilot and Good Shepherd, which had a focus on delivering services for women who had been sentenced.

During the life of the pilot, nearly 150 women attended the information sessions and 110 women received individual advice and casework support. Women were generally seeking guidance in relation to credit reports; as well as debts to payday lenders; landlords; utilities companies; fines and infringements and, most stressfully, government agencies such as Centrelink.

Without limited phone and internet access; often without relevant papers; and, of course, without the requisite knowledge of how to navigate these incredibly complex systems, many were facing the prospect of leaving prison with these debts having accumulated. This would have an impact on their capacity to avoid further vulnerability upon release, in turn making it harder to avoid the vicious cycle of poverty and reoffending in which so many women find themselves once contact with the criminal justice system begins.

During the life of the project, our Financial Counsellor was able to negotiate with relevant creditors to have a total of $233,976.52 waived and $76,369.30 held for her clients – offering women a vital lifeline to ensure that these matters were, at the very least, ‘paused’ while they focused on priorities such as housing and reunification with children.

As is the case for the vast majority of women in any custodial environment, many of these clients were experiencing multiple co-occurring issues which may have contributed to their offending. These included homelessness, alcohol and drug misuse, mental health issues and, as the CIJ has highlighted in so many other contexts, family violence. These are all issues which are often explored between practitioners and their clients, with multidisciplinary service provision enabling financial counsellors or lawyers to refer clients to their social work colleague to start to provide appropriate support.

What was particularly striking, however, was the way in which, over time, our Financial Counsellor came to be trusted enough by her clients for them to disclose where they had experienced some form of gambling harm. This was in part because Sarah was able to demonstrate that she was in her clients’ corner through negotiating outcomes with creditors, or of having debt waived or held.

Of the women receiving individual case work, a staggering 39% identified gambling harm as being ‘in the mix’ of the challenges they were facing and, of those, 72% then identified gambling as being a direct driver of their offending. Where this was the case, Sarah was then able to refer clients to one of the Gambler’s Help counsellors who attend DPFC, or to counsellors in relevant areas of Victoria where women were about to be released.

Though only ever intended to be a pilot, the provision of Financial Counselling services has proven to be such a valuable part of the Inside Access program that, to its credit, MHLC are currently securing a Financial Counsellor as part of its core team. This is a fantastic result and the CIJ would like to take this opportunity to express our appreciation to the staff at MHLC, as well as to DPFC Programs staff, for embracing this opportunity and for helping it get off the ground so rapidly and effectively.

More broadly, however, the Financial Counselling pilot confirmed what the CIJ had already suspected – that gambling harm is indeed a ‘sleeper’ issue in the criminal justice system, one that is ‘in the mix’ in the lives of too many offenders and to which we must improve our response.

Though we are handing over the reins to MHLC to continue this vital work, therefore, the CIJ is currently developing a further project to explore this ‘sleeper’ issue across a wider spectrum of the criminal justice system, with updates on that to come later in the year.

For now, however, CIJ takes this opportunity to express our thanks to Financial Counsellor Sarah Davidson, as well as her colleague Raylene Carnie and of course their dedicated Financial Counselling students, for their hard work in establishing and conducting this pilot – hard work which has not only proven incredibly valuable but, as is always the case in the context of the CIJ’s mission, has shown that there is much work yet to be done.

 

Elena Campbell, CIJ Associate Director