The bank giving domestic violence survivors their lives back
The National Australia Bank gives journalist SHERELE MOODY rare access to its hardship team as they help terrified debt-ridden mums in domestic violence crisis.
IT is the phone call that chills you to the bone - six minutes of terrifying fury as a domestic violence victim tries to talk to bank employee about a money problem.
"You s**t, you ****ing mole" is the first thing National Australia Bank (NAB) Assist advisor Jack hears as he answers Sarah's* call.
"You s**t" a man continues yelling as his terrified partner's voice comes down the line.
Jack is nervous, not quite sure how to handle the call. It is the first time he has spoken to a domestic violence victim. But even though he is out of his depth he stays calm.
Sarah tells him she is at home with her little boy and that her husband is not in a "good way".
The young mum's voice shakes as her partner becomes even more agitated.
There is thumping. His voice grows louder. Angrier.
"F*****ING S**T, YOU F*****ING S**T - I DON'T KNOW NOTHIN' ABOUT THE F***ING ACCOUNT," he yells.
"SHUT THE F*** UP.
"DON'T F****ING LIE.
"I DON'T KNOW NOTHIN' 'BOUT THE F****ING MONEY ALRIGHT?
"I'LL F****ING PUNCH THE **** OUT OF YOU RIGHT NOW, I MEAN IT."
When the man goes quiet, Jack urges Sarah: "Just, maybe, just maybe just step out of the house, maybe that might be the best thing to do...is that possible?. It's just sounds like it's getting a bit heated at the moment. I can't really tell you what to do, but..."
Sarah's distress mounts, she needs to sort the money problem out but she is also scared for her life and that of her son.
A door slams shut.
"He's in the other room so I can quickly get all my things and go," Sarah tells Jack. "Can I call you back? Can I call you - I really need to gather my kid's clothes."
Sarah starts crying: "(I need to) get out as quickly as I can."
The line goes dead. Jack calls the police.
Eventually Sarah's abuser was jailed but she was left in dire financial crisis.
It took time, but NAB reduced her debt and ensured she had access to ongoing financial and domestic violence counselling.
Sarah's call to the bank is not unusual, the 40 NAB Assist workers fields hundreds of requests for help from across Australia daily.
From unemployment and mental health issues to domestic violence, desperate people phone in for one reason - changes in their personal circumstances have impacted their ability to meet their financial obligations.
NAB recently opened its hardship team's doors to NewsRegional, giving a rare insight into the inner workings of the department that fields calls from people in extreme crisis.
Why money matters when women leave abusive partners
AUSTRALIA loses one woman a week to violence while police handle around 650 domestic violence call outs every day across the country.
Leaving an abusive relationship is fraught with difficulties - it is also the point at which most women are most at risk of death or severe physical injury.
From finding emergency accommodation to navigating the criminal or family court systems, domestic violence survivors face a wide range of hurdles as they up-end their entire lives in the pursuit of safety.
It is hard enough extracting yourself from a partnership in the best of break-ups but untangling finances with an abusive person can leave survivors flat broke and drowning in debt.
Mother of three Michelle* knows exactly what this is like.
She left the father of her children about three years ago but she is still paying the price - literally.
Having endured around 13 years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, the final straw came when her abuser threatened to shoot her dead.
QUEENSLAND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SERVICES
"After he pulled the 303 (rifle) on me, he says I was 'the lowest c*** to walk the face of the Earth, a complete waste of oxygen'," she recalls.
"He chambered the bullet - and then ejected it and threw it at me saying, I wasn't 'worth wasting the bullet on'."
While the home loan was in both of their names, Michelle was the owner of multiple credit cards that paid for her former partner's "toys" including his guns, his stereo and sound system and his four-wheel drive.
"He would monitor every cent spent," she says.
"I'd get screamed at for spending $150 on groceries - I'd be told we couldn't afford to pay kindergarten fees."
Fearing she would die if she did not leave, Michelle decided to secretly squirrel away $40 from her pay into a secret bank account.
Her little nest egg began to add up and eventually she had just enough cash to flee her home.
Calling her bank was one of the first things on Michelle's to-do list.
"I explained to them that I couldn't possibly keep doing this - I'm paying rent, the mortgage and looking after three kids and he's living in the house and not contributing to its costs," she tells me.
NAB considered Michelle's situation to be extremely severe, but helping her was not at all simple.
Responsible lending legislation has strict rules about banks varying mortgage contracts - they can't just remove one borrower from a loan in multiple names.
When splitting a loan, the bank must assess that the remaining borrower can afford to make the repayments on their income alone.
In Michelle's case, the only option is for the property to be sold to pay down the mortgage as neither party is able to furnish the debt.
In the meantime, the bank has made a decision that means the mum can put dinner on her kids' plates and continue paying her rent - it waived her entire credit card debt.
"The credit card was overdrawn and I was struggling to get it back down," Michelle says, explaining the cost of moving to a new home had broken her.
"They said they would write the entire credit card debt off and I was just sitting in my car with tears streaming down my face."
Inside the office where bankers counsel domestic violence survivors
THE NAB Assist Specialist Hardship Assistance team's 40 staffers are trained in recognising and responding to a range of social issues including domestic violence, mental illness, self-harm and suicidal ideation.
They answer around 300 calls a day, with at least five of those coming from survivors of domestic and family violence.
NAB Customer Care Hub manager Keiran Deasey says hounding people for money when they are experiencing extreme personal crisis is bad for the customer and bad for business.
"We take the time to listen to what is going on in the person's life," Mr Deasey says.
"We respond to them with empathy and we do what we can to give them the opportunity to meet their repayments in way that does not cause them further distress."
Almost all the people disclosing domestic violence to NAB Assist are women, Mr Deasey says.
He says women callers are usually financially vulnerable because they have very low incomes, no savings and debts incurred in their names by abusive partners.
NEW SOUTH WALES DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SERVICES
"We hear the same story again and again - she had left a relationship struggling to pay debts that are not really hers," he tells me.
"We do what we can to give her a break from repayments, we can restructure the debts and sometimes we will even clear the debt.
"It is hard to split the debt when it is in two names but we do try our best to help the customer."
The reality is, banks are not social support services and their staff do not sign on to counsel people through their darkest days.
Workers like Adrian Morris come into the job expecting to gain experience in the financial sector with their eyes set on long-term career goals that are as far flung from supporting people in crisis as you can get.
Adrian is a young university student looking towards a career in law and business.
He says speaking to survivors of domestic violence opened his eyes to a crisis that the Australian Bureau of Statistics says impacts about one in four Australian women and one in 13 men.
"Before this I did not really know anything about domestic violence," the young man says.
"It has been quite confronting - I take at least one call a day from someone experiencing it.
"It has given me a different outlook on life."
When Adrian and his colleagues are contacted by a woman in crisis, their first job is to make sure the person is safe.
If there is any concern that the person is at risk, police are contacted and the caller is given numbers for support services including the national domestic and sexual violence line, 1800 RESPECT.
If the customer is not yet ready to leave the home and their abuser is controlling or withholding money, the bank can provide her with a secret account that cannot be accessed online.
When credit pressures are taking a toll, reduced and delayed payment options are available, loans can be restructured to meet the person's changed circumstances, fees and interest may be refunded to lower the burden and in the worst of cases, some or all of the debt can be waived.
Customers in immediate financial need can access the bank's $2500 grant scheme.
This is administered by the Uniting Kildonan's CareRing program, which takes about 24 hours to process the application.
The money helps cover the cost of immediate safe housing.
Down the track, the customer may also access extra financial help for rent, bond or reasonable expenses "to help keep them safe".
NAB partners with Good Shepherd Microfinance to provide no-interest and low-interest loans for people needing essential household goods services.
When customers are referred to Uniting Kildonan CareRing for support, the not-for-profit connects them to specialist domestic violence workers and financial counsellors.
"Finances in relationships are often just another form of control. Limiting access to money or spending is used to control the partner," Uniting Kildonan Program manager Sue Fraser says.
"We often find that the assets are in the partner's name and the debts are in the survivor's name."
There can be constant phone calls from debt collectors pursuing debt that often the victim is not aware of, having had no say in its creation, Ms Fraser says.
"Women in this situation are often unable to provide an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families," she says.
"They will have a poor rental history, at times due to arrears or rent or damage to property, which can make finding new rentals difficult."
Around 400 of the bank's staff have had specialised training to help them recognise the signs of domestic violence, to understand mental health problems and to know how to handle aggressive customers.
"Over the past two years NAB has committed close to $3.4 million in programs, grants and awareness campaigns to support our most vulnerable customers impacted by domestic and family violence," Krissie Jones, NAB'S executive general manager of retail, reveals.
"We will continue to invest in this vital area as we go about helping those who need it the most."
How NAB turned its failings into a positive
WHILE NAB seems to be on the front foot when it comes to domestic violence, this has not always been the case.
Some six years ago, its Collection Department was one of the most complained about in Australia, racking up the highest number of disgruntled customers contacting the country's Financial Ombudsman Service.
A study into the bank's performance by Harvard Business School reveals how NAB'S financial hardship application process was "laborious".
"It was demanding customers to complete a lengthy paper form which required a broad range of information including details about their current financial commitments and spending habits," Hugh Foley and Mark R. Kramer wrote in their National Australia Bank: Looking Out for the Customer report.
"NAB staff ... reviewed each application through a complicated risk-management procedure, regardless of the size of the request.
"In many cases, NAB's internal processes and systems were too slow to meet the 21-day limit on financial hardship cases imposed by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority.
"This led to a policy under which NAB would automatically decline customer requests for financial hardship by the 21st day, regardless of the cause of the delay or the merits of the application."
NAB's head of Customer Care, Norm Kalcovski, says about 75 to 80 complaints were being made to the ombudsman monthly, with each complaint costing the bank $1800.
Debt recovery rates were "extremely" poor, the collection processes were placing undue stress on customers and consumer groups were not happy with widespread criticism tarnishing the bank's reputation, Mr Kalcovski recalls.
Desperate to turn things around, NAB asked Uniting Kildonan for an honest assessment of the collections department.
Uniting Kildonan delivered a scathing and brutal report card.
The social justice organisation listed a range of failures, pointing out that NAB staff were rarely - if ever - listening to their customers, when a caller told them of being in some sort of crisis and in desperate need of hardship support, the staff were usually "sceptical".
The employees believed domestic violence survivors, the newly unemployed and people with mental health problems were "trying to cheat the system".
Mr Kalcovski says the report was a bitter pill to swallow but it was also the catalyst for change.
NAB executives decided to was time to do a complete 180 by turning the controversial and ineffective debt collection centre into a hardship service focused on the needs of people in crisis first and dollars second.
"We knew that we were part of the problem," Mr Kalcovski says.
"Our staff were taking a hard-nosed scripted response to these customers and that was wrong."
The bank set up what is now know as NAB Assist.
Staff are trained, Mr Kalcovski says, to have "real conversations with customers" and to understand the nuances of personal crisis.
Employees learned about suicide and self-harm, the impacts of sudden unemployment, mental health problems and they also became more knowledgeable about financial, physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
The hardship team was taught how to respond to people in crisis and to understand the connection between personal trauma and the resulting impact on their ability to meet financial obligations.
NAB went from taking 21 days to deal with hardship applications to having the process finished in an average of 15 minutes.
Mr Kalcovski says the changes saved the business $88 million in lost collections revenue in 2018.
He says debt defaults have plummeted.
Now, more than 90 per cent of customers in financial hardship begin making repayments on their loans within 30 days of contact with the bank.
"We used to think getting under 80 complaints a month was a good month, now we think getting one complaint is bad month," Mr Kalcovski says.
"We realised we were dealing with people's lives and if we continued to do this wrong, there would be dire consequences." - NewsRegional
News Corp journalist Sherele Moody has multiple journalism excellence awards for her work highlighting violence in Australia. Sherele is also a 2019 Our Watch fellow and the founder of The RED HEART Campaign and the Australian Femicide & Child Death Map. Sherele's trip to Melbourne was paid for by NAB.
*For 24-hour domestic violence support call the national hotline 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732. If you are experiencing mental health problems, phone Lifeline on 13 11 44.