Case study: ACT government pilots new service to address financial abuse

By Anthony McGinness

Sunday October 18, 2020

Future Friendly and ACT Government’s Family Safety Hub in co-design (Image: Good Design)

The ACT Government’s Family Safety Hub is piloting a service in Canberra which was designed together with Future Friendly to improve awareness and support for financial abuse. Future Friendly Canberra founder Anthony McGinness outlines the award-winning program.

Despite its increasing prevalence, awareness of financial abuse and available support is low among public sector and community workers, and even those people experiencing abuse. It is a hidden problem that largely goes unnoticed — which is why the ACT government’s Family Safety Hub knew it had to approach finding a solution to tackling financial abuse differently.

Family and domestic violence and financial abuse often go hand in hand. Up to 90% of people who experience family and domestic violence also suffer financial abuse, but the latter is hard to recognise and find pathways to support.

The forced isolation, stress and financial hardship caused by COVID-19 has led to a spike in domestic and family violence, underlining the need for a more effective solution to both domestic and financial abuse.

However, one of the first problems to overcome is the lack of awareness of the signs of financial abuse, and understanding of how to support people experiencing it amongst both victims and service workers.

Financial abuse can involve someone stopping you from accessing your money, using your money without consent, or unduly influencing your financial decisions. Financial abuse can lead to depression, isolation, anxiety and a loss of independence.

Despite its high prevalence, awareness and available support is low among both service workers and people experiencing abuse. It is a hidden problem with a hidden solution. Many people experiencing financial abuse don’t realise that they are experiencing abuse. Even if they do, they don’t know that help or solutions exist, let alone how to access it. Similarly, service workers are sometimes unaware of the key signs of financial abuse to screen for, or where to refer clients who are experiencing the abuse.

Early intervention by government and community services can prevent financial abuse or reduce the harm people might experience. Services can ensure that victims, or vulnerable individuals, receive the right advice at the right time to help them ultimately escape abuse.

Restoring financial safety can give people in an abusive relationship the confidence to leave and reduces the likelihood that they will return to that relationship because of financial reasons. It could mean avoiding bankruptcy or keeping their home — life-changing outcomes.

Raising awareness and solving a hidden problem

Given awareness of financial abuse and specialised support is not always available, the ACT government’s Family Safety Hub realised that before it could start delivering new services at scale, it needed to focus on building awareness and demand for service pathways within the community.

By focusing on financial issues before they reach crisis point, and finding early intervention and referral pathways within existing community services, we can have a greater impact on a person’s long-term financial safety and reduce the strain on the social, legal and financial services needed to support them.

The hub’s design process revealed several issues, including:

  • Community service staff were unsure of what constituted financial abuse, and where or when to refer their clients.
  • Financial counselling services were spread too thin and were not always able to work collaboratively with services such as specialist financial abuse services and legal assistance.
  • The client experience was disconnected, which meant clients had to tell their story multiple times to multiple people. This prevented the development of trust and led to clients not accessing the support available or dropping out.

To help tackle these issues, Future Friendly and the hub partnered to identify an opportunity to build a specialist team within a community service organisation that had a financial counsellor, a solicitor, an educator and a micro-finance worker — all working very closely and specifically on financial abuse.

Co-designing, blueprinting and piloting a specialist financial abuse service

The Family Safety Hub engaged designers, Future Friendly, to help focus on defining and testing more innovative solutions. The starting point had to be listening to the community, the sector, and help focus the hub’s efforts.

The design process, which started in early 2019, included discovery research to better understand financial and housing crisis as a result of domestic and family violence in the ACT and seek out the most impactful space to focus on. This led to the design of an “innovation challenge” to generate new ideas. This challenge focused on the question: How might we prevent financial and housing crisis for those affected by domestic and family violence?

Future Friendly then took one of the ideas that emerged from the challenge and ran a human-centred design and prototyping project to reveal the practical constraints for a feasible, but meaningful solution. It took best practice from the field of domestic violence prevention, combined with local ACT perspectives.

To tackle the problem of low awareness, capability had to be built within existing community services so that no matter which door a person walked through, the knowledge was there to proactively and confidently screen and refer for financial abuse.

Future Friendly helped design a service that could be executed over two phases.

The first phase involves gaining a deep understanding of where the demand for services is. It involves a pilot program with frontline service workers to raise awareness and enable them to better recognise and respond to financial abuse. This was needed to build the pathways and demand for a specialised financial abuse service.

The second phase is embedded and collaborative. It involves placing a financial abuse counsellor, an educator and lawyers in a multi-disciplinary team that works in collaboration with other service workers in existing community service centres. This means that an individual can attend a neutral, safe space inconspicuously (i.e., it is not obvious they are seeking support for domestic violence) and receive help from a trusted familiar face. It raises awareness around the hidden problem and available hidden solutions.

It also drives a more holistic model of care. Often, an individual will require help on multiple issues — legal and financial — and not in isolation. This approach assists service workers to meet diverse needs. Service workers can work more collaboratively with other providers and leverage a single onboarding process from the community centre to screen for financial abuse and plan education sessions to raise awareness more generally with the community. Together, all service workers can solve problems that would not be able to solve alone.

One step towards supporting an increasing problem

Future Friendly’s collaboration with the Family Safety Hub delivered in-depth local insights that improved awareness and support for financial abuse in the ACT. It provided the evidence needed to proceed to pilot. The pilot, run by Care Financial Counselling and the ACT Family Safety Hub, began in early 2020, but was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Although COVID-19 delayed the roll-out of our training, we have now delivered the first sessions that will test our approach. Early feedback has been very positive, and we believe we have found something that provides another small step to reduce the impact of domestic and family violence.”

— ACT Family Safety Hub

Future Friendly’s collaboration with the ACT’s Family Safety Hub is a powerful example of how innovative thought, planning and execution have helped lower barriers to access a valuable, essential service. It has provided better support for vulnerable members of the community.

It is a reminder that the in-person network of support services in Canberra is critical to providing holistic and personal support.

It is also a reminder of the power of partnerships. Too often, service workers feel unable to provide the “wrap around” care they believe that their clients need because they are stretched too thin and don’t have the information they need to collaborate with other service providers the way they would like.

Importantly, it is an example of innovation as evolution. Many of the elements of a more effective service were already evident at the Family Safety Hub. Sometimes the most effective innovation involves recognising and building upon what we’re already doing well, but involving the right partners in a collaborative co-design process to align on the best solution for the local context.

More information on the Good Design Award for this project and a short video featuring the Family Safety Hub, Future Friendly and Care Financial can be found here.

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