Homeless. In a Mercedes.

Kate stood in her local Coles, staring blankly at a freshly roasted chicken.

She was starving. Hadn’t eaten all day. As her stomach rumbled, she grabbed the chook.

Kate had never stolen anything in her life. She paced the aisles, racking her brain on how she could eat the meat without being caught.

Yet, as she approached the exit, a pimply check-out attendant gave her a sideways look. She put the chook down on the counter and shuffled past, her head bowed in disgrace.

Here’s the thing: just three months prior, she had wandered around the same supermarket piling her trolley high with fancy dips, cheese, and lollies for her kids — without even giving it a second thought.

Kate had suffered years of physical and financial violence.

And she was now homeless … in a Mercedes.

Malcolm in the Middle

According to the statistics, one in five women will suffer domestic violence in their lifetime.

It’s a devastating problem, and this week our new Prime Minister put our money where his money is: committing $100 million dollars to the Keeping Women Safe program, which centres on, well, keeping women safe.

The dough will fund devices like GPS trackers (for abusers) and home CCTV cameras, and a crisis telephone line. Mostly it focuses on the violence – and quite rightly too, given that this year, 63 women and children have been killed by their partners.

Yet there’s another side to what the Prime Minister has called “our national shame”.

Tonight, tens of thousands of women are staying in abusive relationships, because they think they’re trapped financially.

And after years of helping women with their finances, I’ve learned that there are some tell-tale signs that indicate when a woman is getting physically, and financially abused:

He uses money to control and manipulate her.

He runs up debts in her name.

He purposefully puts joint assets in only his own name.

He bleeds money away from bank accounts, and rations it out like he’s paying pocket-money to a kid.

Ultimately, he uses money as ammunition against her ever leaving.

And heartbreakingly, it usually works. It not only causes women and children to stay with these thugs — it can also cause them to return. So let’s walk a few steps in their shoes — look at the commonly held assumptions — and explain why financial abuse is a form of domestic violence.

“Why don’t they just leave?”

How stressful was your last move? How many weeks or months of planning did it take? How much money did it cost, with removalists, bonds, and bills?

So let’s imagine that you ‘decide’ to move at 1:00 am on a Monday night.

With your three terrified kids still in their pajamas.

With $75 in your pocket.

With a broken nose, and blood all over your shirt.

With a man screaming that he’ll track you down and kill you.

Where do you go? What do you do? What happens next?

“Well, don’t they have family to go to?”

Let’s say you flee to your sister’s house.

You’re taking a risk — putting her family in danger. What happens if your thug of an ex comes good on his threat and kills the lot of you?

Even if you do stay there, how long can the four of you live on the couch? You don’t have any money, so you can’t contribute and pay your way. That’s not fair, and it’s not a long-term option.

“This doesn’t happen in my neighbourhood”

Oh yes it does.

I met Kate this week.

She could be your mother, your sister, or that nicely dressed middle-aged woman who works in accounts at your office. Her husband was a successful executive at a multinational who travelled the world and earned a packet. Kate had all the trappings of wealth: an expensive house, flash cars, nice jewellery — but she had no money of her own.

See, over the previous few years, her husband had become increasingly controlling over their finances. “Depending on his mood, I got less and less … and then violence started. In the end I was so terrified that just hearing his key turn in the lock would make me physically wet my pants. I knew I had to leave.”

Kate had the guts to flee, but the moment she stepped out the door, a whole new set of problems began. She had no money. Kate ended up in a women’s refuge, but she was soon turned away. That’s a daily occurrence at overcrowded, underfunded shelters — some 3,000 women are turned away from crisis shelters each year (and the Keeping Women Safe program provided no additional funding for crisis accommodation).

When she went to Centrelink to get a loan, the officer looked at her and said “you look very well dressed”. Then he glanced at her car keys and saw a Mercedes keyring. “You’ll be fine”, he said dismissively. She went back to her shiny Mercedes (which she was sleeping in); she couldn’t even afford to fill it with petrol.

It was then that Kate found the unsung heroes of our legal and financial system. The Womens’ Legal Service of Victoria took on her case and fought for her, for free. Community based financial counsellors helped get her back on her feet, financially. With the help of a few good people, she began rebuilding her life and her self-confidence.

Today, five years on from that dreadful day in Coles, Kate’s Mercedes has long been repossessed. Her husband has managed to stitch up the divorce and bleed away a lot of the money. She’s renting in community housing, but she has good friends around her, and a smile on her face.

“Now I’ve got nothing. But I feel like I’ve got everything. I’m safe at night. That’s enough.”

Tread Your Own Path!

If you’re in an abusive relationship call 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au