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SocietyNovember 23, 2019

Her boyfriend abused her child. She was the one who was punished

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Hannah McGowan has written before about the untold harm done by WINZ restrictions on beneficiaries forming romantic relationships. She thought she knew how bad it could get, and then she heard Amy’s story.

Names have been changed to protect privacy. A response from the Ministry of Social Development is below.

Seven years ago, a young single mum brought her injured toddler to a police station, doing what she believed was essential to protect her child from further harm. Amy had noticed her child behaving fearfully towards Ben, a childhood friend that had woven himself into her life and formed a relationship with her. Amy was, in her words, “a new mum and very lonely. I craved affection and care. I trusted this man. He had me completely wrapped around his finger.”

Amy tells me about Ben. “When we first got together everything was good, he was attentive, funny, charismatic. Slowly, things started to not add up, he said he was flatting but he was actually living with his grandmother. Saying he had a full-time job but he was on the benefit.”

Amy has been on Sole Parent Support since the birth of her child and has not been able to find suitable work due to severe mental health issues. The story that follows is a testament to Amy’s incredible strength, resilience and bravery in the face of injustice piled upon injustice, involving gross violations of trust by several parties, including the Ministry of Social Development.

Ben never lived with Amy or her child, but he would visit them. Amy occasionally noticed bruises on her child after Ben had come by, but when confronted he always denied having anything to do with the injuries. He would get angry at her for asking, ignoring Amy for weeks. One day, while she was in the garden, Amy heard her three year old child cry out in pain. Going inside to investigate, she found Ben holding her visibly terrified child. Amy told him to put her child down so she could talk to the toddler in private. When asked why they were upset, the child’s response was “Ben punched me”, showing Amy a large red mark on their leg.

Amy told Ben to leave, threatening to call the police if he didn’t. Ben “cried and begged”, but she remained firm. A young relative of Amy’s had been murdered by a step-parent and she was determined that her child would not be next. The following day she went to the police and laid a formal complaint. The police carried out an evidential video interview but said the toddler “wasn’t providing clear answers”. Amy gave a statement and a photo of the injury – a huge, vivid purple hand-print. The police questioned Ben but concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute and dropped the case.

Amy was devastated. She did what she thought was right: protecting her child, going through the criminal process, cutting Ben out of her life. To this day, she believes it was an “extreme misjustice” on the part of the police.

Amy suffers from PTSD and a major depressive disorder due to prolonged childhood sexual abuse; she was officially diagnosed by an ACC psychiatrist in 2014. She describes living with PTSD and the anxiety that accompanies it as “a nightmare. Not being able to control your emotions, reactions, memory triggers is a full-time job.” She has applied for the Supported Living Payment, which would relieve her from having to provide Work And Income (WINZ) with a work capacity medical certificate every three months but was denied due to her crippling conditions not being regarded as serious enough.

Despite decades of counselling, the sexual abuse and violence she survived as a child has affected her enormously throughout her life, requiring permanent daily use of medications including an antidepressant to treat suicidal ideation and a strong sedative to deal with “extremely violent, vivid nightmares”. The lack of action from the justice system regarding her child, who began bed wetting and having violent emotional outbursts as a result of the abuse was a terrible blow. Still, Amy managed to keep going, for her child.

But things were about to get even worse. Angered about being questioned by the police and kicked out of Amy’s life, Ben informed WINZ that Amy had been in a relationship with him. Unlike Amy, he had “a big family and a lot of support,” which he enlisted to report on Amy in order to back him up. Within weeks, Amy received a letter from WINZ informing her that she was under investigation. It took two months for her to be seen in a local WINZ office. In these long weeks, Amy was “extremely anxious and scared. I thought about taking my life because I thought my child would be better off, since on top of all of the abuse that I felt I had invited into our lives, we were now under threat of losing our income, home, stability. I felt my baby deserved better.”

Amy says she genuinely did not believe she needed to inform WINZ of her relationship. “At the time [2013], WINZ weren’t as clear as they are today about the definition of a relationship. I wasn’t informed of the correct rules and definitions,” she explains, “since he wasn’t helping me at all financially [with bills, rent, food, child necessities etc] and because he wasn’t living with us I honestly thought I didn’t need to tell WINZ, because I thought you only had to tell them if you lived together.

“WINZ had no concrete evidence that he had supported me financially because there was none. Just my statement that I had been in a relationship with him.”

Eventually a “very serious, stern man in a suit with a recorder” conducted an investigative interview in her local WINZ office. Amy’s parents are both deceased and she doesn’t have wider family support, so she came alone. She was terrified, but remembers this appointment vividly. “He asked me a lot of questions about the relationship, which I answered very honestly. I told him about mine and my child’s ordeal with my ex, our pending protection order, and the police. There was no compassion or empathy whatsoever. I was crying throughout most of the interview.”

Amy says she thought she might be “charged with fraud and sent to prison” and was therefore relieved when she received a letter stating she had instead been slapped with an ‘overpayment’ that she was required to pay back to WINZ.

That amount? $19,424.66. Ben was not investigated by WINZ, nor was he required to pay back his share of this money. Just Amy.

The debt hanging over her is a constant reminder of the abuse and violations of trust Amy has faced over the course of her life, and it keeps her ex as a continued presence in her life. She is paralysed by her PTSD and depression. If Amy contacts WINZ for extra financial help, she is embarrassed. “Case managers mention my debt to me every time I need help, because I have to explain to them what happened every single time. When they see the amount they think I’ve ripped off the system purposefully which is so far from the truth.”

Seven years of feeling like a criminal. Seven years of being reminded of her debt every time she calls WINZ for assistance. Seven years knowing her ex is gloating about getting away without criminal charges or financial consequences. Seven years of being alone, battling PTSD and a debt so large it could be a deposit on a small home. When I asked Amy what it would mean to have this ‘overpayment’ wiped, she said, “it would be like the huge black cloud over my head would be gone. It would mean we could finally move on… Find peace.”

I asked her how she has coped with this crippling financial and psychological burden. “What keeps me going is my kids, music, working out, my cats, knowing I’m a lot stronger and wiser now.”

After The Spinoff approached the MSD for comment, Amy was asked to sign a privacy waiver and her case was immediately opened and re-investigated. We are pleased to report an extremely positive outcome for Amy and a happy end to this harrowing story. 

Statement from George Van Ooyen, Group General Manager Client Service Support, Ministry of Social Development:

“We have looked into Amy’s situation and reviewed her case. In this instance we didn’t get this decision right and have since removed her debt with us and will be repaying the money she has paid towards the overpayment on her file.

“We have apologised to Amy and are working with her to ensure we put it right.

“We’d like to remind people that they can ask for a formal review if they believe we haven’t got a decision right when we’ve changed their benefit or established an overpayment. If people have questions about a debt I would encourage them to speak with us.”

Postscript: Amy says she is “beyond happy and relieved that everything has turned out the way it has – this has been the best year of my life.” She says she feels that she and her family are finally completely free of their abuser in every way.

She hopes that her story will “bring hope to other beneficiaries who have been falsely accused and given debt as a result; there is still a chance for freedom and validation.” 

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