As a young single mother in hardship, Sue Fraser worked three jobs to cope while dealing with a system that seemed not to listen. Now she is working to change the conversation and help vulnerable Australians of all ages.
Sue Fraser was 23 when she realised just how fast and how hard life could turn with a simple change in circumstances.
At 17 she had moved to Melbourne from rural Victoria to train as a nurse. But after her three-year marriage broke down she was left alone to care for her three-month-old baby boy in a system that wasn’t about to make things any easier.
As a single mother in Australia in 1976 she was faced with double digit interest rates to buy out the family home in Richmond. And so she worked three jobs to do it.
“Some people called it character building but it was horrendous,” Fraser says today. “I thought: ‘This has happened and what am I going to do now?’ That change from being upwardly mobile to ‘Oh, my goodness’ was quite confronting. Fortunately I was young enough to get up and get moving in life and understand the skills that I had.”
Today, the trained financial counsellor works to coach businesses and other partners in the community in ways of dealing respectfully with those in hardship – about 19% of the population, according to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (Financial Stress, 2010).
Her current role is senior manager, enterprise partnerships and development at community service organisation Kildonan UnitingCare in Melbourne.
After starting with the group in 1995, her current work was “born out of frustration” at what she saw were systemic problems coming up repeatedly as an advocate for vulnerable consumers dealing with business.
In the mid-2000s, she took the then-controversial decision to tackle this head on, by going straight to the organisations involved and coaching them in ways of working more effectively with customers struggling to pay their bills.
Fraser says the business mentoring Kildonan does is about confronting some of the negative judgments staff may make about people in hardship and reviewing the communications and systems involved in dealing with them.
“It’s about giving business the tools and training for personnel to engage with people respectfully,” she says. “If they engage with people respectfully they are also more likely to get payment than before.”
Since starting the program, Fraser says she has enjoyed the success of seeing a change in practice that has been of “phenomenal benefit” to both the businesses she works with and those in hardship.
She has worked with institutions like the National Australia Bank, where hardship assistance is creating genuine benefits for customers and the community.
NAB Assist was developed in 2014 to help customers who were enduring, or at risk of, financial hardship.
The team is trained in advising clients on payment plans, connecting them to financial assistance, as well as prioritising critical payments to reduce risk of default or triggering further financial hardship.
The NAB Assist team also receive training by Kildonan, among others, to help them recognise when a customer needs a referral to a specialist service such as Lifeline or Financial Counselling.
The key is engaging with those in hardship in language they understand and that is appropriate given their emotional state, Fraser says. It is important to empower people in business, and in the community, with the language and resources to help and support those who are abusers or abused, with both sides needing to be addressed.
Fraser adds that society should recognise vulnerability is a continuum: it can happen to anyone at any stage of life. Triggers include relationship breakdowns, illness and job loss, especially in today’s unforgiving debt-laden and casualised economy where she sees financial problems “growing astronomically”.
Of particular concern, she says, are instances of “Elder Abuse” in which younger family members may be taking money or exerting financial control over older generations, often with devastating consequences.
There are cases where older people have had to sell the family home after going guarantor in a business loan that has gone bad. Other times they are fearful of intergenerational violence, which can be physical as well as financial, like limiting access to funds for food or taking possession of the house.
“Often we get older women who are financially decimated or who don’t have access to their own money,” Fraser says. “Very often they have been maneuvered into becoming a financial partner in a transaction without being aware of the circumstances.
“It usually happens when the older person thinks they are helping the family member but without being aware of the legal obligations.”
The message for business is that by engaging with vulnerable customers respectfully, removing the blame, stigma and shame attached with discussing hardship there can be better solutions for all.
“A lot of the work we have done has been of huge benefit to business,” she says. “Not just in dollars but in reputational value as well. If we are serious, we need to work on the issues themselves and how they are created, not just work on someone already in difficulty.
“As an agency we really pioneered this work – it hadn’t been done before. It’s about not accepting the norm. You need to find a way to change processes.
“Reflect on what else can be done, almost on a weekly basis. Valuing all our people and not excluding them is important; to have pathways where they can have safe and productive lives.”