Mum’s desperate bid to get kids back
WENDY Newell was stuck in her relationship for so long she barely recognised herself.
When she finally escaped after 17 years of an unhappy marriage, she was a jobless alcoholic with severe debts and no access to her two sons - so she turned to religion to get out of debt.
"I was lost in that marriage," the 55-year-old told news.com.au. "I'd become a shell.
"I'm an intelligent woman, but looking back, now my eyes are open I can see the manipulation.
"He was controlling what I did, who I saw, what I wore. You lose yourself in that."
Wendy, from Newcastle in New South Wales, claims she was "not allowed" to work or even talk to other people. "When I started getting friends, we'd move," she said.
That happened six times, until she was far away from her family in Melbourne. It was only after opening up to a friend she realised she needed to go.
"It took me eight months after that to slowly put the money into an account, take necessities from the house without him noticing, trying to act normal," she said. "I left a note on the table and drove two hours north of Melbourne."
Wendy was free. But her challenges weren't over. She fell into serious debt and began sinking two to three bottles of cheap white wine every day.
"I just spiralled into a dark hole," she said.
At 50 years old, she moved back in with her mother.
"It wasn't until I had a complete nervous breakdown brought on by alcohol that I ended up going to the doctor," she said.
She was given two numbers - one for a psychologist and one for a group called Christians Against Poverty (CAP) Australia that offers practical debt support in partnership with local churches. Having already tried and failed with psychologists, she called CAP Australia, and two women came to her home.
"They weren't OTT with Christianity but did offer to pray for me, and I said yes," she said.
"When you're sitting around the dining room table, at your lowest point, you've got no money, you've lost your kids, and you're asking for handouts, and they said, 'Can we pray for you?' It was a beautiful moment. I just cried. They brought me back to my faith."
Wendy had taken out a small loan that was growing fast as fees and charges mounted. Her case worker called her bank and had it wiped. The CAP advisers took her phone, which she stopped answering for fear of debt collectors and helped her make a plan for the future.
She also entered the CAP "Release" program - which is much like Alcoholics Anonymous - a rehabilitation course that involves group therapy and is based on the famous 12 steps.
Wendy has now been clean for two years and lives with her partner in Newcastle, where she helps manage the finances for his corner store. Her 19-year-old son now lives with her and she regularly sees her eldest son who is 22.
The mother-of-two cannot praise her guardian angels enough, but others have doubts about financial evangelists trying to introduce God to the lives of people who are at their lowest ebb.
The organisation was founded by John Kirkby in the UK and has had international success, launching in Australia in 2000 and providing free services to more than 3000 Aussies.
Last year, CAP UK came to widespread attention when it was the subject of BBC documentary Debt Saviours.
"Why don't you just go into people's homes, offer them the service that you offer, in terms of the practical service, and then walk away and not mention Jesus, not mention the Bible?" asked director Phillip Wood.
Mr Kirkby, who received a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) medal in December, said people were curious about what CAP represented and "expect us to be Christian".
The debt counselling was important but "we have a spiritual dimension to who we are", he added. "I fervently believe in the power of prayer."
Not everyone is convinced. Documentary viewer Vicki Ann wrote online she was "disappointed to see you use the vulnerabilities of others to recruit more Christians … Surely help should be offered with a no strings attached clause? The whole documentary made me feel quite uncomfortable".
Richard James commented: "For those that aren't that way inclined, all the chat about God and so called faith, would send me running for the hills, or equally the sick bag, as I don't subscribe to the sky fairy theory."
Many Australians, however, are embracing these services. AA and other addiction programs are often spiritual, with the 12 steps of recovery including acknowledging a "power greater than ourselves" and "turning our will and our lives over to the care of God".
Perhaps the bigger question is why so many people are seeking a faith element to their guidance in our secular society and whether CAP is plugging holes in the system where Aussies in need fall through the net.
Theos think tank director Paul Bickley, who studied CAP UK as part of a 2015 report called "The Problem of Proselytism", told news.com.au: "The approach - technical and relational - is quite important and powerful.
"What you get with people suffering who are highly indebted … very often it's to do with family breakdown or loss of important relationships.
"It's important we don't 'vulnerablise' people and say they are vulnerable when they might want to include an aspect of faith and talk about that."
He said it was important that faith-based service providers were upfront about what they were. "One thing they've got to do is let people know where they're coming from so there's an upfront, informed consent," Mr Bickley said.
"Red flags would be if people are making things conditional, being dishonest, tricking people.
"CAP don't have anything like conditionality, they offer (the) same to all faiths and none. They might invite people to church events or offer to pray for them. In the documentary, they took people on retreats - there was some element of spiritual advice.
"Certainly, that would make some people uncomfortable, but I don't think it's breaking rules."
He said there was a "real sense of fear" from the public sector around issues relating to the equality and diversity agenda, but the registered groups tended to be careful about the risks of unduly influencing people. "I'm not saying it never happens, but I think it's quite rare," Mr Bickley said.
A CAP spokesperson said: "CAP's service is available freely to everyone, including those of all faiths and no faith. You do not have to be a Christian to access it, nor do you have to become one. Our visiting debt coaches may offer prayer, but every client is at liberty to say 'no thanks' and they will continue to receive our top-quality service regardless."
Google "debt help" or "financial advice" in Australia, and you will be presented with a dizzyingly array of companies offering to consolidate your finances and solve your money woes fast. Only 60 of these are genuinely independent, and these are registered with the Independent Financial Advisers Association Australia.
The government-run Australian Securities and Investments Commission has a MoneySmart website to help Aussies understand their options.
But there is still a lack of support, with many Australians still being exploited through payday loans and high-cost services and contracts, according to FCA chief executive Fiona Guthrie. Those with mental health or addiction issues are likely to be even more vulnerable to these dangers and predators.
That may be why so many are turning to a higher power for a few tips.