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  • Centrelink debt drove man to suicide, says family
  • By Emma Reynolds
  • 08/03/2017
  • Contributed by: Chase ( 1 article in 2017 )
Rhys, 28, could not cope with the financial stress of receiving a $17,000 debt letter from a Centrelink-employed collection agency, his family claims.
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AFTER months of heartbreaking stories from those caught up in the Centrelink crisis, it was almost a tragic inevitability.

Rhys Cauzzo, 28, took his own life after he was chased by debt collectors who claimed he owed the government agency $17,000 in overpaid benefits.

His family has been left wondering how their kind, creative son and brother became just the latest sad tale in this ongoing debacle, in which those responsible refuse to admit there is even a problem.

Before he died, Rhys sketched pictures in his notebooks of a stick man holding a gun to his head, with dollar notes spraying out of it like blood.

His loved ones rallied around him. Girlfriend Brit tried to help him make phone calls and answer the letters. His mother Jenny Miller — who like him, battles depression — came from the Sunshine Coast to visit him in Melbourne. With their encouragement, Rhys visited a Centrelink branch, but struggled to resolve the issue. His suicide means his family have not been able to confirm if the debt was accurate or not.

The part-time florist and musician was far from the first vulnerable individual to be overwhelmed with stress over an alleged debt to the agency. But his death, on Australia Day this year, is the most final outcome yet.

Rhys, 28, could not cope with the financial stress of receiving a $17,000 debt letter from a Centrelink-employed collection agency, his family claims.

Rhys’s mother Jenny Miller says she wants to stop others going through what her son experienced.

‘MY BROTHER’S DEATH MEANT NOTHING’
Rhys and his older brother Josh didn’t have an easy childhood, but shared a close friendship and a love of skateboarding.

“He could have been a professional,” Josh told news.com.au. “We had a lot of heartache and moving around, but one thing we had was each other. Our government has failed us.”

The 34-year-old part-time mechanic, who lives in Sydney, said he hadn’t seen much of his brother in the year before he died because of his anxieties around travel and crowds.

“He said there were large bills and he was speaking to mum. I don’t think he wanted to fully tell me, he was embarrassed. You can imagine when I got the phone call ...”

Josh is furious at the Department of Human Services’ continued denial there is anything wrong with the Centrelink debt recovery system. He says the claim Rhys was overpaid by $300 a week for a year seemed “absurd”.

Despite Rhys having a note on his file about his condition, he continued to be chased by “aggressive” Centrelink-employed debt collectors Dun & Bradstreet, Josh said.

“Whether or not the bill was correct is beside the point,” he added. “They gave him six days to pay up, threatened to garnishee his wages, seize assets. I believe that point was what pushed him over the edge. It was the icing on the cake.

Rhys’s brother Josh, pictured with wife Claudette, says the Department of Human Services should accept some responsibility.

“Someone in his position doesn’t necessarily think clearly under pressure. My little brother didn’t set out to defraud the system, he needed welfare to survive.

Human Services Minister Alan Tudge, who oversees the department, has repeatedly insisted the controversial automated system “is working as intended”, although initial notices are now sent by registered mail after many said the first they heard of an alleged overpayment was from the debt collectors.

Mr Tudge has also stated that Rhys’s case was processed manually, not by the computerised “robo debt” system. This has not made the young man’s family feel any better.

Josh added: “What’s upset me more was the way the Government dealt with it. Mr Tudge denied there was an issue when there clearly is. It’s destroyed the family.”

Property manager Jenny says Rhys’s medical condition was known to Centrelink, and the letters should have stopped.

‘YOU JUST WANT TO STOP THAT HURT’
Rhys’s mum Jenny says she knows first-hand how “insurmountable” financial problems can seem when you are in the grip of depression. “Centrelink were very aware of his condition,” the 54-year-old told news.com.au. “Letters referred to doctors, there were assessments. Meantime, he kept getting these letters from Dun & Bradstreet.

“I’m not saying it was the whole cause because it wasn’t, but it needs to be said. Those letters should have stopped. These government agencies, you’re just a number. They need to start looking at people as individuals.”

After his death, she called Centrelink to report what had happened, and was put on hold for an hour, before phoning Dun & Bradstreet and receiving a cold response. The CEO later called her to apologise.

Jenny, who also attempted suicide in 2009, is now on the right medication and is seeing psychologists and now grief counsellors to help her cope. “In Rhys’s case, I don’t think he had the right help,” said Jenny, a property manager. “Suicide, or depression, dealing with that is so hard.

“You just want to stop that hurt, you’re aware of everything happening around you but you’re in a void and can’t get out. You think it’s better not to be around.”

Jenny has just returned home after she and Josh joined around 150 people for Rhys’s funeral in Melbourne. “He was a very kind soul and touched a lot of people,” said his mother. “He was an absolute softie, very artistic, creative, musically inclined, and he absolutely loved animals.”

The 28-year-old’s story is one in a long line of complaints about the debt recovery system — but the most tragic.

Now his relatives are working on picking up the pieces of their lives. “If we could save one other person from going through this suffering, that’s want I want to do,” said Jenny.

Centrelink has sent almost 200,000 letters regarding possible overpayments of benefits to Australians since its automated system was introduced July last year, prompting a slew of complaints about inaccuracies, technical issues, chaos at overstretched local branches and long call waiting times when contacting the agency. The Commonwealth ombudsman is now investigating the system.

Human Services Department general manager Hank Jongen told news.com.au in a statement: “We express our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Rhys Cauzzo.

“We understand this is an extremely difficult time for all involved and we do not wish to further their grief by discussing the case in detail.

“It’s really important all welfare recipients understand help is available if they are experiencing hardship and need immediate assistance.

“While we’re required to recover overpayments, we can work with people to set up repayment plans appropriate to their circumstances and in some cases defer debt recovery. We also have social work services available to help those who need extra support.

“We strongly encourage anyone who is contacted by the department about a debt to respond and keep us updated. When we are informed about changes or difficulties they are experiencing, we can help tailor a solution for their situation.”

News.com.au approached Mr Tudge for his response to the allegations in this story but the minister was unavailable for comment.

The Department of Human Services has consistently denied a significant error rate in its system, despite claims from former employees about widespread inaccuracies — but has not revealed a figure.

“The department always attempts to contact former recipients before the matter is referred to an external collection agent,” a spokesperson said in response to the most recent story by news.com.au. “Contracted agents are required to act in full compliance with the department’s debt collection requirements and legal obligations.

This includes ensuring agents follow due process developed in consultation with the department when contacting former welfare recipients by mail, phone or SMS.

“Agents are able to contact people who have a debt multiple times in a week, only when it is necessary to do so. External collection agents do not visit peoples’ homes or seize assets. The department is able to garnishee wages and bank accounts held by former welfare recipients who refuse to repay a debt. Agents may make people aware of these consequences, but cannot take any action in relation to them.

“Payment arrangements can be negotiated directly with the department depending on a person’s financial circumstances. Importantly, people can request a review of their debt at any time and also have the option to pause recovery of the debt while the review is finalised.

“If a person is not satisfied with the service they have received from an external collection agent, they can call us on 1800 076 072, where the current wait time is less than three minutes.”

Source: http://www.news.com.au/finance/money/costs/centrelink-debt-drove-man-to-suicide-says-family/news-story/317208e77b3c634c16baa4224f899642

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