Mother's pain on full display as robodebt hearings wrap
A mother whose son died by suicide while being pursued for false debts and a Centrelink worker who tried to help increasingly distressed clients have closed out weeks of often-damning evidence into the illegal robodebt scheme.
On the final day of the royal commission's public hearings, the personal stories illustrated the scheme's human toll and its lasting impacts.
Kathleen Madgwick told the commission her son Jarrad learned of a $2000 debt in the hours before his death, a few weeks shy of his 23rd birthday in 2019.
She said Jarrad's mental health was made worse by his dealings with Centrelink when he tried to access income support.
His application for welfare support was rejected after he accidentally provided the wrong document and was instead told he owed money for previous years he had accessed Newstart.
Ms Madgwick recalled her son becoming distressed when he was told about this debt.
He left their home after a frustrating call about his Newstart application. She later found his body in a nearby park.
After Jarrad's death, Ms Madgwick tried to find out more about his case from Centrelink, a process she said was "excruciating".
But she never gave up seeking information, filing multiple freedom of information requests and writing a letter to former prime minister Scott Morrison and former minister Stuart Robert.
She told the commission she did not receive a reply from either.
Ms Madgwick eventually contacted a journalist about her son's story because "nobody was listening".
"I needed somebody to hear me so that it couldn't happen to somebody else," she said.
Ms Madgwick said the commission had addressed questions she had previously been unable to answer and allowed her to grieve her son without confusion about the circumstances leading up to his death.
Taren Preston, a former social worker for the Department of Human Services, now known as Services Australia, also gave evidence.
After the robodebt rollout, Ms Preston said there was a noticeable change in the culture surrounding people who had debts raised against them.
When she raised problems with how debts were calculated and gave examples of the distress caused to customers, her concerns were dismissed by senior executives.
"We were told it was the way of the future," she said.
"There was a mantra of 'so sad, too bad' that (senior officers) would say when I indicated people were distressed over the matter."
Ms Preston's caseload doubled and the number of distressed staff she interacted with also increased.
"I observed customers under the robodebt scheme become increasingly hopeless and they felt as if there was no way out," she said.
In his closing statement, senior counsel assisting the commission Justin Greggery KC thanked people with experience of robodebt's impact who had given evidence.
He said their accounts had been telling about the human toll of the scheme and the "apparent impenetrable bureaucracy" of the departments running it.
But he flagged further hearings might be required before the commission's final report, due in June.
He said the commission had received one million documents and heard from more than 100 witnesses since the hearings started in October.
Mr Greggery said the commission had not yet received evidence on the number of people linked to the scheme who had died by suicide, but it would try to assess how it could be determined based on available departmental data.
Commissioner Catherine Holmes made a point of thanking those who had live-tweeted the hearings and said it had performed an important public service to give people access to the commission's work.
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