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Jarrad, 22, told his mum he'd received a $2000 debt letter. His body was found two days later.

Mamamia logo Mamamia 3/12/2019 Jessica Wang

Warning: The following deals with suicide. For 24-hour mental health crisis support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Queensland woman, Kath Madgwick, spends a lot of her day ruminating on past decisions.

“I think that if I didn’t move to McKay, if I didn’t do this… would things be different?” she asks herself.

“I think to myself: was I too hard on him?”

She recalls one day when a friend took her to get her hair cut at the local plaza. Mid-appointment she burst in to tears, shaking.

“I was running around so people wouldn’t see me crying,” she tells Mamamia.

“I couldn’t be in the plaza, because there were so many memories of Jarrad and I getting his hair cut.”

On Thursday night, May 30, 2019, Kath lost her 22-year-old son Jarrad Madgwick to suicide.

Prior to his death, Jarrad was experiencing some financial difficulties, says the real estate manager. He was forced to leave his job in disability care due to an alleged bullying incident, had separated from his girlfriend, and was briefly homeless, before moving back home. At the time, Kath estimates he also had a “$5000 debt, and police fines”.

“He started to decline a bit,” says Kath.

a person sitting on a bench in a park: Jarrad and his mum, Kath Madgwick. Image: Supplied. © social Jarrad and his mum, Kath Madgwick. Image: Supplied.

During this time, Jarrad decided to apply to work in the army, but needed to claim a Newstart allowance in the interim. After a six-week process, his application was rejected due to an issue with his BSB number. Speaking to Centrelink on the morning of May 30, Kath described it as a "dramatic" phone call.

After a call to the Department of Human Services (DHS) complaint department, they had organised a priority payment, and Jarrad had "calmed down". Then sometime in the late afternoon, he allegedly got an automated notification for what he thought was a $2000 debt letter.

"He's obviously logged into his MyGov, and found this letter. This $2000 debt letter," says Kath.

"He'd come running out to me, and I don't know what conversation he'd had with Centrelink, or what they'd communicated to him, but he said, 'now I owe them $2000, I'm not getting paid'."

"I said, 'that's not right Jarrad,' and he got into an absolute state where he was applying for any job that was going."

Recounting her last memories of her son, Kath says, "he went into his room, rang his ex-girlfriend, and left the house."

"I put it that he did this at 7.30pm. The last message to me was that he loved me, and when I got that message I thought: 'oh he's calmed down'."

His body was found two days later.

a person holding a guitar: Image: Supplied. © supplied Image: Supplied.

In the days that followed, Jarrad's Newstart application was approved, and he received his first payment posthumously. Meanwhile, Kath made attempts to piece together what had happened. In a call to Centrelink, she states she was told that Jarrad's original issue with his BSB number was part of "company practice" to make claimants "give up on applying".

"[They] basically said to me, that with the BSB, and all of that that Centrelink do, they do it to make them go away. It's company practice," says Kath.

"It's their practice to make them give up on applying."

DHS General Manager, Hank Jongen, disputes the above.

"We reject any claim that we actively discourage people from applying for Newstart," he said in an email statement to Mamamia.

"Our national network of dedicated staff work tirelessly every day to help people going through a wide variety of situations, including unemployment."

Due to DHS confidentiality rules, the specifics of Jarrad's case cannot be confirmed. However, Jongen further states Jarrad's initial $2000 "initiation letter" -  which they stipulate "is not a debt letter" -  was part of an income compliance review, and completely separate from his Newstart application.

"The income compliance process identifies discrepancies between income reported to Centrelink and what has been reported to the Australian Taxation Office," writes Jongen.

"Income averaging wasn’t used in Mr Madgwick’s case. He entered earnings information into the online system as part of his income review.

"We understand this is the most difficult time for Ms Madgwick. She has our sincere condolences and we are providing her with support and assistance as she grieves the loss of her son Jarrad."

a screenshot of a cell phone: An example of an 'initial income compliance review' the DHS has provided Mamamia. Image: Supplied. © supplied An example of an 'initial income compliance review' the DHS has provided Mamamia. Image: Supplied.

Kath remains confused.

"I'm thinking he's 22, he left school and was working at City Beach, he only got on the dole when he was with me, and we were going down there. He didn't have any work then, so I don't know how he could have incurred a debt," she says.

The grieving mum also says adjustments need to be made to Centrelink processes when dealing with people in financially vulnerable positions. She thinks letters like the one Jarrad received shouldn't be sent in MyGov as their phone lines don't provide 24-hour support.

"He got it so late in the day. I would have gotten straight back on the phone, [but] it takes them 40 minutes to answer. They would have been closed," she says.

"It should be by registered post, and when that person gets it, they can call Centrelink directly. It puts the stress to rest.

"Jarrad, who was really critical of himself, already felt like a failure for losing his job.

"I just think it put him in a situation where he thought his life was stuffed and that he was never going to get out of debt. He got into a moment of time where he couldn't see a way past."

a couple of people posing for the camera: Image: Supplied. © social Image: Supplied.

Currently, the DHS is facing criticisms over the handling of its robo-debt program, in which benefit recipients were sent automated debt notifications, some of which were over-inflated due to income-averaging, and other algorithmic errors. In February 2019, three months before Jarrad's death, it was revealed by the department that over 2030 people died after receiving Centrelink debt notices between July 2016 to October 2018.

On November 19, 2019, a landmark case between Victoria Legal Aid (who represented Deanna Amato) and the Federal Government, ruled that the income-averaging actions of the DHS were unlawful. In this case, debt notifications were issued on the basis of how much a recipient state they earn on a fortnightly basis, and not according to their exact annual income. While the DHS state Jarrad's case was not part of an income-averaging error, the government has since halted this method of calculating debt.

In a statement to Mamamia, the CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service, Dr Cassandra Goldie, calls this automated debt-recovery system an "abuse of government".

"Robo-debts hit people even when they’re at their most vulnerable. Robo-debt is an abuse of government power, and it should have never seen the light of day," she says.

“We have repeatedly warned the government that robo-debt is grossly unfair and contrary to basic legal principles, especially the use of automated averaging to calculate debts, and the reversal of onus of proof, which has led to inaccurate assessments and people being pursued for debts they do not owe.

“While we’re relieved to hear that the government is finally halting the use of averaging to calculate debts, we call on the government to replace the entire error-ridden program with a humane form of debt recovery. "

For Kath, Jarrad's death has left her with an enduring sense of anxiety and sadness.

"I don't have a partner, I don't have anyone else, he was just my everything. Everything I did was just for him," she says.

"Jarrad was someone that without a doubt gave me the happiest times of my life. He was so loving and protective of me and just the sight of him made me so proud to be his mother. He represented state in swimming. Won a gold medal for the nationals in volleyball. He did well in every sport he played. Did well at school, and was a high achiever.

"He is and always will be the best human I have known and I feel so blessed to call him my son."

If you, or a young person you know, is struggling with symptoms of mental illness please contact your local headspace centre here or chat to them online, here. If you are over the age of 25 and suffering from symptoms of mental illness please contact your local GP for a Mental Health Assessment Plan or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14. If you are struggling with debt, you can also contact the National Debt Hotline on 1800 007 007 who will help you get back on track.

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