Gunditjmara Wotjobaluk woman Nikki Foy was cradling her firstborn son when she first got word there was a new company offering something very valuable to her family.
- About 14,500 Indigenous Australians have been impacted by the collapse of a group of funeral funds
- Members of the funeral insurance schemes are calling on government to step in
- You came under scrutiny at the royal banking commission
“I’m home on maternity leave with this new little person who I have great responsibility for, to love and cherish,” she said.
“I’m looking at him and I hear about this Aboriginal funeral fund, which planted the seed of ‘What if something happened to me or my husband?'” She said.
A person from the Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund (ACBF) came around to explain the fund.
The paperwork was red, yellow and black.
She felt like she was speaking to people who understood her.
“I was feeling vulnerable after giving birth, so I’m just like, ‘I need to do what’s best for our son, and both my husband and I,'” she said.
“So, we signed up.”
But the company wasn’t run by Aboriginal people, despite what the promotional material implied.
And it wasn’t a simple fund to pay for funeral expenses.
It was an insurance scheme, and over the years, it has come to cost Nikki and her family tens of thousands of dollars.
Money they’re now unlikely to ever see again.
This month, a number of linked companies, all providing funeral insurance have collapsed:
- The Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund
- ACBF Funeral Plans
- Community Funeral Plans
- The Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund 2
Their demise is likely to leave more than 14,500 Indigenous Australians with no cover.
The Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) said it figured out how much is owed would be complex.
But advocates estimate millions of dollars have been lost.
ASIC investigating ACBF’s insolvency
Like Ms Foy, her mother Diana Nikkelson was part of Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund 2.
The fund was the first to go under, after it went into administration in November last year.
In the past few years, Diana’s endured numerous cancer surgeries, including a stint in hospital alone as Victoria went into lockdown for COVID.
“I feel really disappointed by the whole damn thing,” Ms Nikkelson said.
She hasn’t stopped paying into the fund in the hope that somehow she’ll still get her money.
“She thought she was doing the right thing by us, as did many other elders in our communities,” her daughter Ms Foy said.
“We took it out so we could be buried with dignity. It’s our cultural right to be buried with pride and dignity and not have to put that added pressure on our families to come up with the money to pay for our funeral.”
Nikki Foy is desperate for the government to step in and do something.
“It’s not about asking for a handout and no way am I asking for a handout from government,” she said.
“I’m asking them to step in and rescue a lot of the families who have put in, including myself and my mum, to rescue… what is rightfully ours and what we’re paid into.”
Insolvency firm Robson Cotter, which is handling the demise of ACBF Fund 2, did not respond to the ABC’s request for information.
But documents seen by the ABC show there appears little chance the 3,400 members of that fund will get any money back.
A creditors meeting was told investigations were being undertaken in relation to the potential misappropriation of ACBF Fund 2’s funds.
It’s still unclear whether members of the other funds will get their money either.
“The liquidator will endeavor to contact all members as soon as possible with details of how the liquidator intends to deal with the funds and members’ claims,” liquidator SV partners said in a statement.
“The liquidator will conduct an investigation into the affairs of the Youpla Group / ACBF Group and will be reporting to creditors on the outcome of those investigations.”
ASIC confirmed it is investigating the circumstances surrounding the insolvency of the ACBF funds.
The spokesperson for the commission said it was too early to say whether any action would be taken against the company or its directors.
A fund by name only
The collapse is particularly hard to swallow for Yorta Yorta community member Tracey Walsh, who stood up at the banking royal commission in 2018 to explain how she felt misled into buying a policy through ACBF because she thought it was Aboriginal owned.
Like Ms Foy, she signed up, hoping for a dignified funeral.
“We always say, ‘Going to the Dreamtime, rest in the Dreamtime,'” she said.
“It’s so important for us to look after your own affairs and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve gone out and got funeral insurance.”
Ms Walsh put thousands to ACBF, but when she tried to increase her level of coverage, she was knocked back on medical grounds.
She realized she’d lose all her contributions if she stopped paying, so she enlisted the help of consumer lawyers to complain to the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA).
To resolve the matter, the company put her money in a trust to be paid when she died.
Following Ms Walsh’s evidence, the royal commission criticized the company in its interim report, noting that thousands of people lost their contributions when they stopped paying premiums.
“Over the last five years, ACBF has canceled 13,175 ACBF Plan policies as a result of non-payment of premiums,” the report said.
The royal commission heard from Youpla that 6,000 policies were canceled after the government stopped allowing the company to deduct premiums directly from clients’ Centrelink payments in 2015.
Ms Foy also considered getting out, when she discovered what she’d believed to be $ 12,000 worth of contributions, were actually non-refundable premiums.
“We put so much money into what we thought was the fund… so it just you sort of felt locked in to keep going, continuing on paying,” she said.
“And that’s what we’ve done. That’s what we’ve done for 23 years.”
In the aftermath of the royal commission, the government made changes to the law, which effectively prevented Youpla from taking on new customers.
It was the last of many sanctions it has faced over the years from government regulators.
Despite this, ACBF has remained in business, offering new products, and re-branding.
‘Where is the outrage?’
Tracey Walsh and Nikki Foy want somebody to be held accountable for how it came to this.
“I went to Government House in Melbourne and sat down with Josh Frydenberg. He said, ‘We’ll look into this. I promise you.’
“I have a question for him, ‘What have you done for me, Mr Frydenberg? What have you done for all the communities? Because this just isn’t Victoria. It’s up to Palm Island.'”
Nikki Foy said the lost money represented so many savings for so many people.
“It might not seem like much for a lot of people, but it’s such a lot of money,” she said.
“I just think, ‘Where is the outrage?'”
Mob Strong Debt Help solicitor Mark Holden has called on the government to start by providing funeral vouchers to the families of people who have died, or who pass away in the coming months.
“Youpla’s conduct has continued in plain sight for decades,” he said.
“It’s time for the Australian government to put a stop to this appalling mistreatment of First Nations peoples.”
Mr Holden said community organizations have been overwhelmed by distress calls since the collapse.
The government says after the royal commission, it introduced a requirement that all funeral expense policies be sold by a licensed provider, and that as a result, ACBF hasn’t been able to sell new policies since April 2020.
The ABC contacted a number of former directors of the group of companies, but none have agreed to an interview.