• Cheryl and her husband, Matthew, who hasn't been seen for two years after his commercial fishing trawler capsized. Photo: Supplied (Supplied)
“The whole situation itself is already emotionally stressful without this other stuff… There is really nobody there to help us.”
Michelle Elias

SBS Insight
31 May - 1:26 PM  UPDATED 31 May - 2:14 PM

It has been two years since Matthew Roberts vanished after his commercial fishing trawler capsized near Fraser Island from an unknown cause.

After five days of air and sea searches Matthew’s wife, Cheryl, accepted he could not have survived the incident.

“I resigned myself to the fact that he wasn’t coming home that night, it’s a big sea out there,” she says.

Cheryl dealt with the devastation and grief of losing her husband but she wasn't prepared for the administrative and bureaucratic trouble that would follow his disappearance.

“I cannot get access to Matthew’s super money to help me because we do not have a death certificate,” she explains.

“This red tape could cost me my house.”

The absence of a death certificate - which can only be provided by a coroner - means that Matthew’s accidental death insurance will also be held until then.

“They’ve seen the boat, the video footage, they never found them within the eight hours and there were a lot of fisherman out there,” she says.

“I’m under no illusion of what’s happened. We all know he is not coming back.”

Cheryl said it took the police 18 months to close the investigation and pass it on to a coroner who decided four disappearances from two different trawler accidents would be investigated in the same inquest.

Financial impact takes a toll

CEO and founder of Missing Persons Advocacy Network (MPAN), Loren O’Keeffe, said for some families the financial impact can be just as devastating as the emotional impact of having a loved one go missing.

“Even if the family and authorities believe the person is deceased, it can take years for a coronial inquest to produce a death certificate, meaning insurances can’t be paid out and superannuation is held and eaten away by fees,” Loren says.

MPAN is an Australian organization established to ease the practical burdens faced by families of the missing person.

“Hundreds of thousands of Australians are dealing with the predicament of not being able to stop phone bills, cancel memberships, close accounts, and are struggling to maintain their households and mortgages,” Loren says.

Australia has around 1,800 long-term missing people. For their families and loved ones, the ambiguity surrounding their fate can be a living nightmare. In this Insight episode: living with the unknown when someone you love goes missing.

Alongside the administrative difficulty in accessing the missing person’s finances, partners often suffer the loss of their own income as they find it difficult to return to work.

Loren said many families – including Cheryl's- are left relying on fundraising campaigns to compensate for the unprecedented setback.

Self-funded campaigns

If a case isn’t suspicious, families often pay out-of-pocket for search resources including helicopters, flyers, posters and billboards to run an awareness campaign.

Peter Harris has been searching for over four years for his partner Paul Rushworth who was last seen at Circular Quay station in Sydney.

“I’ve made how over 3000,000 flyers and posters for all over Sydney trying to find him and we’re still trying,” Peter says.

“It’s expensive but that’s not the point.”

Loren said it is not uncommon for families who approach MPAN to have spent considerable amounts of their lifesavings on searching.

Her own family spent tens of thousands of dollars looking for her brother for over five years.

“It’s almost impossible to sit back and do nothing – you do whatever you can,” she says.

“I know one group of friends who held fundraisers and auctioned off their own possessions and trade skills at their local pub every weekend for the three months.”

While Loren has noticed police searches are starting to deploy more resources for non-suspicious cases over the past few years, she believes there is still a long way to go. 

A call for change

Cheryl said she is not the only wife from the trawler accident experiencing these difficulties and predicts it will be at least another 12 months for the inquest to end.

“The whole situation itself is already emotionally stressful without this other stuff… There is really nobody there to help us.”

Loren has proposed an official missing status should be created for banks and financial institutions to place accounts on hold - which is currently being considered by parliament in the Netherlands.

“We would hope that the AFP’s National Missing Persons Coordination Centre would have the power and influence to help encourage institutions and implement processes to help alleviate the overwhelming practical burdens,” she says.