Social Workers: Unappreciated workers in an unappreciated discipline

It must be tough being a social worker. Certainly New Zealand First Member of Parliament Darroch Ball certainly thinks so. In the general debate in support of a Bill of Parliament to allow foster parents or kin carers to approach Kiwi Saver to open an account on behalf of a foster child in their carer, Mr Ball alluded to the work done by social workers.

I agree with Mr Ball. Being a social worker is like being on a high rope above a pool infested with sharks. All of them would have you for dinner in a flash if you fell off. Somehow a social worker has to navigate a mine field that has any number and range of devices – distrustful parents/guardians/caregivers, a community quick to judge, terrified and/or stressed out children, among others.

They always have to be right in the eyes of everyone, who quite forgetting – possibly deliberately – that they are as human as we are, will most probably make a mistake they end up regretting at some point in their career. And even when they are right, are making all the right decisions and their clients are making progress, how many have actually heard someone say “hey, look mate, I know your job is a hard one but you are doing your best – keep it up”. It would make their day in ways I don’t think anyone but the worker in question would be able to appreciate.

They are meant to be the eyes, ears and trained practitioners doing work that increasingly teachers and other professionals such as General Practitioners who come into contact with children seem to be doing. And whilst these professionals can certainly be useful – a teacher who is dealing with a child that used to be well behaved and is now disruptive would be right to want to find out what is going on in their background.

Without doubt they have strict responsibilities to uphold. And just as in any employment there are one or two rotten apples who are just there to play the system or cause as much trouble as they can. Each case is going to be different from the preceding one.

The attrition rate must be high. Under paid, under valued, under staffed, under resourced would all be things that are true about the profession of social workers.

Parliament claims to care about social workers. And maybe it does, but how many of the 120 M.P.’s that sit in the chamber have actually sat down with a social worker in a neutral setting over coffee and just talked to them about their daily routine, the rewards and challenges that they face? And how many of them have talked to Child Youth and Family managers and tried to find out from the middle man what challenges their staff are reporting?

So, say what you will about social workers but they are probably in terms of the humanities, the least appreciated, most overworked and under paid people. But they do not need to be like this. We can do better. And if we want to improve the social statistics for New Zealand children, our mokopuna, our whanau, we must help our social workers.

Labour fails to act on welfare report recommendations

In August 2017, hot on the heals of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern becoming Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition, co-leader of the Greens Metiria Turei took a gamble. She admitted in a speech where she laid down the case for complete reform of Work and Income New Zealand that she had committed benefit fraud.

The nation was stunned. The Greens were understandably horrified, especially when she mentioned it had not yet been paid back. A political revolt was brewing. One of the brightest rays of hope in the Greens was flushing her career down the toilet and trying to take the party with it. To any Green member that gurgling sound must have sounded like something from a horror movie that had become too real for their liking.

But maybe it was a political master stroke in disguise whereby she would end her career, the Greens would get a new co-leader – though I honestly thought Mrs Turei was alright – and the Greens would use her credibility to get a promise of reform from Labour. Master stroke or not, that is what looked like happening.

Until Friday. On Friday the report that was meant to recommend widespread reform of the Ministry of Social Development and its umbrella agencies was finally delivered 20 months after Labour formed a coalition and 21 months after Mrs Turei’s shock announcement. The hard done ever suffering honest folk who deal with Work and Income on a daily basis and the similarly suffering folk who work there must have been quietly thinking that this would be the day when the Government would announce sweeping reforms to enact the changes recommended.

Quelle horreur!!! Jaws dropped to places where hydraulic assistance will be needed to get them back. Hearts sank to the the deepest recesses. The hopes of thousands dashed by a pathetic flimsy announcement that only three of the recommendations in the report would be adopted by the Government.

The temptation to blast the Greens for having gone along with this is there. However in fairness to them they managed to squeeze out in the 2018-19 Budget a significant amount of money. When added to the promises Labour made to its own members and $3 billion to New Zealand First for regional development, the total amount of money that is locked up is substantial and does not leave much spare change behind. The Greens might have to just bite a potentially painful bullet and accept that this is not going to happen rapidly – and as one who has been messed around by Work and Income, I can understand the frustration of those who might have benefited from a bigger effort to implement the recommendations.

Instead it is Carmel Sepuloni who finds herself in the sights of this blog. After a year of relative inactivity in terms of getting policy passed and implemented, to come out and say that just three of the recommendations are going to be implemented, this is really a massively wimpish response. It could be forgiven if there is an election year promise or something more in either this years or next years Fiscal Budget. Otherwise when Ms Ardern reshuffles her cabinet, I don’t fancy Ms Sepuloni keeping hold of the Social Welfare portfolio.

Labour not doing enough about M.S.D.

The Ministry for Social Development is the umbrella agency for Work and Income New Zealand, Child Youth and Families Service, Studylink and other agencies. Holding the Social Development portfolio is something only a National or Labour M.P. generally gets to do so.

Labours start so far in overhauling the M.S.D. has so far been rather nondescript. Sure they have not even completed their first 200 days, but I was hardly impressed with the response I got from the Minister for Social Development, Carmel Sepuloni to a letter I sent concerning the state of the Ministry, the need to overhaul the legislation governing it and the agencies under it. Whilst the letter did not come across as patronizing nor do it come across as fully understanding the depth of the problem from the perspective of clients.

The death’s of those Work and Income staff in Ashburton was avoidable. Not only were Work and Income found to be culpable for poor security features and lay out, the culture of how staff treat clients can be at times toxic. Some staff are warm and friendly. Some ask how your day is going, whilst others have the hostility of U.S. Customs officials – your mere presence is somehow annoying and troublesome whilst others seem decidedly disinterested. How a staff member presents themselves is critical since the relationship of client and case manager is built on trust, which cannot be established if one or the other is not at ease. There will never be a justification for murder ever, but the motive for such senseless acts can potentially be derived from the poor treatment of clients, especially where their long term well being is at stake.

The toxic culture in itself though might not be entirely the fault of Work and Income. The governing legislation is quite prohibitive in parts, leaving no allowance for human nature. The computer systems, obviously defined by the physical parameters in which they were designed appear to lack a few basic checks and balances. When I asked for assistance following the cancellation of my benefit and being subsequently forced into the financial red, my eventual assistance was delayed two weeks when I could only wait two days because a staff member had failed to hit send on an electronic form enabling my assistance.

There are notable issues of waste inside the Ministry of Social Development and its umbrella agencies. I was called in 2012 to meetings where a number of clients would all sit around a table and tell a case manager what we had done to try to find work in the past few months – we had to be able to provide a list of employers that we had applied for jobs with. After going around the table and stating what we had done, the staff member would give us a spiel about which sectors s/he thought we would be best finding jobs – “right now there are two industries, you can get jobs in – the others are a waste of time: hospitality and construction”, said one staff member at one of these meetings, which perhaps fittingly seemed to be on dreary winter mornings. After 20 minutes or so, one would walk out and go back to their daily lives none the wiser than when they walked in.

Another instance was getting referred to a contractor working for Work and Income New Zealand. This person was a consultant working somewhere in eastern Christchurch. He was meant to help me with my Curriculum Vitae and Cover Letter, which someone at Work and Income thought needed improving. I found this funny then and I find it funny now that the consultant who I was meant to see took one look at both and actually admitted on the spot that as the two go, both were in pretty good order and he could only suggest minor improvements at best.

Granted these problems were five years ago, the letter from Ms Sepuloni seems to have completely dodged the questions I originally asked. I will try again, but I am not getting my hopes up.

Metiria’s Gamble

It was a bold thing to do. When Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei admitted that she had lied to Work and Income New Zealand about her housing arrangements whilst collecting the Domestic Purposes Benefit, she knew full well it was putting putting her in a minefield.

In some respects I admire her honesty. She could have said nothing and left New Zealand, the authorities and the Green Party delegates assembled none the wiser.

In other respects though there is a degree of cynicism about her admission. In doing so, she had another goal in mind other than living up to her statement that an M.P. has to be honest. That goal was to give an example – and a very risky one – of a person struggling with the D.P.B. and making a choice to not be honest with Work and Income New Zealand.

I have had my own struggles with Work and Income. But the whole time I have been transparent with them, however much I might have been tempted to lob a verbal grenade across the desk. My association with Work and Income started back in 2000 when my parents decided to check out what legal assistance a 19 year old with permanent hypertension.

It is not to say that I have got on with W.I.N.Z. or the Ministry of Social Development at large – I have not. In August 2011 after 2 months on the unemployment benefit post 22 February 2011, I started studying for a Certificate of Business Administration (about 25 hours per week)and notified W.I.N.Z. Without telling me, despite asking, how to change my support, they cut the benefit and I only found out when I went to buy lunch one day and my EFTPOS card was declined – I had gone into overdraft because I was withdrawing money that I did not know that I didn’t have. After an argument with W.I.N.Z and another with Ministry of Social Development they put me on a student allowance, which – shock, horror – was actually worth $30 LESS per week than the unemployment benefit. I finished the C.B.A. and went back on the unemployment benefit just before Christmas 2011. For the two years I played a relentless game of cat and mouse – them trying to find a way of getting me off the benefit, and me staying one step ahead of them. It is not that I did not want to work – I was desperate to work, but the job market in post-earthquake Christchurch had essentially collapsed unless you were prepared to work in construction or hospitality, neither of which I thought I was capable of doing. When I finally got a job, it was no thanks to W.I.N.Z. and totally because of my own perseverance and a gentleman at Avis Budget Group being impressed by my ability to tough out a job.

But back to Metiria. She was admittedly between a rock and a hard place. She had bills to pay. She was certain her support would be cut if she told them the truth, which would have complicated her life considerably with her university degree and having to raise a daughter on top of expenses.

I don’t think there was any malicious intent in what she did then – or in admitting her past actions – but at the same time this is the kind of activity that has given National its licence to wage war on beneficiaries. And yes, she should pay back the money anyway.

Being a Ministry of Social Development client

Recent stories about the decline of trust between M.S.D. agencies and their clients has had me thinking about my own experiences. As someone who has dealt with Department of Work and Income New Zealand and Study Link, and was in and out of M.S.D. offices sporadically between 2000-2007; 2011-2013, I thought it useful to describe the process and atmosphere of an M.S.D. office during work hours.

Over the 8 years, the Ministry of Social Development and its umbrella agencies have been on a slow but consistently downhill slide. This both in terms of the quality of work that is being done with regards to client satisfaction, as well as treatment of those clients in terms of maintaining mutual respect and trust. The issues being raised as a result of this loss of trust and respect has damaging ramifications for both the case manager and the staff involved.

Some of the loss of trust and respect is wholly avoidable and would be solved by requiring all staff to attend a course where they are taught how to differentiate between client types. I believe that broad groups of clients exist:

  • The genuine client – most will fall into this group. The problems that sent them to an M.S.D. agency in the first place are beyond their reasonable means of control, and may contribute to an unfavourable statistic such as child abuse or not being able to afford appropriate care.
  • The unlucky client – the ones in this category are not necessarily fake, but are dawdling because they are out of the Ministries legal scope of responsibility, and thus cannot qualify for care; their case has bounced around between agencies for any number of reasons and they have sort of given up on trying.
  • The fakes – these are the minority who are simply too lazy to help themselves, or are criminals playing the systeme. These are the ones who deserve no sympathy or help. But they are a fairly minor part of a large number of people who have failed or are being failed by the system.
  • The M.S.D. fails – people who the system has failed. They were genuine as they could be. They did everything right and should in any other circumstance fall into the first group. Except that Ministry of Social Development has at one or more levels failed to do due diligence on this particular client and s/he has fallen through the cracks with serious consequences

There is a palpable concern that when one goes into an M.S.D. office, that they are not going to get treated with due respect, thus making them wary of the people who are supposed to be helping, instead of establishing mutual trust. The atmosphere is cool and the staff give the impression at times of being disinterested, laced with suspicion of the person on the other side of the desk.

Some of the clients show a similar lack of regard for those across the desk. Staff have been assaulted, abused, had things thrown at them or flaming rows that have attracted attention. None justified of course and some of the clients have been deserving of the punishment they had meted out.

One might be made to wait for an unknown length of time before being introduced to their case manager, who upon meeting the client makes a judgement quickly about the type of person they are. Despite being supposed to have information about ones history with the M.S.D. agencies at their finger tips, case managers often ask questions that give the impression of there being no record of oneself on their database.

A form might be presented for you to fill out. Sometimes it is necessary, but other times it seems like a simple repeat of writing out information that was probably filled out at the time of requesting the meeting. You hand it back and the case manager looks over the information. If you are lucky, they then action the request. If you are unlucky, another meeting awaits. The meeting itself might have been delayed a few days. All of this is critical time in both the case of the agency or agencies, as well as the client.

It can be a thankless task. Whilst I am sure the majority of case managers are genuinely good people who care, it only takes a few eggs to remind you why many people regard the Ministry and its umbrella agencies with suspicion. And why – even though murder is the gravest of offences, and can never be condoned for any reason – the sickening reality is that another shooting in an M.S.D. office could happen.