Box-checking is a game of no responsibility

A worker at the coalface (who chooses not to be named) tells CPAG about the disparities in social service organisations across the nation, and the problems they may face due to the limitations of criteria box-checking. 

I am alarmed by what I see on a daily basis: despite the rhetoric around Whānau Ora, families are falling through the cracks and damaged for life. It is dispiriting to work every day, observing the silos where information is kept tightly held, and feel less and less hopeful - especially for families where there is any disability or special need. 

Every student of social theory knows about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. He suggests that people can only begin to explore and realise their human potential once their basic creature needs are secure: these basic needs are food, water, shelter and rest. Unless people have reliable access to these fundamental requirements, they are only surviving, not living.

For many families, housing choice is limited to garages – accessible (cars can’t climb stairs either), open plan and affordable. Nobody in their right mind would call such a choice ‘acceptable’ – cramped space and inadequate facilities; no privacy and no insulation – it is a recipe for continuing health problems to compound the disability already being suffered. But who can they turn to for a more acceptable alternative?

Many struggling working families are unable to access social housing assistance due to ineligibility, while some emergency housing providers cannot assist families in need unless they are on the social housing register. Where families are working and not on a benefit, they may have no contact with Work and Income (WINZ) except for when applying for the Accommodation Supplement. This is where a crack to fall through, becomes a chasm. A full-time minimum wage job, even with other supports such as the Accommodation Supplement and Working for Families, cannot provide an adequate income to service the cost of a private rental, especially in the major cities.

Government agencies charged with care and housing, headed by WINZ, assess all cases against fixed criteria. It is all too common to find that MSD are actually aware of the poor living conditions many families are living in, but if it ticks the boxes then there’s no action needed. Moreover, there seems to be varying levels of  tolerance for a tick:

  • Is it available? {Tick]

  • Is it accessible? [tick]

  • Is it affordable? [tick]

  • Is it sustainable? [tick: the landlord is happy – cars don’t pay rent]

  • Is it suitable? [nnnno,– but hey, four out of five’s not bad]

How does the family with a disabled child meet the need for adequate shelter, when they need specific wheelchair access into the house, and then into the living rooms, bedrooms, bathroom, and toilet?

Agencies charged with children’s safety and wellbeing, such as Oranga Tamariki are similarly hampered by restrictive criteria, such as that which defines children as being ‘at risk’.

There are Children’s Teams, who are a co-ordination of services in brought together in certain regions to provide solutions for children where the need is great. Their representatives make contact with families based on referrals from practitioners, such as social workers in schools, GPs, hospital staff. But despite their heroic efforts, including really creative solutions, thinking outside the box for families and whānau, and iwi involvement, they are stretched beyond their limits.

But, if a case is felt to be beyond the scope of a Children’s Team, they may make a referral to Oranga Tamariki. A problem here is that Oranga Tamariki may reject these referrals because of their strict ‘at risk’ criteria, and children and families may get lost in the system. Because of the limitations of their criteria, there is an overflow of need, and an undersupply of services able to provide for the needs of children who are deemed ineligible, despite that they clearly are in need. A lack of consistency around protocol in Children’s Teams from region to region, may  increase the risk of some children falling through the cracks.

The tragedy is that government-mandated support systems are permitting nothing more than survival. We are poorer, not only because we must continue to fund the ongoing health issues that are the inevitable consequence of inadequate housing, but also because our society is denied the potential that these families might have achieved. They deserve better, and so do we.