The Ministry of Social Development [MSD] has a system for beneficiaries to repay debt, but getting MSD to pay money owed is a bureaucratic nightmare, one south Auckland social worker says.
When a south Auckland boy's parents could not care for him, his grandmother and aunt took over. They were entitled to financial help to care for the baby, but MSD did not tell them.
Social worker Alastair Russell has been battling for the family to get the thousands of dollars in allowances owed to them.
"There's no doubt about the stress," the boy's aunt Lucy* told Checkpoint.
"The stress level is at the top of my head, probably even beyond that, but it's just my love for him. I wouldn't change my life for him, I wouldn't change anything about it. If I had to do it again I'd definitely do it again," she said.
Lucy's mother was taking care of the young boy before reaching retirement age. The boy's mother had three children under two years old when she realised she was pregnant again.
By the time Lucy's nephew was born, the father had left the country. His mother simply could not cope.
Lucy took over as lead carer from her mother, the boy's grandmother, in the middle of 2012.
"I stepped in, took over the financial matters, his shopping, feeding him, taking him to school and doctor visits… everything that a mother would do for their child.
"He is autistic and ADHD. He was officially diagnosed with autism in 2014, and ADHD was prior to discovering autism.
"It's been a real challenge, especially having someone of his being and us not knowing what to do with someone that is autistic and ADHD. It was a real big challenge, but we're getting there.
"He doesn't like big crowds. He doesn't like new people. So if someone new was to come on board as a teacher aid for him, he would react really badly to the point where he would want to leave the school grounds, he would swear at the teachers who are trying to calm him down. Also he'll take it out on any student that's near him."
In those events he might punch, kick or throw something, Lucy said.
She has juggled work with caring for her own son as well as her nephew for years. The financial strain had been very difficult, she said.
"Real hard, to the point where sometimes we'd go without. I have a 19-year-old son now. When he was in school, whenever I'd get his uniform grant from WINZ I would split the grant for my nephew.
"So, whatever is left-over from my son's uniform, I would split it and pay for my nephew's one.
"And stationery, food, anything in general, his medication… It always has been a struggle.
"Sometimes we would have to go with no food."
Over that whole time Work and Income never told Lucy she could get financial help, she said.
The Unsupported Child's Benefit is a weekly payment of between $200 and $265 to help carers who are looking after a child under 18 for a year or more, because their parents are not able to.
Lucy told Checkpoint Work and Income never mentioned it, even though the transfer of care from grandmother to aunt was discussed in the presence of a Māngere case manager at a meeting in August 2012.
MSD disputes that, saying it was not aware of the change in circumstances until September 2020.
School social workers noticed in 2020 the family was not getting the financial help it qualified for.
"It's very clearly the job of Work and Income staff to tell people of benefit eligibilities that exist," social worker Alastair Russell said.
"Work and Income make a big deal about talking about full and correct entitlement, and they have failed miserably in this instance deliver that to Lucy and her family.
"Without doubt Work and Income should pay up the full and correct entitlement to this family, they should go back and calculate the arrears that are owed, going back to 2012 and pay up," Russell said.
That would total about $83,200 in allowances owed by MSD to the family, based on the $200 weekly payments.
"I was actually dumbfounded, to be quite honest," Lucy said.
"I had no clue that financial help was right in front of me. If only they had told me that I was able to get this money, I think our lives would have been different.
"And there's a few things my nephew would need… I would be able to use [that money] to get the things he needs, especially when it comes to education.
"Anything that will help him learn more and study more. Now that he'll be going into high school next year."
Russell said the social workers started chasing the issue on the family's behalf in September last year.
It had been months of wrangling reports, assessments, sworn statements, emails back and forth, Russell said.
Since Checkpoint started investigating, the pace had picked up.
In a statement, MSD service delivery group general manager Kay Read said: "We want to ensure our clients receive their full and correct entitlement.
"In this instance, a more fulsome conversation should have been had with Lucy on her eligibility for the unsupported child benefit.
"This does not meet the standard we expect when working with our clients and we apologise for this.
"Lucy's circumstances have been reviewed and it has been determined she is owed a significant amount.
"We have been in contact with Lucy to apologise for this error, and let her know that she will receive her payment this week."
On Friday afternoon, MSD contacted Lucy and confirmed by its calculations it owes her more than $76,000. In a statement to Checkpoint MSD said it will that make that payment immediately.
Alistair Russell said he knows of other aunts and grandparents, and suspects there are even more.
His message to MSD is blunt: "This is appalling. You need to actually take the murals that you have on your wall seriously. You are saying the most important thing is the people – he tangata, he tangata, he tangata.
"That is on every wall of every Work and Income office in the country, and it is frankly a lie in terms of the way they treat people.
"The Prime Minister talks about kindness. There is nothing kind about the way this is done."
Millions owed to carers for unpaid allowances from MSD
A grandparents' support group is calling on the Ministry of Social Development to lift its game when it comes to paying what it owes carers.
Kate Bundle is the boss of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. Last financial year they squeezed almost $1 million in owed entitlements out of MSD.
"I've gone back over the last four years and including the provisional figures I've got for [the latest financial] year to March, it's a total of around $2.34 million that we've managed to get back for about 75 clients.
"So it's not insignificant, the amount of support that these grandparents have not been getting.
"In one case, for example, over $200,000 was eventually what she was paid for the support of her grandchildren.
"What this means is, for all those years they weren't getting that support they were really, really struggling.
"And the key time they should be getting it is right from the get-go when the children come into their care," Bundle said.
*Not her real name, for privacy reasons.