7 Jul 2021

Woman sanctioned by MSD over fear of naming child's father owed thousands

From Checkpoint, 5:06 pm on 7 July 2021

Welfare advocates say thousands of women who had benefits docked unfairly because they could not or would not name their child's father could be entitled to significant lump sum refunds.

But the Ministry of Social Development has been slow to review the cases when it should be proactively checking whether it owes people money.

The so-called section 70a sanction was aimed at getting child support from the absent parent, but research proved it did not work.

Approximately $28 a week could be deducted from a parent's benefit - overwhelmingly mothers.

In April 2020 the government scrapped the deduction it described as an "unfair", "harmful" and a "discriminatory sanction that penalised children".

However, there is still a queue of women waiting for their cases to be reviewed, in the hope of having their deductions refunded.

Mary* told Checkpoint she was 16 when she became pregnant. She did not tell MSD the name of the father of her child as she feared for her safety.

It meant she lost $28 a week from her benefit for almost two decades.

"I was young then. It was the type of people he hung around with. He also had a partner, and she wasn't too happy about me."

The man was a member of a gang where alcohol and other drug use was common.

Mary did not want that in her or her son's life.

"I was scared he was going to take my son from me if I actually named him, and if he paid child support. I thought that would give him legal access [to] take him from me."

She was scared of the man and his partner, who had threatened to kill him with a patu. And when she was young, she said, she did not fully understand her options.

"They asked, and I said I didn't want to name him. I don't want him in my life."

MSD told her it would deduct $28 every week until she named her child's father. She said "okay then".

Having that money would have made a lot of difference, she said.

"$28 is heaps… Back then it would have been more nappies, more baby food, things like that.

"It put me in sad points sometimes. I made a decision not to name my son's father, and to not receive that $28, I felt bad about it. It was hard."

She said she felt guilty about it.

"I still do. It's probably why I'm trying to do all this. To give back what was [her son's] in the first place.

"Not giving him everything he deserves, should have had…

"It's probably why it's put me in this position right here, trying to give back what was his, or should have been."

There were exceptions to MSD's sanction when a partner's parent was not named. A woman refusing to name their child's father if at risk of violence was supposed to be exempt from the deduction.

In February 2020 Mary applied for MSD to review her case, on those grounds. More than a year on, the wait continues.

'This sanction should have never been imposed'

Social worker Alastair Russell has been helping her.

"I think this is outrageous. This sanction should never have been imposed. It was a clear exemption from day one. A fear of violence means Work and Income should never have imposed the sanction at all," he told Checkpoint.

"There were over 13,000 women with over 17,000 children in their care when the sanction was stopped. It's a huge issue.

"They have at least a moral obligation to investigate the situation of every one of those women and to pay the money back," he said.

"The sanction was pointless, it was racist, it was punitive, and it just put into further jeopardy the lives of children who are the most vulnerable in this country.

"Over 50 percent of the women who had the sanction imposed were either Māori or Pasifika," Russell said.

Since Checkpoint investigated about Mary's case there has been progress.

In a statement, MSD said: "We'd like to apologise to Mary for the delay in the review of decision in her case.

"Our records show Mary lodged a request for a review of decision on 10 February, 2020. Our progress on this last year was delayed by the events of Covid-19, however this review should have progressed more quickly than it has.

"We've been in touch with Mary and her advocate to let them know we'll have a decision to them by the end of next week."

Mary's son is now a teenager. He wants to be a coder. If Mary manages to get any sanction money refunded, she said it is going straight to his education.

"He's into computer games, inventing games… Growing up I couldn't do it. I never had the money to do that. Even MIT, I didn't have the education, but I see he's got something. At least he can push himself forward."

Advocacy group wants MSD to proactively pay people back

Advocacy group Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP) has 38 similar cases on its books, with women appealing past MSD sanctions, in the hope of getting years of deductions repaid.

One of those women has been waiting more than two years for a decision.

AAAP coordinator Brooke Pao Stanley says the pace of the reviews is painful and they are currently waiting on decisions in multiple cases.

"The request we've put in on behalf of these women, we've been waiting to hear back from MSD about them … some from October 2019," she said.

"I think it's reflective of the fact that some of these women have had sanctions put on them since the '80s, I think it's reflective of the MSD system itself, it's too old.

"There's not enough resources or staff at MSD to ensure that these women are paid what they owed."

Pao Stanley said it was a cruel and inhumane penalty.

"Benefit levels in this country are already so low. Any type of money that's taken out or given is a huge deal for people because they're so low.

"It's the difference between being able to afford food, pay your power bill, pay your rent.

"For many of us, we take getting paid for granted. It's a real privilege for so many of us in this country.

"But for people who are doing it rough and have been for ages, it means a lot."

Pao Stanley said there are many reasons why a woman might not name the father of her child – mostly to do with fear of violence.

"A lot of trauma involved. Sometimes the men don't want to sign off on the birth certificates of their children. For these women it's around keeping themselves and their children safe.

"It's very hard. And there's a lot of judgment in the space. People are having to relive trauma, or their own sexual history, with strangers - people they don't know at Work and Income.

"It's a very sensitive topic, but… in order to get this money for themselves and their families, it's kind of the process that MSD are putting them through."

She estimates there will be thousands of women who are unaware they are entitled make a case for backpay now the sanction has been scrapped.

"We would love for MSD to proactively start backpaying people, going through their own files, seeing who was sanctioned and giving people their money back, giving them what they're owed."

In response, MSD spokesperson Kay Read said the ministry is working as quickly as it can, amid higher workloads as a result of Covid-19. 

"Typically reviews of this kind are complex in nature, as they cover events that go back some time.

"When we review a case, we also look at changes in circumstances over time. In some cases circumstances may have changed so that a sanction may no longer apply, but we may not have been informed of that change. A sanction may correctly apply for some but not all of the period."

*Real name withheld for privacy reasons.