16 Jul 2021

MSD reimburses mother $13k after years of unfair sanctions

From Checkpoint, 7:48 pm on 16 July 2021

After more than year of waiting for a Ministry of Social Development review, a woman who was unfairly sanctioned for failing to name her child's father has been repaid.

Under the sanction, many women receiving a benefit had up to $28 a week deducted for not naming their child's father.

There were exemptions to the rule, including cases of sexual assault or the risk of violence, but some women were too scared or uncomfortable to disclose that detail.

Last April the government scrapped the sanction, but thousands of women are still waiting for MSD reviews to find out if they will get money refunded.

Mary* was one of them. Her son's father was in a gang and a threat was made to kill her. She did not name him to MSD and was sanctioned for years.

She has been waiting 17 months for her case to be reviewed. Since Checkpoint inquired, MSD committed to give her an answer by July 16. 

Social worker and advocate Alastair Russell has been helping Mary and others get the so-called Section 70A sanctions paid.

"He called me yesterday afternoon to discuss that it has been resolved. I will be getting paid hopefully today. They also will be sending me a letter of how they have calculated it and come to the amount," she told Checkpoint.

"I was told I would get just over $13,000." Mary said the MSD spokesperson also apologised.

"I was over the moon. I told them I'm a very patient person and I believe that good things take time."

Mary's son, now a teenager, would like to follow a career in computer programming and game development. She plans to use the money towards his education.

"My son will be over the moon… I've never had that money to get him further than he is right now. But yeah, he's got big dreams."

Another repaid $30k after MSD proven to not help her understand legal jargon

Alastair Russell told Checkpoint he is pleased Mary is getting a lump sum reimbursement, but says it should not be this difficult.

Russell has recently helped win a $30,000 payout for another woman, because MSD failed to properly explain the sanction and the woman's rights in a way that she understood.

"I presented a list of jargon that the Ministry uses, including: 'reasonable steps', 'proof of parentage', 'written legal opinion', 'legally named', 'seek paternity', 'paying parent', 'paternity test', and 'legal aid'.

"None of those technical terms were ever explained to this other woman," Russell said.

"All the ministry did was spit out computer generated letters, basically demanding that she name the father without explaining how she was supposed to do that.

"She had two children who were subject to the 70A sanction and she had mental health issues throughout the relevant period. She had an untreated, serious mental illness for some 10 years before successfully being treated.

"Whilst having that mental illness she was still being punished by  a sanction, taking $52 per week out of her family's income."

Russell is calling for MSD to review the overall approach its case workers have taken in the way information was presented to every single person sanctioned.

"What was the ministry's conduct during that period? And if that doesn't bear up to the legal requirements which exist both in case law and in the Social Security Act, as it was written at the time, then they should be paying up."

'The law was morally wrong, MSD failed in its duty'

On Thursday Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni said the team of 20 case workers who were working on the review sanctions cases were redeployed because of Covid-19.

"I think it is an inadequate resource, given the level of injustice the ministry has imposed upon these women," Russell said in response.

"[MSD] have a moral responsibility to pay up in each and every case, because the law at the time was morally wrong and the ministry failed in its duty to those women, to explain to them properly what they could do to have that sanction removed."

Sepuloni said so far 8595 individual cases have been resolved in a proactive review, which was ordered by the Minister.

Of those cases, about 2400 who had not named the other parent of their child have had sanction arrears repaid to them. 

*Real name withheld for privacy reasons.