27 May 2015

Counselling agency closure will leave 'gap'

7:56 pm on 27 May 2015

Counsellors and clients alike say they are concerned people will miss out on much-needed help when Relationships Aotearoa closes its doors on Friday.

The counselling agency will close with the loss of 183 jobs after negotiations with the Government broke down, and up to 7000 people will have to get counselling elsewhere.

The Ministry of Social Development said it had made arrangements with other agencies to pick up Relationships Aotearoa's clients.

But those who have had help from the service or worked for it said it would still leave a huge gap.

Christchurch woman Fiona Clark used Relationships Aotearoa three times, most recently after the Canterbury earthquakes.

She said she was dismayed it would close.

"I recommended them to everyone... For any earthquake issues, for any personal issues, anything - they were fantastic.

"They've got lots of resources... that they can tap into. It just seemed unlimited, what they're able to offer."

The Ministry of Social Development said Barnados, Family Works, Stand Children's Services and Lifeline would take on Relationships Aotearoa clients, and the ministry was working to provide client details to those organisations as soon as it could.

But Ms Clark said the closure could still leave people without help as remaining services get stretched even further.

"That is what concerns me, is that services are going to be harder to get into, and when you go to seek help you have to be in a particular space in your mind. If it's not instantly available to you then that opportunity to seek help sometimes passes."

Pep Halbert was one of two Relationships Aotearoa counsellors in Gisborne who each had about 100 clients.

There were other services in Gisborne, but not all specialised in relationship counselling, she said.

Even for people who were referred to a new counsellor quickly, it could set back their progress, Ms Halbert said.

"It takes a good three sessions for trust to kick in. So to have to move off after they've got to know us well ... it will be daunting, because that first foot through the door is really the most important step of all."

Former employees were also worried by the closure. Tauranga counsellor Peter De Veth worked at Relationships Aotearoa for eight years and said it did a lot for vulnerable families and at-risk young people.

"[It] has been providing a real service for them for quite a while now and I'm not really sure who's going to pick that up.

"There's a real concern around that - there's been a lot of training and education that's gone into developing expertise around working with families and with youth and so it'll be sad to lose that resource."

A Wellington relationship counsellor says the handling of the closure of Relationships Aotearoa could lead to complaints to the Health and Disability Commissioner.

Relationships Aotearoa closed yesterday due to a funding crisis, and thousands of clients will be moved to new providers.

Relationship consultant Roy Bowden said he thinks there would be complaints to the Health and Disability Commissioner over the handling of the closure.

He said the code of ethics for counsellors made it clear that when a client and counsellor relationship was ended it should be done slowly and with great care.

Mr Bowden said he believes the Ministry of Social Development was responsible for the sudden closure.

The Ministry of Social Development said anyone worried about the new arrangements could call Lifeline for help.

Relationships Aotearoa staff will work until the end of next week but the agency said that will not give them time to contact all clients about switching to new services.

Spokesperson Cary Hayward said clients have to asked for permission under the Privacy Act to pass on their details.

Labour questions 'quick' closure

The Labour Party says vulnerable people are being let down by the Government's "dumping" of Relationships Aotearoa.

Acting social development spokesperson Annette King told Morning Report a 66-year-old organisation had been tossed out in a matter of weeks and new providers brought in at the eleventh hour.

"We signed up some organisations yesterday - does that sound to you like a plan from a Government that really cares about people that need counselling?"

Ms King said the Minister of Social Development needed to answer why the agency needed to be wound up so quickly.

The minister, Anne Tolley, said in a statement the main focus throughout the Government's negotiations with Relationships Aotearoa was to ensure clients continued to receive counselling.

She was delighted a number of well-respected providers would work with the ministry to keep services going and would like to see as smooth a transition as possible for the sake of the clients.