2 Sep 2019

Whistle-blowers expose bullying at Te Whare Pounamu Dunedin Women's Refuge

11:33 am on 2 September 2019

Whistle-blowers have lifted the lid on bullying, unsafe work practices and theft at Te Whare Pounamu Dunedin Women's Refuge.

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Te Whare Pounamu has been characterised by staff as a toxic and dysfunctional work place. Photo: 123RF

A damning report has backed workers' claims and highlighted serious breaches of Social Sector Accreditation standards.

Te Whare Pounamu has been characterised by staff as a toxic and dysfunctional work place.

One where the needs of management are put before clients, bullying is rampant and a sense of entitlement has extended to stealing donations intended for vulnerable women and children.

The claims are backed by investigations carried out by Deloitte and the Ministry of Social Development.

A report summarising the investigations said the claims made by staff "appear to have been substantiated to a degree that is concerning".

In fact things are so bad, the ministry indicated if Te Whare Pounamu did not address the concerns raised then it might consider initiating a suspension process for its accreditation.

Staff concerns

Social worker Chrissy Thomas said the abuse of power at the organisation began before she was even a paid employee.

"Whilst I was waiting for my contract to be signed I was asked to perform tasks involved in the role and so those tasks were performed unpaid over a period of about two months until I was officially employed in August 2017.

"There was no contract signed and I felt I had no choice but to do the work for the role in order to get a signed contract."

Her first concerns about Te Whare Pounamu emerged only weeks into her paid employment.

She heard about a child disclosing serious physical abuse happening to them in their home and that disclosure was not acted on, Miss Thomas said.

The appropriate procedure would be for an immediate report of concern to be made to Oranga Tamariki, she said. That did not happen.

"There were a lot of excuses made to me, so there were promises that this would be followed up on - constant promises that this would be followed up on. I was monitoring the situation, I couldn't see there was any follow-up occurring, I kept pushing for information from the child advocate and from the manager. They kept saying they were going to follow up on this, I had to take them at their word, and then it became quickly apparent that they hadn't followed through. They started stonewalling me."

She sought advice from her colleagues and was told it was not the first time such concerns were ignored.

"I had been informed it wasn't an isolated situation," she said.

"One staff member said to me that similar concerns had been shut down in the past."

A review at Te Whare Pounamu carried out by the Ministry of Social Development found records for the incident in question were inadequate and that Te Whare Pounamu could not show they were meeting the Social Sector Accreditation standard for community well-being.

Other staff who spoke to RNZ anonymously echoed those concerns.

One person said concerns were raised about sexual abuse of children and no report of concern was ever filed from Te Whare Pounamu in relation to the matter.

"It's not easy for kids to disclose that stuff going on and they get to a place where they feel safe enough that they can tell someone that this is going on and then they tell somebody and nothing happens," the woman said.

"How long is it going to be before they feel they can tell somebody else or do they ever?

"It must be gut-wrenching for those kids to disclose this stuff and have nothing happen and then they have to go back and have more of the same. It's pretty sick."

Donations and sense of entitlement

But Miss Thomas' concerns were not limited to the care and protection of clients.

Miss Thomas said there was a sense of entitlement among some of the staff, including management, at the organisation.

"It was considered normal and ok to just help oneself to donations that were coming through the door," she said.

"I know there was one lot of donations that came through the door where certain items were taken out of the donations. There was a number of care bags that were donated for women in the safe houses and I know the manager went through those bags and took out tissues to hand out to staff to have on their desks.

"I can think of another time where Christmas gifts coming in for the children and for the women. Basically management encouraged staff to help themselves to those items. It was a free-for-all occasion, where staff could just go and take what they wanted."

When asked about policy and procedure surrounding donations, Miss Thomas said: "Everybody knows stealing is wrong.

"Do you need a policy around stealing?

"It was a culture were it wasn't even thought of as stealing; it was par for the course, it was what you did, it was so normal people didn't even see it as stealing."

Though not all staff were involved in the behaviour, there was a pressure to take part and Miss Thomas admitted she did once.

She felt she had no choice and was coerced into taking several items by the manager and senior staff.

She knew it was wrong and took the items to a client the next day.

Deloitte report

Deloitte reported that there were mixed accounts of when donations were taken by staff.

Some said never, others said it was only expired food, and others said staff regularly took donated toys, Christmas gifts and clothing, which staff wore. Detailed examples were provided of this behaviour.

Management told Deloitte the only donations given to staff were from donors who specified that was acceptable. No staff member corroborated this account.

MSD's initial reports stated: "Therefore, this report concludes that the original complainant's concerns over the use of donated goods as an on-going matter of concern have been substantiated to a degree that warrants further action being considered."

Others said the same thing.

A staff member told RNZ donation theft was "part of the culture" of Te Whare Pounamu.

"It was kind of encouraged that we deserved it. That we get poor pay, that we work long hours, that we deserved it," she said.

"I did it and inside my head I know those donations were meant to go out to the community - not for workers, somehow you justify it in your head. When you see your manager doing it and you know she's on twice the money you are but she's still getting to take home all the good stuff then why not."

Another said seeing the theft was distressing, as it took away from those who truly needed it.

"It's very upsetting that these donations have come in for the clients and we are getting paid good money and we shouldn't be taking stuff meant for the clients."

Another women said donations were seen as a chance for people to furnish their own homes and get Christmas presents for their own families.

"They were so greedy and not caring about the women," she said.

"At Christmas time I would say about $1000 [worth of toys] came from The Warehouse and by the time it got all put out [for the clients and their children] it was all the crap toys that were left but the good stuff was gone."

She said it was representative of the organisation's attitude towards the women they were supposed to be helping.

"They are not looking after the women the way they should be."

She was shocked by the attitude of a former manager who had come out of a group session with the clients.

"She came out of the group and said to me 'What a pack of skanks and slags' and that was the manager of the place that said that. It was a horrific, hellish place to work," she said.

Another staff member said she saw other financial improprieties while working there.

"When I first got there I would do weekly figures [of those staying in the safe houses] and when I was doing the figures I noticed that there would be lots of names I didn't recognise of women who had stayed in the safe house. So after a couple of times of doing this I said to the administrator 'Are these ladies coming in on Friday night and leaving on Sunday night because I haven't met any of these people and I haven't done any work with them' and she said what they do is they make up names or clients they've had before that are community clients, they'd write them on to the sheet to inflate the number of women and children that were coming into the safe house and apply for funding," she said.

"Everybody seemed to know it was happening, I was the only person that didn't know it was happening.

"Some of these people didn't have last names or there might be a woman with three children and there were no last names or any other information."

Workplace culture

But all agreed the most trying aspect of Te Whare Pounamu was the workplace culture and bullying.

Miss Thomas said management were bullying in their actions and demeanour.

"It was just a general atmosphere of dysfunction. Passive-aggressive, unpredictable, bullying-type behaviour directed at various staff members at various times over the entire period I was there."

The manager made derogatory comments about other staff members and played them off against each other - on one occasion relaying to Miss Thomas concerns another staff member had raised to the manager about how their pay compared.

"It was putdowns and derogatory comments about staff members on a regular basis," Miss Thomas said.

There was no way to raise any concerns about how people were being treated.

"You would just get shut down if you tried to talk and she'd just talk over.

"It was humiliating. You were treated like a child or an idiot. I felt intimidated by the way she was treating me because I had seen her treat other people that way.

"You couldn't go to management."

On other occasions she felt she was walking into unsafe situations involving clients without proper support from the manager.

The ministry's social sector accreditation team found Deloitte's investigating had enough substance that they believed Te Whare Pounamu had breached its own code of conduct.

The ministry's report stated the manager had potentially breached two aspects of the code:

  • Respect the rights of all colleagues and all clients.
  • Comply with the policies of the Refuge Te Whare Pounamu Dunedin Women's Refuge and behave in a manner that does not or does not have the potential to embarrass or bring Te Whare Pounamu Dunedin Women's Refuge into disrepute.

Other staff told RNZ that working for Te Whare Pounamu was comparable to being in an abusive relationship.

"We do a lot of work with victims of domestic violence - there's the power and control circle and the workplace environment is very, very similar to that," one woman said.

"You're walking on egg shells. Different people at different times are targeted. But there are some people that are always the targets."

Other staff said the workplace was only bearable because they knew they were helping vulnerable women and children.

"You're on edge at work, you're really on edge. But these women coming through the doors - I want to be there to help them," one said.

Another said she was provided little training despite having no social worker qualifications.

"I got three days of driving around with [the then manager] and then that was it," she said.

"I had two safe houses to manage, clients."

Only a few days into the job she had to pick up a woman in a volatile situation, the only support she was offered by her manager was the advice that "if she gets violent or anything in the car, just stop the car and get out".

"I thought this is crazy," she said.

"Every day for about three months I just went home and cried at night because I had no idea what I was doing, I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. From that point onwards I thought this isn't a work place that is safe or supportive and takes care of their staff in a way that should be done. I stayed there for four years because I believed in the job and I believed in the work and I think I did a good job of it, but every day was a battle."

Multiple attempts to contact Te Whare Pounamu's management and board were unsuccessful.

Women's Refuge response

But Women's Refuge chief executive Ang Jury did speak to RNZ.

She said she was unaware of any issues being raised or any complaints being made about Te Whare Pounamu until Miss Thomas' complaint was brought to the attention of MSD last year by the office of the Minister for Social Development, Carmel Sepuloni.

Dr Jury said it was "fair to say" Te Whare Pounamu disputed the findings of MSD's report and that the matter remained under investigation.

"One thing I would say at this point in time is that the staff appear to be fully behind the organisation as it is at the moment. We haven't been in to do a further review because they've been reviewed for Africa. We have no concerns around the safety of women and children accessing the service. We are confident that there are significant safeguards put in place to deal with some of those issues.

"We are waiting to see what MSD's final analysis and plan going forward is."

She emphasised that the process was not complete and MSD was yet to respond to Te Whare Pounamu's response to the report.

"I appreciate the complainant's frustration at the length of time this has taken to resolve. It might have been a little shorter process had they come to me in the first instance, but they chose not to do that.

"So now we wait and play process out in effect.

"And I think the other thing people need to be aware of is it's impossible to keep all of the people happy all of the time."

Changes had been made at a national level to how associated women's refuges handled donations following the complaint as the process had been "loose" before.

She also accepted that record keeping and communication at Te Whare Pounamu was not as good as it should be.

In regards to the allegations of bullying within the workplace, Dr Jury said: "The manager of that refuge was distressed to hear that's how her behaviour had been taken.

"That is one thing that is certainly the front and centre aspect of the process that is still unresolved. That particular point about the workplace culture because that is something that simply isn't OK in a refuge. So that is a point that has to be cleared up once and for all."

She said the number of people who raised concerns about the workplace culture was "truly distressing".

The Ministry for Social Development's general manager social services accreditation, Barry Fisk said, in a statement, that the ministry was working with the National Collective of Independent Women's Refuges to investigate issues at Te Whare Pounamu.

"As we've not reached a final outcome, we're unable to provide further information at this stage," the statement said.

Minister of Social Development Carmel Sepuloni told RNZ she was aware of the initial complaint, but given the ministry's investigation into the issues was still active it would be inappropriate for her to comment further.