22 Feb 2008

Delivering social services

Amery Browne, the new Minister of Social Development in Trinidad is now identifying
serious "inefficiencies and ineffectiveness" in the delivery of social services.
This is a discovery more than 20 years too late. I don't know about previous ministers who seem to have slept through their watch with their heads buried, but at least Browne recognises the problem. Whether he does anything about it is another matter entirely.

It is not only the clients of the social welfare system that are corrupt. The officials as well are indeed sly about the manner they gyp the clients and take advantage of their vulnerability. Let me hasten to add here that these staff are a minority and most that I have met are hard working and dedicated.

But to related a few examples. I met a senior officer, brother of a popular central Trinidad pundit no less, who was sexually abusing the female clients - in other words, no sex and 'yuh dogs dead'. I had first hand complaints from several victims, mainly young attractive women who were forced to seek social welfare benefits for young children because the fathers did not support.

In another similar case, a level 3 vetting officer encountered a file where the client collected state money because the father of the child did not support. The birth certificate for the child listed her husband as the father. But wait, all is not yet revealed. The husband and father was also the Director of Social Services at the time.

It is not only the staff that is corrupt. I'll explain how decisions are made in social welfare.

The lower staff has no direct bearing on decisions, except to investigate and recommend or not recommend. The decision is made by the senior officer who vets the cases investigated (hence the reason that officer I mentioned earlier could blackmail the clients). Cases are decided on behalf of a Local Board.

The Local Board comprises of several (usually about 5 or 6) 'upstanding' members of the community. Cases that are in doubt has to come before the Local Board which meets once a month. The officer for the district will verbally present the case and a vote is taken. The head of the social welfare office is the chairman of the Board, and guides the other members as to the laws and regulations they must follow to make their decisions.

I encountered two Board members who took advantage of the positions they held to fleece the poor souls relying on the pittance the state provides (TT$635 was the maximum month grant for a family at the time). That is less than US$100 per month or less than £50 per month. For a family, eh.

One man took a list of names of the people approved at the meetings along with their addresses. These were approved already but the day after the meeting he drove around to all these people and told them he was a member of the board and could get their application approved if they paid $500. He usually succeeded in getting the money since the day after the Board met would have been long before the officer would see the client or any written communication reach them. This made it appear as if he really did influence the Board. By the way, he was an Imam.

Another man who retired from the Licensing Office (and we can expect no less from him given the state of affairs there) made it his business to go on the field with the investigating officer. That's a no-no by the way. Turns out the young 'red-skinned' officer later had a child for said board member.

They do believe in delivering social services it seems.

These are but a few examples of the skullduggery that plague social services but I am glad to hear that Amery Browne has identified them and is working to clean up the ministry. I for one would welcome it, since the majority of hard working, underpaid staff - with case-loads in the hundreds every month, are given a bad name by the few rotten eggs.