Lelaine Muir attended the School of Social Work at the University of British Columbia and spent her career working as a front line income assistance worker in the welfare ministry for 34 years. In that time she has seen dramatic changes in the philosophy, public policy, practice and administration of income assistance. Lelaine, now retired, kindly offered to write a piece for Advocacy BC on some of her experiences working with B.C.’s most vulnerable people.
Welfare: 1968 to 2011
Lelaine Muir, September 18, 2012. Edited by Tracey Young, Advocacy BC.
I would like to dedicate my musings on working the front lines of income assistance in Vancouver’s urban core to all people on income assistance, past, present, and future. Some of the finest people I have ever met have been on welfare. Income assistance recipients are, in my opinion, the most open and honest about who and what they are. For this I truly respect and admire them.
When I started working, income assistance workers were considered helping professionals. While I worked on the front lines of the welfare ministry I attended the School of Social Work at the University of British Columbia (UBC). To me social work is an honourable profession. We make a difference in people’s lives by working on increasing quality of life through building self-esteem, and always moving the client forward towards financial independence and healthier life styles. In welfare, we were the first line of defence in recognizing and intervening in child neglect and abuse, addictions, mental health, social disabilities, criminal activity, and immigration issues.
I have a number of stories that have stayed with me over the years of my work and they demonstrate some of the changes the welfare ministry has gone through in how we treat clients. In the 1970’s while working at a welfare office on Homer Street in Vancouver, a man entered our building in distress. He appeared quite ill due alcohol abuse. He had defecated in his clothing and he had been living in these clothes for days. Our conundrum was who would transport him to a community social service agency that was able to offer him assistance. We drew straws and I pulled the short one. My colleagues were kind enough to cover the passenger seat of my two-seat sports car with newspaper and helped get the client into my car. They also provided me with a jar of Noxzema cream to hold under my nose to keep from retching. Holding the jar in itself was a feat because I drove a standard forcing me to shift and steer with one hand.
As soon as we arrived at the community agency the gentleman was taken to a bathroom and stripped of his clothing so the garments could be incinerated. The gentleman was then placed in a large bathtub in a large room. The social worker with this agency was bathing the gentleman when I was brought into the same room. I sat on a stool in the furthest corner and completed the income assistance application while the gentleman was bathed. The gentleman was found eligible for income assistance and medical coverage all within the same day. The client now had two support groups within hours of contact.
After thirty-four years with welfare, I came to believe that, in many cases, people were failed by their families and the adults in their lives when they were young. They were failed by the school system, by their communities and social service agencies and society, as a whole. As adults, they are punished because they grew up to be dysfunctional people in need of support.
Over the years, many clients have disclosed childhoods plagued by neglect, abuse, torture, and trauma. Clients have told me about growing up in deep poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction, family violence, suicide, and even having to eat food off a dirty floor thrown there by the adults who were suppose to love and care for them. I have had clients describe being chased out of their beds in the middle of the night by a drunk, violent father carrying an axe and hiding outside in winter in northern British Columbia in their pajamas, fearful of being found.
In welfare work our goals of service used to be about striving to provide people with dignity and quality of life. This began to change and soon, it appeared as though the welfare ministry, now called the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), refused to acknowledge that a core segment of our society are unable to function, and most likely never will and they require social assistance to survive.
Around 2009 a senior manager came to my office to tell our team that we were no longer a helping profession, we were now a business. When I inquired how we were to make money off of the poor and disadvantaged the senior manager stated, “By diverting costs.” In subsequent team meetings my colleagues and I began brainstorming how diverting costs would take shape and how it would affect delivery of service. Several times I tried to remind my teammates we worked with human beings.
In the spirit of this changing mandate I offered a few helpful suggestions. I suggested we remove our name, address, and phone number from the blue pages of the phone book so people wouldn’t be able to find us at all. I also recommended we build a moat complete with drawbridge and pull up said drawbridge so people couldn’t manage to make it into the offices. Following fortification we could let it be known in the community that, if people could find us we may, and only may, help them.
“Diverting costs” has taken a tremendous toll on the poorest in our province. One day an administrative staff person approached me expressing concern about how one particular client was being treated. I looked into the case and discovered a twenty-year-old woman who was suffering from severe mental health issues. Her father was in the background trying to support her bid for independence.
During this process the young woman was approved for Persons with Disability (PWD) classification by the Health Assistance Branch in Victoria. However the intake worker who had completed the income assistance application at the local office had not found her eligible for basic income assistance, almost four months after she made her application. I approached my colleague with information of the mental health issues and the approval for PWD. The worker said, “Well now I am going to ask her to write out how she has survived for the last three months without our help.”
I felt it was inhumane to create further delays in helping this young woman, who was suffering mental health issues, so I called the client. We tried to find a time the young lady could come in to see me, but there were no available times. I asked the young lady to come in on my lunch hour. When we met in my office, I explained her eligibility for income assistance, and that I would make arrangements for her to receive the funds she was eligible for. The young lady said, “I would like to give you a hug, but I guess it’s not very professional?” I replied, “I have had many a hug in my career.” She dropped her backpack, threw her arms around me, and sobbed into my shoulder saying, “You have saved my life.”
I would enjoy a good debate about BC’s welfare system, which, in my opinion, used to be one of the finest. Clients were recognized for their individuality and were treated with respect and humanity. Plans and goals were devised to meet the individual’s needs and built on their strengths and capacities. Education, training, and apprenticeship programs were preferred so clients could find better paying jobs and more sustainable employment.
Another client I remember was a single mother who was struggling with mental health issues. She had a teenage daughter and they needed additional supports because of her illness. Once the mother was found eligible for PWD, she brought me a picture she had painted, with a card that read, “I am not much of an artist, but I wanted to show my appreciation for all you did for us. You kept me hanging on. And most importantly you treated me like a human being. Something no one else has done.”
After working under the new business model I started to apologize to clients for the system and my inability to assist them. By now my employer had made clear to me and my colleagues that care, dignity and compassion were no longer relevant in the welfare ministry. I also found myself apologizing to social workers with the Ministry of Children and Families, social workers with the hospitals, staff at facilities, and service providers because services were being withdrawn from the most vulnerable. Social workers were putting in hours of work to arrange plans for people, only to find no one at the welfare offices were available, or no-one knew the clients and could participate in case conferences and assist in implementing plans that would support clients.
Another situation that stayed with me was that of a single mother with two small pre-school children who had approached the welfare office for additional support. She explained she and her two children were hungry. They had no food or funds due to bills being higher than usual and unexpected additional expenses. The worker dealing with this woman told her to go and find free food. I could see that where once we were a helping profession, now we were creating more stress in the lives of parents who were already struggling. It is these kinds of conditions that trigger feelings of anger, despair and hopelessness that can lead to acts of child abuse and/or neglect when parents have hit walls in receiving help for them and their children.
In the MSD business model of income assistance delivery, I found no understanding of social or human issues. This business model does not understand, or care about the social and health impacts of poverty on individuals’ and families. Nor does this model recognize mental health or addictions, lack of education and literacy, lack of social skills, lack of day care or the many ills that befall vulnerable human beings, because it is not profitable to do so.
Welfare came into existence because people needed help and there will always be people who need help due to their own personal circumstances. From what I have experienced, working in the welfare Ministry over the years, I now believe there is a segment of society who wish the poor and vulnerable would just go away and die and clean up after themselves so no one will ever know they were there in the first place.
People on income assistance can be our family, friends, or neighbours. Someday it could be you, or someone you know. The health of our communities is measured by how our most vulnerable are treated and far too many in our communities have been deprived of what they need. I remember a time when everyone was treated with respect and dignity. With the political will of the B.C. government it can ensure that the human rights of our most fragile citizens are values that are the foundation of our welfare system.