Helping families find hope and courage to change

Sudha Nair For The Straits Times

What should social workers do with a family that spends $500 on cigarettes and cable TV, yet applies for financial aid? Questioning the poor on their needs and choices is part of helping them.

In a recent article, sociologist Teo You Yenn painted a bleak picture of the conditions rental flat dwellers live in (Let’s talk about meeting needs, not just equality of opportunity; ST May 30). She argued, among other things, that insufficient space can lead to children being open to negative influence and that the process of getting help can cause families living in rental flats to lose their dignity because they are often asked demeaning questions.

As a practising social worker of 32 years, I started my career working with disadvantaged families. In the last five years, my team of social workers and I have worked at the Housing Board’s Bedok Interim Rental Housing (IRH) project, also called P4650 after the two blocks the families lived in. These are our experiences with them.

The residents of P4650 comprised three groups: families waiting for a rental flat; families in financial straits and downgrading to smaller flats which were still being built; and families ineligible for public rental flats but unable to afford their own housing.

Many of these families were overwhelmed and left with little family support, having exhausted the goodwill of relatives and friends. Some were living on the beach or in parks before arriving at the IRH. Most were previous home owners who had sold their flats for various reasons, spent the proceeds, and then became homeless.

We had the daunting task of getting these families permanent housing. At least a quarter of the families had deep-rooted, multiple problems such as untreated medical and mental illness, addictions, entrenched financial problems, incarceration and severe family conflicts.

We tried to help these families prioritise their most pressing problems before working on their housing goals.

Another challenge was a group of families who only wanted tangible aid – financial help, food rations, rental and utility vouchers. Put bluntly, they were saying to us: “Just give us what we want and leave us alone.”

They resisted discussing their problems. A few became angry and abusive when social workers suggested meetings. It was difficult, but we persevered because these families needed help, too.

At P4650, we learnt the complexities these families presented – lessons that caution against painting a simplistic picture of rental flat dwellers with a broad brush.

FAMILY PORTRAITS

Let me share some of our takeaways.

All parents have dreams for their children. Yet, many disadvantaged families feel that having such dreams is beyond them. Some stay angry and disappointed with their lot in life.

We found that getting parents to express their hopes and vision for their families was critical in bringing about change. For some, it meant saying: “I wish we could have our own flat.” For others: “I wish I could afford to send my children for enrichment classes or overseas trips.”

Once a parent articulated such hopes, the social workers could discuss options to make seemingly unattainable dreams come true, working out solutions, and identifying the resources needed.

This co-creation of solutions was possible even for the most challenging families. For example, we worked intensively with a jobless and angry mother of three who depended on financial aid and food rations for three years while her husband was in jail. She expressed hope for her children to get a good education. It took some effort to show her that having a job would enable her to buy an HDB flat and provide her children with a more secure environment.

She found work, went on to buy a two-room flat, and stopped relying on handouts. After his release from prison, her husband found work, and the family income rose.

Then there was a father of five who earned $1,600 a month and refused help because he felt it was his duty to provide for his family. To save expenses, he wanted his oldest son to quit school. The boy, a top student at the Institute of Technical Education, was devastated.

We persuaded the father to let his son finish his education, with help to pay the fees.

We worked with Workforce Singapore to get the father started on a diploma course which could help him double his income. He agreed to accept temporary financial aid while he finished his diploma.

Those efforts paid off, and the family left the IRH to move into their own three-room flat. It was small, but it was theirs.

Social workers are sometimes faulted for asking seemingly intrusive questions and for their obsession with genograms and ecomaps (that, respectively, map a person’s family and friendship networks) and income and expenditure assessments. Asking good questions and using tools appropriately are in fact relevant and important. They are vital to understanding how families make decisions, and the various roles that family members play.

QUESTIONING SPENDING CHOICES AND NEEDS

We have seen many families make poor choices. They need help to assess their needs and wants.

Needs fall along a continuum, and there is a difference between a felt need (a perceived need), a normative need (a desirable standard), a comparative need (when two groups with similar characteristics do not receive similar service), and an expressed need (a felt need turned into action). A social worker helps families differentiate between these different types of needs.

Yes, we ask questions. And yes, we ask how families strapped for cash spend the little money they have. What do you do when you find the man of the house is a regular smoker, and feels he is entitled to that lifestyle choice? And what if his family is also paying for a full slew of cable television channels? Should social workers not question such a family spending $500 a month on cigarettes and cable TV while at the same time applying for financial aid?

Some say it would be “judgmental” of us to advise him to stop smoking; that we would undermine his dignity.

In this instance, the man of the house did indeed respond by becoming angry and abusive. But that cannot make social workers desist from asking such questions. Not least because public support for social assistance schemes will wane if the public is convinced social workers are spending taxpayers’ money and donations with no conditions.

How can one justify not advising a person to stop smoking while we routinely advise our children, and doctors their patients, about the risks of smoking? Are we being “judgmental” when we do so?

Several months after that angry man stormed out of our office, he returned ready to relook his spending habits and make the necessary changes to get his family out of the IRH.

It took nine months before he was ready to act. The family finally moved out of the IRH to their own four-room HDB flat. Their income has risen to more than $4,000 a month. Grateful for the help they received, the couple have become grassroots volunteers.

If we say the poor should be spared hard questions or being challenged, and be given help without conditions, we would in effect be conceding that such families are hopeless and helpless. A cardinal principle in social work is that everyone has the potential to do well and social workers harness that potential.

Granted, change is uncomfortable. It demands learning new ways of behaving, and discarding old ones. So some families will resist change, preferring to persist with familiar habits. If truth be told, there is no shortage of help schemes to let families remain as they are.

But significant change was possible at P4650 because everyone worked together, and the families experienced hope, believed that change, although difficult, was possible and were willing to act once provided with information and workable options. We drew on many formal and informal organisations to make things happen.

The IRH site closed in April this year. In all, 1,183 families passed through our doors.

Approximately half the families went on to buy flats and fewer than half went on to rental housing. A small number chose to find their own housing or returned to live with relatives. These outcomes were far better than expected.

Some families who moved out earlier returned to the IRH to help others, in ways that facilitated them to get back on their feet. For example, one single mother came back to teach IRH mothers baking skills, so that they could make some extra money the way she did when times were tough.

P4650 was intensive and hard for the families and everyone involved.

But the true picture is one of continuous engagement, with many lives changed because families had the humility to acknowledge problems and the courage to change.

• Sudha Nair is executive director of Pave, a specialist centre that works on issues of family violence, child protection and disadvantaged families. She led Pave at Siglap, the team that worked at the Bedok Interim Rental Housing project.

Source: The Straits Times, Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction.

Working together to break the silence on abuse

In celebration of World Social Work Day, Wei Ling (left), Centre Manager from the Thye Hwa Kwan Moral Charities’ Seniors Activity Centre and Shermaine, Senior Adult Protection Officer from the Ministry of Social and Family Development, share how an elderly woman facing abuse by her caregiver was helped.


When 80-year-old Mdm Jane* was finally convinced to leave her home to be admitted to the hospital, she disclosed that her caregiver Amy* and her siblings had threatened to harm her. Amy had also controlled her finances and restricted her food and water intake.

Amy, the daughter of Mdm Jane’s friend, became the elderly woman’s caregiver when she had to remain mostly bedbound after suffering a fall. Mdm Jane relied on Amy for all of her basic care needs.

It was a few months after Amy took on her caregiving role, that staff from the Senior Activity Centre (SAC) at Mdm Jane’s neighbourhood noticed that something was amiss.

Wei Ling, the centre manager of Thye Hwa Kwan Moral Charities’ Seniors Activity Centre, said: “We received feedback that Mdm Jane’s unit was always very noisy in the evenings, and filled with cigarette smoke. This was one of the signs that the home had turned too unconducive for Mdm Jane to stay. When SAC staff visited the unit again, the occupants did not answer.”

This differed from Mdm Jane’s usual friendly demeanour. She was usually welcoming towards staff from the SAC and social workers from the Cluster Support Service who visited her regularly.

Shermaine, a Senior Adult Protection Officer at the Ministry of Social and Family Development, was alerted to the case when the SAC staff approached the Social Service Office to seek advice. Together with community workers, Shermaine visited Mdm Jane and Amy on multiple occasions to understand the concerns surrounding Mdm Jane’s care.

Unfortunately, approaching Amy proved challenging. “Amy and her relatives were verbally aggressive, and she chased me out of the house once,” said Shermaine. They later learnt that Amy’s friends and relatives were occupying Mdm Jane’s home, which explained the unusual feedback from her neighbour.

Amy’s refusal to allow Mdm Jane to have private conversations with the community workers led to suspicions of abuse. Shermaine pulled various agencies together – including the Singapore Police Force, Housing Development Board, Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), SAC, Cluster Support Service and the Polyclinic – to piece together information that they had on Mdm Jane, and come up with a way to address her situation. Mdm Jane’s eventual admission into the hospital was a step towards ensuring her safety and wellbeing. She is now under the care of professionals at an eldercare facility.

Reflecting on the case, Shermaine feels heartened by the support she received from her partners. “Sometimes I felt a bit intimidated to visit Mdm Jane and Amy, but having the support from community partners definitely helped. For example, the Police were very supportive and accompanied us on home visits to Mdm Jane’s place. Staff from the TTSH also facilitated Mdm Jane’s admission to the hospital for medical examination,” she said.

Echoing her sentiments, Wei Ling added: “We could not have done it without the help of the authorities and various community partners. I was very impressed by the keen observations of the MSF officers and Cluster Support social worker. They found out that Mdm Jane was in need of help to leave the house, despite her claiming in the presence of Amy that she was well taken care of.”

It was the unwavering determination of all partners that enabled them to intervene and help Mdm Jane in a timely manner. Shermaine emphasised: “It makes a difference when we all collaborate and work effectively together”.

*Anonymised name


If you are facing family violence, or suspect that someone you know may need help, please approach your nearest Family Violence Specialist Centres or call the ComCare hotline: 1800-222-0000.

Visit NCSS’ website to learn more about starting a career in social work. If you are interested to pursue a meaningful career at MSF, find out more information on our website or at Careers@Gov.

Using policies to bridge gaps in society

As a policy officer, Shermain reviews and formulates policies within the Rehabilitation and Protection Group to help protect and support vulnerable individuals and families.


At the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s Rehabilitation and Protection Group (RPG), officers deal with the care, protection, and rehabilitation of individuals to create a safe and nurturing environment for children, young persons and families.

But while frontline officers are the more visible ones on the ground, there is a complementary group of officers working behind the scenes on the policies that help fill in gaps and needs in our society.

Shermain, a policy officer with the Rehabilitation and Protection Group, analyses data, reviews legislation, and engages stakeholders on a typical work day.

The process of coming up with a policy usually starts with identifying a gap or need. “Gaps or needs may be identified as part of a legislative or policy review. We would then seek to formulate or amend a policy to bridge this gap or address this need.” said Shermain.

She recognises that it is often difficult for her to fully understand the situation on the ground. “We work a lot with our key stakeholders in formulating policies. While we try to ensure we are as well acquainted with the operations as possible, our operations colleagues will always be more informed of the intricacies of the operations. We therefore tap a lot on their expertise to help us understand the operational needs and implications of our policies” said Shermain.

Breaking cycles of abuse, neglect, and offending is something that Shermain believes in strongly. “Working in RPG, you definitely have to be someone with a passion for people, especially for the vulnerable. If you want to be a policy officer, you should be someone with an eye for identifying gaps and needs in society, who appreciates Singapore’s societal and operating context, and sees the importance of collaboration with the different stakeholders.” said Shermain.

“Sometimes, the sheer magnitude of our policy reviews can be overwhelming,” Shermain said. “However, knowing that our work benefits people in society makes me hopeful and gives meaning to the work I do. Of course, it also helps a lot that our colleagues and bosses are super supportive, caring, and passionate.”


If you are interested to pursue a meaningful career at MSF, find out more information on our website or at Careers@Gov.

 

4 ways to lead with pragmatism and flexibility

The second part of our posts on The SPARK Series 2017 features the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Housing and Development Board, Dr Cheong Koon Hean’s sharing on leadership. Jointly organised by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, AMKFSC Community Services Ltd, Singapore University of Social Sciences, and the Social Service Institute, The SPARK Series 2017 is an initiative aimed at grooming future thought leaders and change makers of the sector.


As the former CEO of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and current CEO of the Housing and Development Board (HDB), Dr Cheong Koon Hean has vast experience in the national macro planning of Singapore’s urban and housing landscape.
She shared about her pragmatic and flexible approach to leadership that helped her bring about solutions to urban planning challenges such as space constraints, limited resources and the growing needs of Singaporeans.

1) Have a long-term vision, and wait for the opportunity

As the “master planner”, Dr Cheong emphasised the importance of planning for sustainability. With Singapore’s problem of being a “small island with big needs”, Dr Cheong found it essential to take the necessary steps towards urban planning.
Citing the example of Marina Bay, Dr Cheong shared that long term planning meant that blueprints for the area were in the making four decades ago, and land was reclaimed ready for the time when the city had to expand. When Dr Cheong took on the role of URA chief in 2004, it was the opportune time to drive the Marina Bay project forward as Singapore was in a phase where it needed to increase its competitive edge. Marina Bay provided the opportunity to give Singapore a new signature image as a global city.
While you may have big aspirations that you are eager to execute in your organisation, it is essential to be patient, take incremental steps towards your goals and plan for the long-term.

2. Seeking personal motivation within organisational vision

The motivation for doing a good job must come from within each person in the organisation. It is important for every staff to know the `purpose’ and the `meaning’ behind their job. If our job is meaningful and we feel that we are contributing, then we will be self motivated and there is no need for supervisors to look over our shoulders. A shared `organisation culture’ is also important so that we work as a team and look out for one another.

punggoldiscovercube
As part of The SPARK Series, participants went on a trail at Punggol Riverside Park.

3. Embracing top-down and bottom-up leadership approaches

A balance of top-down and bottom-up leadership is necessary for aspiring change-makers. Usually, the leader needs to provide the strategic perspective and to steer the broad direction of the organisation. On the other hand, the leader does not know everything and should be open to ideas and suggestions from his or her colleagues. The leader encourages participation from all.
Encouraging individual ownership of projects promotes a sense of belonging within the community, and creates more stakeholders who are potential leaders of the community. Additionally, holding conversations at the ground level opens access to innovative solutions.

4. Be pragmatic and flexible

When multiple agencies work together, friction is inevitable due to individual interests. Leaders are responsible for mediating these conflicting interests and seeking collaboration among all stakeholders. Decision-making entails trade-offs.
Having a big-picture perspective and a pragmatic approach paves the way for feasible solutions. It increases your understanding of each party’s stake, giving you different angles to approach an issue and value-add to an initiative.
Through marrying both pragmatism and flexibility, leaders would be able to better galvanise the multiple stakeholders towards a common objective and lead their team into finding innovative solutions.


 

The SPARK Series 2017 runs until 15 December 2017. Read more about the series’ first workshop, “On Leadership”.

How do you lead through change?

The first part of our posts on The SPARK Series 2017 features Senior Fellow of the Civil Service College, Ms Lim Soo Hoon’s sharing on leadership. Jointly organised by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, AMKFSC Community Services Ltd, Singapore University of Social Sciences, and the Social Service Institute, The SPARK Series 2017 is an initiative aimed at grooming future thought leaders and change makers of the sector.


How do you lead beyond your discipline and challenge the social sector? Senior Fellow of the Civil Service College, Ms Lim Soo Hoon shared her insights and experiences as former Permanent Secretary of the Ministries of Community Development, Public Service Division, Prime Minister’s Office and Finance.

1. Leadership based on relationship

There’s a difference between having a team that will work with you and a team that will work for you.

As leaders, our job is to unify the team to accomplish a task together. Give your subordinates space and encourage them to clarify issues. People tend to have a greater sense of belonging to a team when they know that they have something to contribute. Feedback from subordinates is valuable, and people on the ground tend to have a better sense of the problem, and possibly even the solution.

Besides knowing how to lead downwards and build relationships with your team members, it is also important to lead upwards and know how to manage your boss. For example, when writing a proposal, subordinates who lead upwards know their bosses’ reading style, and thus are able to get information across effectively and efficiently.

2. Embrace change

In the past, leaders were the experts and had all the information. Now, access to information is widely available, and our subordinates may very well be more skilled at a task than we are.

This may be challenging, as many of us would like to have control, rather than to be controlled by others. Therefore, how we react to our subordinates is very important – if we always react negatively, we can be sure that our subordinates would not want to approach us to point out our blind spots. We then lose a valuable resource.

With the many uncertainties that change brings, former experts have to relearn skills. To lead through change, leaders have to persuade and convince people of what’s in it for them, and that it would be worth the cost.

3. Be curious

Leaders are expected to have the foresight and curiosity to know what is going to happen. That is only possible if we read widely – not just keeping abreast of the happenings within our sector, but also issues outside our sector, as those happenings are well likely to impact our own sector in a matter of time.

It takes more than one person to create change. It requires leaders who have a vision for the future, as well as supportive team members.

There is no guarantee that the risks we take will have positive outcomes, but what is more important is the way in which we handle negative outcomes. If mistakes are made, admit it and change the direction if necessary.


The SPARK Series 2017 runs until 15 December 2017. Read also about the series’ second workshop, “On Building City for Community”.

Farewell and thank you for making Singapore more caring

Today marks my last day at the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF). When I first entered politics, I had hoped to come to MSF. So it was with great delight that I was posted here in 2015.

Throughout my time at MSF, I have been heartened to work with so many colleagues and partners in the social sector who are passionate and dedicated in their efforts to assisting fellow Singaporeans who need a helping hand. A big thank you to all the heart and hard work that you have put in.

I believe strongly in MSF’s mission – “To nurture resilient individuals, strong families, and a caring society” – and would like to share my hopes for the ministry and Singapore.

Nurturing resilient individuals

MSF started out as a social welfare department in 1946, and while it has gone through many portfolio changes, the aim is still the same – to ensure no one gets left behind. The government has many social safety nets in place for those who need help. We don’t want to just catch them when they fall; more importantly, we want to help them get back onto their feet.

SSO
From my visit to the Social Service Office (SSO) @ Jalan Besar in 2016

We have been working on more upstream measures to identify what are some of the precursors, and step in to help the families or individuals prevent the situation from deteriorating. Over the years, we have set up a network of 24 Social Service Offices across the island to make it easier for those in need to get the help they need. We have also intensified the partnership with the Family Service Centres in the journey with these families and individuals to improve their situations.

shang
From my visit to Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa to find out how they practice inclusive hiring.

While our programmes and policies will lay the foundations for an inclusive and caring society, we want to build a Singapore that embraces and supports persons of all abilities. Even as we are working at this through the three Enabling Masterplans, it is important to continue strengthening support for our caregivers, as well as bring the wider Singapore on board to be more understanding of those with different needs. This will translate to acceptance by the society for those with special needs, an increase in employment opportunities, and more empathy for caregivers. I appreciate the efforts by the National Council of Social Service, SG Enable, social service organisations and our community partners in their various capacities. I believe we can continue to do more to achieve our aims for an inclusive Singapore.

Building strong families

ffl
From Families for Life Council’s Father’s Day Picnic in 2016

KidSTART is an initiative that is very close to my heart, and I am heartened to see positive results one year into our pilot. Early intervention makes a difference, and we want to help families as early as we can to help level the starting ground for children so they have a chance at a brighter future.

I am grateful to our officers working on KidSTART, community partners, schools and volunteers for providing child development and parenting support to these families and their children. I hope you will continue to work together to give disadvantaged children a good start in life. KidSTART is the right thing to do, and we must continue to do it well.

Family is the most important unit in society, and it’s important to ensure that our family ties remain strong with our immediate and extended families. Parents, do continue to spend time with your children. I have always urged (and will continue to urge) parents to make a conscious choice to be present in our children’s lives. It makes a difference in their developmental and emotional wellbeing. Don’t be disheartened in your parenting journey. Nobody becomes the perfect mum or dad the moment the baby is born. We understand that and have rolled out various parent programmes throughout the years, such as the Positive Parenting Programme to help you as a parent.

Thank you to the Families for Life Council for championing family time and bringing couples and families together at high-point events such as the Singapore Parenting Congress, Marriage Convention and Families for Life Celebrations. Your recent initiative, “My Family Weekend” was a commendable effort that rallied the support of the community and corporates. Would also like to thank the Centre for Fathering and our other community partners for taking the lead in encouraging active fathering and building strong families!

Fostering a caring society

In much of our journey to help Singaporeans, we have had the support of many community partners. I am very grateful and thankful. If we want to achieve in our ideal vision of Singapore, we need the help of the community. Volunteers are very important, especially in the area of MSF’s work and the social service sector. We see changes in our clients when they get the support of the whole kampung – families, friends, neighbours etc.

We want to develop the culture of giving and living out our values. Everyone can play a part and collectively we can make a bigger impact. The whole SG Cares movement is important. It cannot be a fad that runs for a couple of years. I will continue to drive SG Cares, together with Grace and Desmond. We are encouraged by many of the corporates, schools and community who have partnered us in support of SG Cares. I hope more of you would join us by starting various community initiatives, volunteering with your friends, or curating efforts in your neighbourhood.

Thank you and don’t give up

msf
From our recent MSF Family Active Day.

To all my colleagues at MSF, thank you for what you do. Your work is often not easy, especially when facing difficult decisions concerning safety and welfare of the vulnerable. Don’t give up and do continue to make a difference. It really matters. I will always root for MSF, its causes and its people, regardless of where and in which capacity I serve.

I leave MSF in the good hands of Desmond, who shares the same heart for building a resilient and compassionate society. Let’s continue to work together to build a better Singapore!