Grandparent carers forced back to work

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 08:18 25/07/2013
Denise Henman
ROBERT KITCHIN/Fairfax NZ

CARER: Dannevirke grandmother Denise Henman may have to work for her benefit under new law changes.

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Grandparents who have spent years raising troubled grandchildren are being told to get back to work, sometimes just months from retirement.

Support group Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (GRG) says this month's welfare shakeup has pushed many carers into looking for work as they fear having their benefit payments cut.

Some grandparents nearing retirement age have been required to attend job-training courses, where they are asked about what school they attended and what their long-term career goals were.

"This is forcing elderly people who are caring for traumatised kids back into work," GRG chairwoman Diane Vivian said. "It is just appalling."

Many of the grandparents had given up jobs to care for children who would otherwise have gone into Child, Youth and Family foster care after suffering abuse, neglect or family tragedy, she said.

The children often had behavioural problems requiring intensive supervision, counselling and support. "If grandparents say they can't do this any more and go back to work, it will just force these kids back to CYF."

The welfare changes, which came into effect on July 15, are aimed at cutting the benefit bill and reducing long-term welfare dependency.

About 128,000 beneficiaries, including grandparent carers, were shifted to a Jobseeker Support category this month, requiring them to look for and accept work. Failure to comply can be punished by having their Work and Income payments cut in half.

The Ministry of Social Development does not record how many beneficiaries are grandparent carers, because many can qualify for different support depending on their circumstances.

However, of the 8614 people who care for about 12,069 orphans and unsupported children, about half are grandparents.

Work and Income head Debbie Power said grandparent carers had diverse circumstances but the presumption of the new welfare regime was that people were better working.

If a person was found to be unsuitable for work, which might be the case for some grandparent carers, Work and Income could grant an exemption.

"Work and Income is encouraging them to meet with us so we can fully understand their circumstances and what work obligations, if any, they should have."

It had contacted about 500 people looking after unsupported children before the changes came into effect. But nearly half said they could work, she said.

The requirement for some carers to work comes despite the Government allocating $35 million over four years to support extended family carers in this year's Budget.

In May, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said that, without grandparents and other family members stepping up, more children would be in state care.

"We know they are doing a tough job, often on limited incomes, with children who need extra attention and help, and we're determined to support that."

Yesterday, she said work obligations were about making it clear that people who could work should, but there was leeway for obvious exception cases.

'A WASTE OF MONEY'

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Denise Henman may retire within the next year, but if you ask Work and Income, she still needs to develop long-term career goals.

Ms Henman, 63, of Dannevirke, has single-handedly raised three of her grandchildren, and another foster daughter, for more than a decade. Along the way, she has sacrificed her business, relationship and house to keep them out of foster care.

She rescued her grandchildren from their parents after a Child, Youth and Family intervention. She said the parents struggled with drug addiction and spent time in prison. "Without me, the kids would have been in foster care."

She has been able to care for them with the help of the domestic purposes and unsupported child benefits. She describes it as a fulltime occupation. On Monday, she will turn 64, and in a year she will be eligible for superannuation.

But that has not stopped Work and Income telling her last month that she needed to look for a job or face having her support cut. She was enrolled in a six-month job-training course and asked to describe her skills, the last school she attended and her long-term career goals.

"My long-term goal is to finally have some peace and rest," she said. "What a waste of money paying some training provider."

The Ministry of Social Development would not comment without a privacy waiver, which could not be obtained before publication.

Labour's social development spokeswoman, Jacinda Ardern, said it was "beyond ridiculous" that grandparents caring for vulnerable children whose parents had died or had drug or alcohol problems could be forced back in to paid work.

"Their grandparents have taken on the fulltime responsibility of bringing them up because their parents are unable to. If they weren't doing it the tax payer would be picking up the tab for someone else to.

"If a grandparent wants to be in work, that's one thing, but sanctioning them because they are caring for their grandchild full time is something quite different."

DONE FOR LOVE

What grandparents say:

"I think the hardest thing has been being expected to look for work. Up until now my first concern has been the boys as they, along with most kids in the GRG situations, had a lot of issues."

"My case manager said it would be good for me socially to have a job - I have enough to do with my grandchildren!"

"I'm 61 and facing retirement without savings while I care for this beautiful child. So it's not that I wouldn't like to work . . . but the question of care for our most vulnerable does need recognition and addressing first."

"If I was doing the hours I currently put in [caring for my grandchild] within any workplace situation, I would be enjoying a wonderful salary and not be needing to go cap in hand to Winz."

"Feeling very sad. I didn't give up a job of 17 years to take on my grandchildren, alone, and put them into care."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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