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We must advocate for those in ‘traumatising’ benefit system

Social worker's warning after personal experience of being on welfare...

Benefits system, oppressive, social worker, advocate
It's an oppressive system says social worker who was on benefits

Professional Social Work magazine - 19 December, 2019

A social worker said she was left further traumatised trying to navigate a “dehumanising and oppressive” benefits system.

Julie Whittington (not her real name) claims she experienced hostile and bureaucratic interactions not unlike those depicted in Ken Loach’s social drama I, Daniel Blake. She said she was concerned the system was further damaging those already struggling with difficulties in their lives.

“I feel as social workers we need to understand and appreciate the systems many people using social work services find themselves in,” she said.

“I have been shocked and horrified by my journey and wonder how vulnerable members of society manage and navigate the very oppressive, fixed and frustrating systems and processes.

“I am deeply concerned about the emotional and psychological wellbeing of people given that I have been demeaned and dismissed.”

Whittington went on benefits after fleeing an abusive relationship. She says she was seen by work coaches who were rude, received “intimidating” letters and experienced a system that often seemed to work against her.

She was expected to pay childcare costs for her two children upfront when she secured her first social work job and then claim it back.

“If you have no money how are you going to pay?” she said. “I wrote a long complaint. I said you want me to get back to work but you are not willing to help me even if it was just for a loan.”

Whittington said it was only because of her knowledge of the law and the benefit system gained by studying social work that she was able to advocate for herself.

A funding pot to pay for childcare was eventually found which the work coach had not originally known about. However, it took months for the payment came through.

“Fortunately for me I am strong-willed, resilient and confident to challenge,” said Whittington. “But from the manner in which I have been dealt with, I can fully appreciate the impact this can have on people’s sense of identity and self-esteem.”

Latest statistics show more than 70 per cent of appeals against benefit decisions by the Department for Work and pensions are successful. Whittington believes many people miss out on their full entitlement because they do not know how to challenge the system.

“I had to put a lot of effort and energy into it. I am really concerned about vulnerable people who do not know their rights.”

She said social workers needed to advocate for service users struggling to navigate the system and called for those administering it to be better trained to work with people.

“The job centre need to understand motivational interviewing. I was appalled by the way they talk to people and treat people. I am not expecting them to be social workers but I do expect them to have some empathy.”

Read the full story in December-January's edition of Professional Social Work magazine.

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers