Do Social Workers see themselves as gatekeepers of the system?

The incident of a senior citizen being denied help by The Ministry of Social and Family (MSF) Development in part because of sporadic donations from a friend has really got me thinking. As a community, Singaporeans are not unkind. Those that are in caring professions such as social work are also likely drawn into it because they have kind and giving natures. How can it be that a disabled senior citizen (for the sake of brevity, let’s call him “T”) is left in the lurch in part because of misinformation on the part of the social worker assessing T’s neediness?

In the case at hand, the social worker had determined that T was not in need of aid because he was receiving $550 per month from a friend when in reality this donation is not monthly but sporadic. It is also a sum that is shared between 3 recipients and not just for T. These do not seem like difficult facts to verify. Why did the social worker not check? Is the social worker unkind, overworked, desensitised or all of the above?

It greatly disturbed me as it made me wonder how many of these cases actually occur? Had Jose Raymond not highlighted this case, I would have never known. Yet, I don’t believe that it is as simple as the case worker not caring. I decided to do some research by speaking to a few people in the industry and also the research tool du jour – Google!

While “googling”, I came across a very illuminating article. While it is meant to be academic, I do think that this is a case where the paradigm has been adopted too rigidly thereby leading to the unintended consequence of letting a needy person fall through the cracks.

Essentially, in this model of social work, the social worker sees himself or herself as the employee of the state. In a nutshell, his or her job is to work within the framework of the state to ensure that the claimant does not “cheat” the system. So instead of seeing how the state can assist a claimant, the social worker is working from the perspective of trying to make the claimant fit the system. While I can understand why there is a need for some objective test for neediness, the “gatekeeper” mindset can lead to a social worker seeing situations only within very narrow confines of what fits the state as opposed to what a claimant actually needs.

This does not mean that the social worker in question is unkind or negligent, it just means that he or she may have been trained in a certain way. This does seem to be the pervading modus operandi of the government in Singapore. We like to fit people neatly into boxes which does not really work for modern day living. Perhaps it is time we revisit and refine some of our standard operating procedures in our public services?

The role of the MSF is to act as a bridge between the needy and the rest of society. It should therefore adopt a more “guiding” methodology as the article suggests. I am not advocating the eradication of all frameworks but a need for people to recognise that frameworks exist only as guidance. They should not be rigidly and blindly followed in a one size fits all approach.

I wonder if T’s plight is simply the unfortunate consequence of the “gatekeeper” approach? If so, we should be more aware of the need to interpret a framework to suit the circumstance instead of a biblical blind adherence to the framework. A slight switch in mindset might be a good start.