Abuse on the job: Social service officers tell all
Last month, a Ministry of Social and Family Development officer at a Social Service Office (SSO) was assaulted while talking to a person about his financial situation. Her experience is not surprising
There was a persistent client, who would call every single day to scold me and demand for assistance.
- Ms Esther Ho
Five Social Service Offices (SSOs) have security guards. All 23 have closed-circuit televisions.
And officers working there are trained to handle the extraordinary, including violence.
Why such extreme measures for an organisation that is simply trying to help people?
These are some of the horror stories that reveal why.
Once, a drunk client defecated in his pants while talking to the counter officers at Bukit Merah SSO. The excrement dripped out from his pants onto the carpet.
"I think he couldn't control his bowels because he was already drunk. It was not so pleasant... We had to get our cleaner to clean up the whole front counter area," said Mr Jai Prakash, 38, general manager for the Bukit Merah and Kreta Ayer SSOs.
Another inebriated client simply collapsed in a drunken stupor in the middle of his interview.
"He just fell flat on the table. We couldn't wake him up. We couldn't carry him or move him anywhere," Mr Prakash said.
The man eventually had to be taken away in an ambulance.
Then there are the strange requests the SSO has had to entertain - like when a man leashed his dog to a pipe outside the office and told the staff to look after it. He then went for lunch.
One man demanded that officers find him a companion, while another asked for a maid.
"You really don't know what will happen for the day. That is the kind of situation we are in," said Mr Prakash.
First introduced in the 2013 Budget debate, SSOs work with voluntary welfare organisations and community partners in their areas to better coordinate social services.
There are 23 such SSOs today.
Front-line public servants are often at risk of aggressive clients. Sometimes, the clients turn physical, like what happened at Toa Payoh SSO last month. (See report on facing page.)
At Bukit Merah SSO - one of the five SSOs with auxiliary policemen - staff have seen their fair share of verbally abusive, loud and rowdy clients, said social assistance officer Esther Ho, 29.
National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said that those working in SSOs may face more aggression than other front-line service staff because of the difference in clientele.
He explained: "Viewed from a more gracious angle, one may argue that many among this clientele are desperate and angry, and harbouring high expectations of government agencies, and therefore have a low threshold for expressing their frustrations in socially acceptable ways.
"Viewed from a less sympathetic angle, one may argue that such people may be prone to violence when they do not get their way, regardless of the context. They may feel they have little to lose from violating a social norm, and perhaps much to gain if they succeed in intimidating others."
Ironically, the quieter and clear-headed clients are sometimes harder to handle.
Some seek help but are tight-lipped about their situation, said Ms Ho. When probed further, they get defensive and are offended by the intrusion of privacy.
"Sometimes, they are afraid to say the wrong thing as they think it may affect their chances of getting assistance. But that's not true," she said.
A handful also expect monetary help but refuse to step out of their comfort zone to find a long-term solution.
Said Mr Prakash: "It is difficult for us to just give a client money when the client refuses to seek employment.
"We want to help them financially, but we also want to help them in such a way that they don't have to keep coming to us for money."
When she first started this job six years ago, Ms Ho said she "cried many times".
"There was a persistent client, who would call every single day to scold me and demand for assistance. I felt drained. What more could I have done to convince him that we had done all we could?" she said.
Ms Ho gradually realised she needed to detach herself from her clients.
"I kept telling myself not to take things personally. I knew (my clients) talked to me in a certain manner because of their situation. When you empathise, they see that you are sincere in helping them and usually they become okay," she said.
Inspired by those he has helped
TNP PHOTO: DALENE LOW
We are not like Superman, you see. It's a misconception that social workers can solve every single issue.
- Mr Isaac Teo, one of three social workers who received the Promising Social Worker Award
Being a social worker comes with its challenges, but Mr Isaac Teo, 32, can attest to the rewarding aspects of the job - some of which can be unexpected.
The people whom he had been working with were the same people who inspired him to trudge on in this profession, just when he had second thoughts about his job.
"The different people I encountered broadened my world view. There are different challenges they face but they are so eager to press on," said Mr Teo.
On Monday, he was one of three social workers to receive the Promising Social Worker Award (PSWA) from President Tony Tan Keng Yam. It is the highest accolade in the social work profession.
Ms Kitty Lee, senior medical social worker at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, and Ms Grace Koh, child protection officer at Fei Yue Child Protection Specialist Centre, also won the award.
Ms Lee Yean Wun from Kampong Kapor Family Services Centre won the Outstanding Social Worker Award.
After graduating from the National University of Singapore, Mr Teo joined the Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre (AMKFSC), where he started out as a junior social worker.
"Everything was so new to me. I thought that in this line, I could help everyone and anyone," Mr Teo said.
He was disappointed when he could not, but he also came to realise it was a very "narrow" view of a social worker's responsibilities.
"We are not like Superman, you see. It's a misconception that social workers can solve every single issue.
"But it's not a solo effort. Social work is a profession where it's important to tap on seniors and agencies, and even learn from different community partners," he said.
PAYING IT FORWARD
Now a centre manager at AMKFSC, Mr Teo is focused on community-based initiatives like the Transition Plus Programme, which helps needy families living in the two interim rental housing blocks in Ang Mo Kio.
Over the years, he developed a system in this programme that not only helps the needy, but encourages them to give back to society.
For instance, children aged between eight and 12 first looked for a stationery sponsor. Then, with pencil cases made of recycled fabrics, the children made back-to-school kits for their peers.
"It doesn't always have to be people who are more well-to-do serving the poor. Even those who are better off (financially) have their own set of issues," Mr Teo said.
Assaulted SSO Officer back at work
Last month, a Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) officer was assaulted at the Toa Payoh Social Service Office (SSO).
She reportedly suffered facial injuries and has since resumed work. A man has been arrested.
Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin, who had seen CCTV footage of the incident, said: "There are risks in everything that we do. But we try to prepare our staff as well, so that they learn how to handle some of these situations and that should anything happen, we have SOPs (standard operating procedures) in place to take the necessary actions."
The number of similar incidents involving clients looking for help has gone up, said MSF.
"Since 2013, we have expanded to 23 SSOs in the community. With more touch points, there is a corresponding increase in incidents involving our clients as well. However, the number is small," a spokesman said.
As a safety feature, all SSOs are equipped with CCTVs and five of them - including the one in Bukit Merah - have auxiliary policemen present.
The New Paper understands that an auxiliary policeman will soon be stationed at the Toa Payoh SSO too.
"(These centres) are selected due to a higher occurrence of incidents," the spokesman explained.