Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Budget Debate 2022 on “Providing more help for social workers”.
Sir, every year, during Budget season, we ask ourselves how we can best support the most vulnerable members of our society. Let me start, this time, with one story of what vulnerability looks like.
Allie (not her real name) is a girl who used to live in my constituency.
When I first met her in 2016, she was just 8 years old. She was like a big sister to my daughter Ella and they used to play together. Her family had little and lived in a rental flat, but she gave what she could. She gifted Ella her little toy car. She patted Ella on the back whenever she coughed. One could not wish for a sweeter, kinder child.
But all this changed when in about a year later, Allie was sent to live in a place of safety to protect her and to help her.
But it also made her a completely different person. Torn from her friends, her family and her home, she shrunk into her shell. When I visited her, she barely spoke a word. She just sat in the room and stared into space.
This was not the lively child I once knew and it was heartbreaking to see how much she was affected and how this little girl had her childhood ripped from her.
It is hard to blame the social workers at the place of safety. I saw firsthand how much they cared. They tried their best with the limited resources they had.
When I was there, I saw a little boy climbing the fence and the barb wires, trying to escape. The social worker was trying so hard and so gently to calm the boy down.
Children like Allie need all the help they can get. I spent a lot of time thinking about what we can do to help children like her. I raised questions in Parliament about places of safety and about intergenerational incarceration.
I thought, surely, we can launch new programmes, more programmes to help. But as we deep dived into the issues, I realised, we have plenty of programmes. The issue might be that social workers had too much on their plate and many were burned out.
Over the past year, I talked with many social workers. I met with social workers every month. I spoke to senior social workers and junior social workers. I spoke to those in the frontlines and those who have left the profession. I spoke to those from family service centres or FSCs and those from other VWOs.
I also carried out a public survey and reached out to over a 120 social workers.
I listened to their concerns, their worries and most of all their deep passion in wanting to help others. But sir, they too need help, especially during this pandemic.
The problem of overworked social workers at FSCs
A study found that nearly 60% of frontline social workers were affected by anxiety at the height of the pandemic, with 45% facing depression. The study also found that social workers in FSCs faced higher depression rates.
These findings mirror what I was hearing from social workers in my dialogues. One after another, social workers described their heavy caseloads and exhaustion. I heard the same requests over and over again – requests for more time, more resources, and more help.
Today, I want to focus on social workers at our FSCs.
FSCs are often the first port of call for those in need. Many see them as a clearing house for all social services. They advise and support families with financial, housing, employment, social and emotional resources.
Families rely on their support when applying for financial assistance, seeking housing assistance, requesting for food donations, seeking new employment, solving marital problems and much, much more.
It’s no surprise that active cases handled by FSCs skyrocketed during the pandemic, increasing from 17,000 per quarter to 20,000 and cases are getting more complex.
Sir, we need to do more for our social workers, who are just as much at the frontline of this pandemic and are in a tight situation like our healthcare workers.
Today, I have three recommendations to give our social workers the time, resources and support they need.
Cap on number of cases for social workers
My first recommendation is to set a cap on the number of cases that each social worker can take on at any given time.
Currently, too many social workers are forced to juggle an excessive caseload. According to MSF data from the past five years, the average social worker at a FSC handles 22 cases a year.
If 22 cases was the maximum, that might be fine. But 22 cases is the average. This likely means many social workers are out there working far heavier caseloads.
I met many of them during my dialogues who told me that they often have 30 to 50 cases at any given time. This is a shocking number. Maybe they are outliers but their views are important too.
Social workers have told me that excessive caseloads directly hurt their ability to do a good job. A FSC social worker shared with me that they feel that they are short changing their clients who so desperately need help and they feel bad.
Another social worker shared this quote with me to explain how they feel, “If you ever wanna know what a social worker’s mind feels like, imagine a browser with 2,857 tabs open. All the time”.
With a huge caseload, they obviously have to give less attention to each case. Often they end up doing what they call “firefighting”, which means tackling only the most urgent problems.
This firefighting makes it hard for them to give 100% to each case. It also denies them time to attend courses, mentor junior staff and create community programmes – equally important tasks that build organisational capacity, transfer knowledge and support communities.
Ms. Elizabeth Quek, a community social worker, shared about “the helplessness social workers feel when we don’t have the time or resources for someone who needs more support”.
This is not a sustainable situation and many social workers are reaching or have reached their breaking point.
We need to have a cap on the number of cases that social workers can take on.
This is nothing new. In many industries, caps are set to ensure service quality remains high. Schools, for example, limit the number of students in each class so that teachers can dedicate more attention to each student.
In a survey I carried out, 87% of social workers felt that there should be a cap on the number of active cases a social worker handles.
Ms. Quek, whose quote I shared earlier, said that reducing caseloads will improve social workers’ capacity to help their clients.
I know this can’t happen overnight and it is not easy to implement. It will require changes in FSC HR practices but this cap is absolutely necessary.
The actual number of the cap should also be decided in consultation with social workers from across the profession and take into consideration the wide spectrum of cases, for example the Group 2, 3 and 4 cases, a social worker handles.
Increase time, resources and headcount for research work
Sir, my second recommendation is to increase the time, resources and headcount for research work at FSCs.
Social workers told me that they spend a significant part of their work entering data from their cases into the Social Service Net, or SSNet.
This might sound like a miserable task. But many social workers I spoke to talked about SSNet as a treasure trove of data. They think the rich information stored on SSNet could provide useful insights on the communities they serve.
Some social workers have spent their personal time, after work hours, to trawl through and crunch the data in search of insights.
One enthused to me about how it would be possible to run a sentiment analysis by applying natural language processing techniques to the data, to surface trends across cases in the same community.
Sir, our local social work degrees are rigorous. Their graduates emerge with research and technical skills. It would be a waste for them to let these skills atrophy.
As I have mentioned, the only barrier is that FSCs often do not allocate time or staff to do research. The same social workers who beamed about unlocking the insights held in the SSNet data were also the ones frustrated by how they never had the time or support to do so.
About half of the social workers that I surveyed shared that their FSCs do not have dedicated manpower for research work. About 85% wanted government funding for headcounts dedicated to research.
I know MSF is trying to help and recognises the importance of research work. It does provide FSCs with data from SSNet whenever a social worker request for it. But we can cut the administrative workload of making these constant requests by having in-house researchers.
I hope MSF will respond positively to this appeal by social workers. I know it can provide funding for this through the new Community Capacity Trust which will open for applications from 1 April 2022 and I hope MSF will ensure that all FSCs use this funding and hire in-house researchers.
With funding support and dedicated headcounts, our FSCs can arm themselves with data about the vulnerable families they serve, and they can go upstream to solve issues within the community.
Increase time, resource and headcount for community work
That brings me to my third and final recommendation today – to increase the time, resources and headcount for community work.
I spoke earlier about how social workers don’t have time to do things like create community programmes.
Indeed, when I met them, some social workers described community work as their CCA, as something secondary to case work, something they dabble in during their spare time. But it is something they feel is crucial.
Sir, community work, in fact, has two important contributions.
First, community work is prevention. It enables FSCs to reach at-risk families not yet clients of theirs.
This improves outcomes as the families can receive support before their problems worsen significantly. Easier to put out small fires than raging infernos, after all.
Second, community work builds social bonds. No man or woman is an island, and everyone needs a robust social network to succeed. Often, families working with FSCs lack friends and neighbours they can count on.
Through community work, FSCs can link their clients with others in the same community and enable them to provide mutual support.
This reduces the family’s reliance on institutions such as FSCs, helps them succeed in a sustainable way and also offers a way for the family to themselves support others around them.
Community work will help to slow the inflow of new cases which will give social workers the space and time they need. It might help to break the vicious cycle some social workers are in.
There are other NGOs that do community work, and indeed many do excellent work.
But why not empower FSCs to do the same? FSCs are located in the heart of the community and they have their finger on the pulse of their community. FSCs are already working with many of the people in the community, already meeting with them regularly and have the data on the trends and needs on the ground that many other NGOs don’t have.
There might be worries about duplication of work but there is so much to be done. We should be concerned but I think we hardly need to fear the duplication of work currently.
About half of the FSC social workers I surveyed said their FSCs do not have dedicated manpower and resources for community work. About 84% wanted government funding for headcounts dedicated to community work.
I know MSF will agree that community work is important and in fact they already provide funding to FSCs for two headcounts for group and community work.
But there is a lot more we need to do. First, social workers need to know there is existing funding for this. During my consultations with the social workers, many were surprised to hear that funding for this headcount existed.
Second, we need to increase the funding available. Many social workers shared that funding for two headcounts is hardly sufficient.
Third, MSF needs to work closely with FSCs and ensure they use this funding available to them and hire the headcounts required to focus on community work.
Sir, in conclusion, let me end my speech by returning to Allie’s story.
She has been released from the Place of Safety and I brought her out for a meal and a day at the arcade with my daughter recently.
I hope that one day Allie will be able to lead a stable and fulfilling life within the community in spite of everything that she has gone through. I hope that no other child has to go through what Allie went through.
To do this, we need to help our social workers.
In summary, I am asking that the government introduce a cap on the number of cases that each social worker can take on, provide funding for dedicated headcounts and resources for research work, and provide more funding for dedicated headcounts and resources for community work.
For all these recommendations, we need to make sure that it is not just rolled out as guidelines but that FSCs should follow and implement them and MSF should help FSCs in the implementation.
Sir, I recently met with MSF to discuss and share the concerns that social workers have raised with me. I appreciate the important work that MSF is doing and I could feel the passion in the room when they spoke about how they were helping FSCs and social workers. I thank them for their hard work and dedication.
Let me end my speech with a quote,
“Being a social worker is easy. It’s like riding a bike. Except the bike is on fire. You’re on fire. Everything is on fire”.
That really is what some social workers are feeling. In fact, I met up with social workers right after the budget statement. I shared this speech with them and one social worker said in the most simple terms, “just tell everyone we are just very tired and frustrated”.
Sir, our social workers are our social safety net but they truly want to be more than that, to not just address the symptoms of problems but address the root of the problem, to go down into the community to co-create solutions and address the real needs of the community.
Social workers want to be the social safety trampoline that SM Tharman spoke about.
If we value our social workers, I hope MSF seriously considers the recommendations I’ve made on behalf of social workers. We can and we must do more to help our social workers and empower them to help make Singapore a better place and more inclusive place for all.
Watch the speech here.