SINGAPORE: A lack of coordination between the various agencies and schools is a key issue faced by social workers and volunteers in helping disadvantaged children.
This was raised on Tuesday (Nov 27) at an engagement session with social workers, voluntary welfare organisations and other representatives from the social services sector.
The session was held by UPLIFT, an inter-agency task force led by Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah, which aims to strengthen support for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, in particular by tackling long-term absenteeism and drop-out rates in schools.
During the session, participants spoke about the problems they faced on the ground, such as getting access to information about the children and their families from across different agencies and schools.
Having the necessary information can make a big difference, said social worker Syed Alwi Syed Abdullah Alhadad, from the South Central Community Family Service Centre.
“You don’t feel like you’re working alone with the family,” he said, adding that for the most part, he gets support and information about specific cases from student welfare officers attached to schools. He noted, however, that the level of support differs across schools.
“We won’t know how they are in school, so sometimes there might be issues we don’t see, and they bring up to us and discuss about it,” he added.
Another issue is the duplication of services by the various agencies, as highlighted by deputy director of the Singapore Children’s Society Joy Lim.
“There is a need to be informed about the other services in the community,” she said. “Each agency comes with their special skills and expertise, and sometimes when we go in, and we do what other agencies are better at, it’s not as efficient as it could be.”
“A lot of times, what we need is just one key social worker or counsellor on the case to spearhead the conversation and let it move forward.”
A ONE-STOP CENTRE TO IMPROVE COORDINATION?
To improve coordination, participants made a suggestion for a “one-stop centre” where families can conveniently get the help they need from different avenues all in one place, or through a single touchpoint.
One group of participants pointed out that there are learning points to note from how a hospital works. Describing it as a “one-stop service”, the participants explained how a patient walks in, sees a general practitioner first before being referred to different specialists – all in the same building.
“It’s more than just a physical co-location, but also how everyone within the building operates as a team,” they said.
Ms Indranee noted that the Ministry of Social and Family Development has already started the process of bringing the different agencies together around the Social Service Offices (SSO).
“I think what you really want is a place where somebody can go to, where a person in that place can connect them with the other services,” she said.
The Singapore Children’s Society’s Ms Lim pointed out that modelling such a centre after a hospital may not be as clear-cut in practice, but works as a concept.
“We have discussions between schools, community agencies and government agencies, and after that discussion, the roles are all clearly spelt out,” she said. “Everyone has a role.”
“It’s not about who’s better or who’s more important, but about everyone knowing what they are contributing,” she added.
NEED FOR RELATIONSHIP BUILDING TO START AT AN EARLY STAGE
Another issue highlighted by participants was the importance of building relationships and rapport with the children and their families at an early stage, before problems arise.
“If you are able to step in before anything happens, you start building relationships and it will be easier for you to help them if problems arise,” said Lam Moi Kwai, CEO of Life Community Services Society, adding that she has seen this from her organisation’s experience running a drop-in centre for latchkey children.
“The children with no issues are walking in automatically to our centre,” she said. “We start mentoring them, and we ask them to bring us to visit their family.”
Ms Lam explained that without a relationship between the social workers, volunteers and the families, it can be difficult stepping in to help only when a child is referred, or a case reported. “The help rendered by the social workers is then seen in a very negative light,” she explained.
Participants also said that giving these children a positive role model can make a big difference. Some noted that the children they have seen tend to have parents who are absent in their lives due to work or ill health, while others take a hands-off approach in their child’s upbringing. Hence, said a participant, they lack a positive role model they can look up to.
Ms Lam said that she has seen first-hand how mentors from the community have benefited such children, citing an example of how her organisation plans gatherings or learning excursions for the children, but lack buy-in from parents who may not see the value of such experiences.
“The community mentor stepped in to bring the child, and after the child went for the first session, the family realised that the child had benefited so much,” she said. “So the next time there are such outings, the family doesn’t reject them immediately and say they have no time. They rope in the relatives, or make some internal family arrangements to bring the child there.”
“So the community mentors show the way.”
Speaking to the media on the sidelines of the session, Ms Indranee noted the importance of having such engagement sessions, as the taskforce gets input from those who are “at the forefront” of the issues it is trying to tackle.
“What we did not want was to have a lot of theoretical concepts ... that is divorced from the reality of what happens on the ground,” she said. “That’s why it is so important to hear from the people on the ground such as the social workers and volunteers, and the stories they have to tell.”
She also agreed on the need for more coordination to help disadvantaged children.
“It was very apparent to me that you have a lot of people who are very well-meaning and all wanting to help, but not having the right touchpoints,” she said. “So one of the things we have to look at is how we can facilitate better referrals, better coordination and introducing parties to one another.
“These are the takeaways from the discussion so far, and we will certainly factor that into the recommendations that we are to make.”
A total of 30 participants from 15 community organisations attended Tuesday's engagement session, which is the third to be held so far.
The first two engagement sessions were held in primary and secondary schools to hear the perspectives of school leaders, teachers, school counsellors and student welfare officers.