Sunday, 10 January 2016

True Lies [not the film]

I've moved from doing advice triage to giving advice at my charity.

The former required me to assess as quickly as possible the needs of the client and then send them to another agency ('sign-posting'), give them the information they need (usually available online) or book them an appointment with an adviser.

I have become that 'adviser' after many additional hours of 'initial' training, and there are still many hundreds of hours of training I still need to undergo. For now I am given clients needing help in the areas in which I have been trained.

My supervisor had promised me 'simple cases' to start off. But none of my first cases is simple.

The first client had loads of debt and I had to go through his bank statements forensically, matching payments with demands for payments, etc, to figure how much he owes to whom. This client is so much in debt he has no idea how much he actually owes.

The second one is the most straight-forward so far requiring the client to get her medical practitioner to complete some form with which I have grounds to ask her creditor to write off the debt. (The creditor should have done so previously and what they had done amounts to harassment.)

The third one should never have been my case as she was recently seen by another adviser (L) and should have been passed back to her. We are looking at council tax arrears, rent arrears, benefits overpayment (all = debt) and possible eviction.

We are trained to ask questions. Sometimes it becomes obvious when clients are not telling us the whole truth. My fellow volunteer adviser L and I had been discussing the facts for this third client. We kept saying, "There is something she is not telling us."

How do we know? Client does not volunteer any information. We had to ask, and ask, and ask again. Slowly, bit by bit, the information is given -- but only if we are able to pin it down with a direct question. The charity requires us to take the client's word as truth.

So having got what we think was the picture I phoned a government department to try to establish why the client was in such a situation.

The officer at the end of the line refused to divulge very much. Client was visited before Christmas by two officers. A report had been submitted and on file, but I was not allowed to know the contents. This was very frustrating. Without this information we cannot take the case forward such as check the regulations to see if the department involved had followed the right procedure.

Officer on the phone said, "You have your client with you. She was at the interview. Why don't you ask her what was said at the interview?"

I pressed on nevertheless but was told, "Your client is there. Why don't you ask her what she is not telling you?"

I hung up and asked the client, "Is there anything that I should know and that you have not told me?"

She hesitated for just the slightest moment and went on to tell me another story.

I stepped out to seek advice from my supervisor who, incidentally, had also said that there is something that the client was not telling us. We decided that the only way to find out was to write to the department, but we needed the client's permission to do this, to ask for a decision letter which would have stated why the client was in such a pickle.

I proposed this to the client.

"I will draft this letter. We will need your authorization. That way we can get a copy of the letter which states why your benefit was stopped. Would you like me to take this forward?"

Client declined, saying that she is tired that we seemed to be going round in circles.

We at the bureau will probably never know the truth. Data Protection rules are strict here. The fact that the client was unwilling to let us pursue her case shows that there was something she did not want us to know, because a letter from us (with her permission) could mean allowing the department to tell us exactly what were the charges against her. (We suspect fraud of some kind.)

I had been trying so hard to make sure that this client and her elderly husband are not going to be evicted, but I felt really let down that after all the effort put in, she was still not telling me the whole truth. It has been such a waste of my time.

We are now still duty-bound by the principles of our charity to help the client with another part of her problem, but if she is actually made homeless -- I have had to write begging emails to ask for court action to be adjourned, etc -- she only has herself, her husband and possibly another family member to blame.

It is a good lesson learned at the start of my 'advising' career that I should remind every client about telling the truth right at the start. Otherwise it will be a total waste of their time and mine, and they will still have to, ultimately, face the music (ie pay up).

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