Terror in Chch

Agencies pull back from terror victims

After a pandemic-induced lockdown, a ministry pulls services from terror victims because of “minimal contact”. David Williams reports

Imam Abdul Alabi Lateef opens the new, sturdy door at Christchurch’s Linwood Islamic Centre which, little more than a year ago, was the scene of a terrorist attack.

The first thing he does is activate the security system. A TV screen in the mosque’s main room flicks on, showing four different perspectives.

“This means there’s still fear,” he says.

Problems remain at the mosque. Lateef says a regular mosque-goer from Bangladesh, who was standing beside him on the day of the shooting, still doesn’t have permanent residency. Many more are stressed, and the Covid-19 lockdown has added to their difficulties.

Yet several agencies are pulling back support to the victims of last year’s shootings during Friday prayers at two of the city’s mosques. Fifty-one people, the Shaheed, were killed, and almost as many were injured, with roughly 200 witnesses deeply traumatised.

With the terrorist pleading guilty and, therefore, no need for a trial, police confirm they are scaling back family liaison officers. Adding to the instability, there has also been turnover of case managers at ACC, the Accident Compensation Corporation.

And in the past few weeks, the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) has been pulling back its case management service. Regional commissioner Diane McDermott says in a statement it has contacted 69 people “who’d had minimal contact with us since late January this year”.

“The clients who responded to our contact advised they didn’t need support at this time and were withdrawn from the service.”

McDermott gives an assurance the ministry continues to offer intensive case manager support. “Anyone who needs or wants that support continues to receive it.”

However, MSD’s pull-back – coming after months of enforced lockdown because of coronavirus – has been met with confusion and disappointment.

“Generally, people were not that happy about it,” says Raf Manji, an independent adviser to the Christchurch Foundation who has helped decide how to distribute millions of donated dollars to attack victims. “There’s a bit of worry that everyone’s packing up and moving out before this is concluded.”

Another person, who’s close to several Muslim families, says the families were upset MSD cut its service “without discussion”.

Imam Lateef says there’s still a lot to be done for the victims. “It’s not the right time to withdraw the full support that has been given.”

“As it appears you no longer require direct support from the MSD Case Management Service so we will withdraw you from it.” – MSD email to some terror victims

It was in April last year, about five weeks after the attack, the Government announced MSD case managers would be assigned to the families. Their job was to coordinate across multiple services, such as ACC, welfare, mental health and immigration.

Minister Megan Woods, who was tasked with overseeing the response, said at the time the advantage of case managers was families would only have to deal with one person. “What the victims and the families have been through is heartbreaking. All New Zealanders want to make sure they are looked after and everything possible is done to support them.”

The service initially started with 16 case managers, says McDermott, the regional MSD commissioner. That number was reduced to nine shortly after, “to reflect the needs of the community”, and stayed consistent for more than a year.

However, demand has gradually reduced – “as expected”.

When Covid-19 hit, MSD re-assigned seven case managers to its response. McDermott: “However, each of these case managers remained available to their ‘case management service’ clients if they were needed.”

(Our families source says: “People have been trying to ring their case managers and have been getting no response.”)

Newsroom asked MSD if the lack of contact from victims might be related to the lockdown, and if it consulted with the Muslim community before withdrawing the service. McDermott’s statement was silent on those points.

She says the ministry undertook “two separate welfare checks” for all clients – by phone – during the lockdown. From May 14, MSD started sending emails withdrawing case management, after “minimal contact” from some victims.

The email said: “As it appears you no longer require direct support from the MSD Case Management Service so we will withdraw you from it. I appreciate this change may be unsettling; please be assured that we will still be here and available to help. However, going forward, this assistance may be provided by a different case manager or from another part of the Ministry.”

(Newsroom’s been told an MSD manager expressed a view it was time for some families to become independent.)

Mustafa Farouk, president of the Federation of Islamic Associations, says he expected MSD to be more sensitive.

“We appreciate that agencies will be spending more time on this Covid virus, but we don’t expect agencies to forget these individuals. Their grieving can last many, many years. We don’t expect them to be weaned too early. It is, I think, too early for them to be weaned.”

“It’s been very hard on those MSD workers, and they’ve all done a great job.” – Raf Manji

Police family liaison officers work closely with victims and their families after a traumatic event, providing support leading up to, and during, court hearings.

“In this instance, as there is no trial, the role of the family liaison officers is being scaled back,” Canterbury district commander Superintendent John Price says.

“It’s important to note support remains in place ahead of sentencing, and that other agencies, such as Victim Support, also provide such services.”

Manji, the Christchurch Foundation adviser, says many victims have a close relationship with just one of their case workers, whether they’re from the police, courts, MSD, or ACC. “Where they came from was quite irrelevant,” he says. “They were just from ‘the government’.”

He would have preferred MSD and police to continue support for longer. It’ll be hard to get a clear picture of the outstanding issues within Christchurch’s Muslim community until after the terrorist is sentenced, he says.

“It’s the individual contact that’s the important thing. It’s been very hard on those MSD workers, and they’ve all done a great job, and the people are really grateful for their support.

“But I would have had a plan post-sentencing. Then you can have a four-week rundown, checking with everyone, and close cases that can be closed.”

This month’s MSD email sparked initial panic and confusion, Manji says, but the community calmed down when they realised case managers would still be available.

Imam Lateef didn’t personally receive the email. But, through discussions with his case manager, he felt the ministry was reducing its services. Last week, Lateef received a warm email from his “loving, caring” police liaison officer, who was finishing her contract.

He’s trying to remain optimistic. “I believe New Zealand will do its best. If the limited support they’ve arranged will suffice for the whole community, as far as what we are going through, then it’s OK.”

However, he worries that no matter the promises of ongoing help, already-stressed people will be left feeling they’re having to solve vital problems by themselves. Right now, Lateef’s cousin, who lives in Nigeria, has an unresolved residency application, and the Imam has asked for help to find a Government house.

Lateef notes that soon after the attacks everyone agreed the recovery would take years.

“Nothing less than two years should be given to these people,” he says, in a disappointed tone. “Just after a year, it shouldn’t be like this. For me, at least, the first year is the year of stress. And then the second year should be the year of support to fulfill the needs and get them settled. From there we move on.”

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