An open email to Minister Tolley on the closure of Relationships Aotearoa

This is an email protesting the closure of Relationships Aotearoa posted by Peter Matthewson to Anne Tolley, Minister of Social Development.  Peter is a lecturer in the Department of Social Practice at Unitec. He has previously worked as a social worker in the former Department of Social Welfare, in the Probation Service, and in mental health.

Dear Minister Tolley,

I am outraged and alarmed at the precipitate closure of Relationships Aotearoa, which clearly directly results from the funding cuts that your Government has implemented to essential services responding to serious issues including domestic violence, sexual abuse, and family breakdown affecting children. Your Government and party professes to value the non-government social services sector, but the facts as evident in this situation reveal a very different story.

Relationships Aotearoa, previously known as Relationship Services, and prior to that Marriage Guidance, has a long history in our country, which you seem to be unaware of. Initially set up almost 60 years ago to provide support and counselling to men returning from the Second World War and their wives and families, it has offered counselling and support to couples, families and children since that time. It has grown to be the country’s largest provider of counselling services, with 60 locations throughout the country and up to 183 highly qualified counsellors, specialised in issues including domestic violence and sexual abuse. It has been providing counselling services to over 7,000 people across the country, over 2,500 of whom are Maori who have been served with high levels of cultural competence. In implementing the Vulnerable Children Act your Government claimed an intention to enhance the safety and wellbeing of children who are at risk of violence and abuse, but allowing this organisation to close belies that intent.

Indeed Relationships Aotearoa was into year 2 of a 3 year strategy aligned to government goals focussed on vulnerable children, families and whanau and breaking the cycle of family violence. It has also sought to address any governance issues with the recent appointment of a new Board. However the reality is that the organisation’s financial position has been severely impacted by your Government’s abolition of the former highly valued provision of six counselling sessions for couples approaching the Family Court in impending separation, and further cuts to funding for domestic violence services. Since 2012 Relationships Aotearoa has had $4.8 million funding cut off by your National Government, and despite this has managed to continue providing low-cost high quality counselling services to New Zealanders. Its budget deficit for last year was only $271,000, roughly your annual salary!!

Your comment reported on Radio New Zealand that “government department contract changes happened regularly, and although it was difficult for organisations, they had to learn to adjust and live within their budgets” simply highlights the contempt with which you and your Government treat the non-government social service sector, and the resulting constant change and uncertainty, and stress and crisis this creates.

I also note that one of the organisations you have identified to take over Relationships Aotearoa’s clients is Lifeline. In the House today you evaded and obfuscated in your answer to the Hon Annette King’s question about that organisation being staffed by volunteers, in comparison to Relationships Aotearoa’s professional counsellors. From my professional knowledge of Lifeline they are a good organisation, but are still primarily a telephone crisis counselling service, and not geared up to take over Relationships Aotearoa’s services in specialised areas like domestic violence. Indeed their website informs the public that:

“Many of Lifeline Counselling’s counsellors are qualified professionals who have broad experience with a wide variety of clients and issues. They are all volunteers.”

It is outrageous that you propose to replace the service provided by specialised professionals with volunteers. I therefore demand that you instruct the Chief Executive of Ministry of Social Development to stop hiding behind his deputy, and to:

* Immediately resume good faith negotiations with Relationships Aotearoa to halt their closure and to resume full services as quickly as they are able.
* Immediately provide the necessary funding to ensure a smooth continuation of Relationships Aotearoa’s services.
* Review the current funding of Family Court and domestic violence counselling services with a view to reinstating what has been previously cut.

Peter Matthewson.

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