Thursday, 27 December 2012

When Service Users Seek to Deceive, Part I

Reconstruction by actors. The Masked AMHP is being played by the woman at the back

(Before reading this cautionary tale, I want to make clear to readers that this post is in no way intended to imply that people on benefits are scroungers. Quite the contrary – most mental health service users that I know who are reliant on benefits would dearly love to be able to do a meaningful and adequately paid job, but are prevented from doing so by their mental health problems. Many feel deeply ashamed that they are no longer able to work and are forced to rely on benefits. Cutting the benefits of people with disabilities will not spur them on to work; it will only serve to exacerbate their problems.)

As a social worker, it has always been my basic approach with service users to believe what they tell me, unless and until I have evidence to the contrary. Having worked with many people over the years with a history of childhood sexual abuse, many of whom were doubted when they disclosed as children, I know that it is of vital importance to them to be believed.

That does not mean I am gullible, but I am prepared to keep an open mind and apply the Evidence Test. The Evidence Test is simple and straightforward – is there any evidence which contradicts what a person is telling you?

I remember visiting an old lady who told me that her living room had been full of girls singing and dancing the previous evening. She said that they had then all disappeared into a hole in the wall – directly behind her TV. Before coming to the conclusion that the lady was suffering from dementia, and was no longer able to differentiate reality from television, I had a look behind the TV just in case there was, indeed, however unlikely it may seem, a hole. There wasn’t.

There was another unfortunate old lady who lived in Charwood, who was detained under the MHA and admitted to hospital after repeatedly reporting the existence of strange noises in her old terraced cottage. Following her admission, her community nurse arranged to collect some personal effects from her home. She entered the cottage and was disconcerted to hear loud noises emanating from somewhere within the building. It was eventually traced to her next door neighbour, who had decided to convert his cellar into accommodation, and in the process had extended his own cellar by knocking into the space beneath the old lady’s home.

So I initially had no reason to disbelieve Brenda.

Brenda was referred to Charwood CMHT by her GP. The letter catalogued the terrible experiences she had had at the hands of her abusive husband who, even after she had left him, had continued to stalk and harass her and had even broken into her house and raped her on one occasion.

The consequence of this was that Brenda was afraid to leave her house. She had difficulty sleeping, and reported frequent flashbacks to her ordeal. She was afraid of being alone, and only slept with the light on. She reported a full house of symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.

I worked with her for several months. One of the first things I did was to help her make a claim for Disability Living Allowance. I was surprised when she was turned down for this, and helped her to appeal.

I put quite lot of work into this. She had a neighbour, who was often at her house when I visited, who had told me the extent of the help she had had to provide Brenda, as she lived alone, and had no supportive relatives. I typed up a detailed account of the daily assistance she provided Brenda, which included encouraging her to eat properly, taking her to appointments, and even going round to her house in the night when Brenda was too frightened to sleep. I sent this statement off with the appeal documents, and arranged to take Brenda and the neighbour to the appeal and to act as her advocate.

The members of the Appeal Tribunal were sympathetic, and awarded Brenda DLA at the lower rate of care and mobility. It was backdated 9 months. I was as delighted as Brenda, and felt I had done a good job.

A few months later, Brenda had more problems with benefits. This time, she told me, she had had her housing benefit suspended because of an anonymous tip off that she was fraudulently claiming. Someone had told the district council that she was working. She suspected that it was her ex-husband.

I again offered to write a supporting letter for her.

A week or so later, she told me that she had been summoned to an interview, under caution, at the local council offices, in connection with these allegations. I offered to attend with her as an appropriate adult.

We went into the interview room and the investigating council officers began the formal interview.

The basic charge was that she had fraudulently claimed housing benefit for a number of years while working full time, and that she had not disclosed her earnings, or the existence of bank accounts into which these earnings had gone, to the council.

Brenda denied these charges.

The interviewers listened patiently.

Then the main interviewer opened up a large dossier and began to show Brenda some documents. Was this her bank account? Yes. How did she account for regular sums of money going in on a monthly basis, of around £1000 per month? She didn’t know what the money was for.

The interviewer showed Brenda the payrolls of several different employers. Was this her name and address? Yes, it was. Was this her National Insurance number? Yes, it was. Was this her signature on the forms? It looked like her signature. Was the employee therefore Brenda herself? No it wasn’t. It must have been someone who had used her name and address. Was it same person who had then arranged for her monthly pay to be deposited in Brenda’s bank account? It must have been. And this person was not, in fact, Brenda? No, it wasn’t.

It was becoming blindingly clear to me that Brenda had, indeed, been systematically claiming housing benefits and other benefits fraudulently for several years, and that I had been an unwitting accomplice in this.

In the car on the way home, Brenda continued to maintain, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that she was entirely innocent. I couldn’t look at her. I dropped her off at home and advised her to consult with a solicitor. I said I would be in touch.

After consultation with my manager, I wrote to Brenda to say that Charwood CMHT would be discharging her from the service, as we could only work with people with mental health problems. I never saw her again.


  1. Why exactly was the "unfortunate old lady who lived in Charwood" "detained under the MHA and admitted to hospital after repeatedly reporting the existence of strange noises in her old terraced cottage"? Noise complaints are perfectly rational and lack of evidence does not mean that they are unfounded.

    What happened once it was discovered that she was right? Was she released from hospital?

    As for Brenda, even if she collected benefits while working, isn't it possible that she really had some mental health problems? If she couldn't continue to get benefits, why couldn't she remain a client for her other mental health needs? What happened to her afterwards? Did she have to reimburse any money or go to prison?

    I must admit that I don't like the idea of having someone just access her banking information. However, I realize that to get around this issue, other administrations may simply put the onus on the clients to provide the information themselves as a condition for getting or maintaining their benefits.

  2. looking forward to part 2