Critique of a Human Service Organisation

Written Task 2: SOAD 9106. By Andrew Melgaard-Lerche, Student #2078018 1 Critical Analysis of a Human Service Organisation IF ever a segment of society was in need of a „break? , it? s that motley crew of social outcasts who are, or have been, on the wrong side of the law. Who else, I ask you, is so universally despised that politicians – always on the lookout for unpopular, easy targets – want to “rack „em, pack „em and stack „em in jail”? 1 The „man in the street? would dispute a criminal? being due some positive karma. A not atypical view from suburbia might be articulated thus: “but s/he transgressed! S/he deserves all the blame/punishment/trauma/discrimination/indignation s/he gets! ” Fortunately, we? re all Social Workers, and that means we put such judgements aside, right? No-one is beneath our altruism – our only criterion is need – and there are few needier people than those at the mercy (either incarcerated, on bail or out on parole) of our justice system.

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Thank Heavens, we believers in Social Justice might say, that here in SA we have Good Samaritans like the folks at OARS Community Transitions. In researching OARS, I initially relied on its website, some promotional literature and an interview with its Social Inclusion and Enterprise Manager, Dot Stagg. From the phalanx of pamphlets Ms Stagg sent me, I discovered that Offenders Aid & Rehabilitation Services (OARS) is a voluntary community association that – in various incarnations – has been helping offenders and their families in South Australia since 1886.

From a promotional spiel on the OARS website, I learned the organisation began life as the Prisoners Aid Association, “grew and evolved in response to the changing needs of clients and the changing face of justice administration”, adopted the well-known moniker of OARS SA in 1977 before finally re-inventing itself as OARS Community Transitions just last year. 2 The OARS website and promotional material went on to describe this Human Service Organisation (HSO) as a secular, community-based, non-profit Non-Government Organisation (NGO) employing 55 staff and with about 90 active volunteers.

Its service users (referred to as clients) include people released from prison, their partners and children. Services include counselling for drug and alcohol abuse, gambling, financial planning and general counselling. 3 OARS employs a Youth Worker and provides unspecified “prison services” and “emergency assistance”, vague terms contained in OARS literature about which I couldn? t gain further clarity. 4 OARS Community Transitions also runs a number of supported accommodation (half-way) houses across Adelaide and at Murray Bridge, Port Augusta, Port Lincoln, Berri and Mt Gambier. When I asked Ms Stagg if former prison officers still play a security/keep-the-peace role at these houses (as they have in the past) she answered rather emphatically in the negative. “We aren? t a continuation of prison,” she said. “All our residential clients answer to case workers, not former prison officers”. Asked whether OARS has a specialised client body, Ms Stagg said the organisation caters to all races, creeds and colours. However, it? fair to say OARS does cater to a specific, economically-depressed demographic: the homeless, low income earners, educationally-disadvantaged people, usually white males but with an overrepresentation among Aboriginal Australians. Anyone in or at risk of entering the justice system is OARS? base constituency, a sector which also includes the mentallyill. There is a waiting list for residential places and some other services, although in some cases people receive assistance “off the street”. According to Ms Stagg, “no- Written Task 2: SOAD 9106. By Andrew Melgaard-Lerche, Student #2078018 2 ne” is turned away by OARS, which she says receives a mix of self-referrals, names from other agencies and clients from SA Corrective Services. Most of OARS? funding these days comes from the Commonwealth Government (a quandary I? ll return to later) and its accountability mechanisms (internal audits, thrice-yearly accredited quality management and an official complaints procedure involving the CEO, Leigh Garrett) appear to be fairly standard. 6 OARS is multi-disciplinary, employing anyone from psychologists to Social Workers to security personnel, and all – according to Ms Stagg – are professionally qualified.

On paper, OARS seems to provide a healthy mix of rehabilitation and intervention, all packaged under the enticing banner of it? s ubiquitous mantra: Restorative Justice. If any of the above information sounds – to put it mildly – like self-serving spin, that? s because it is. Ms Stagg? s contribution to this essay turned out to be a combination of public relations hype, omission and – most disappointingly – outright deceit. The first hint I gained that all was not as it seemed was when I received shrill and evasive answers to „sensitive? questions about OARS? corporate structure, funding and staffing.

Having encountered an Omerta-like silence on such questions from other senior staff, it seemed I couldn? t provide much of the structural information sought for this assignment. Ms Stagg was often coy, even on seemingly-innocuous questions surrounding OARS? vision, mission and values, its relations with other agencies and the public, or the nature of its “interventions” and who carries them out. Extracting the OARS corporate structure or operating budget was like extracting teeth. I was told in no uncertain terms that such queries should be directed to the CEO, but that “he probably won? t provide such details”.

Curious about such reticense, I took a different approach to this assignment, digging deeper where I could and putting more of the critical in “critical analysis” … It didn? t take long to uncover a virtual morass of dishonesty, inefficiency and inappropriate practices, certainly on the residential side of this operation. The lessthan-frank Ms Stagg had her poker face on when she spoke with me, but clients I interviewed* left me with the definite impression that corner-cutting practices abhorrent to most Social Workers were rife at OARS. More shockingly still, the unspoken rationale for this seemed to be the notion that “they? e only crims”. So frequent were consumer references to this „us-and-them? attitude that I came away feeling it was rooted in the organisation? s culture. According to clients, the “help” this HSO provides its residents is minimal, grudging and hardly consistent with the organisation? s vague commitment to “Restorative Justice”. Far from “evolving in response to the changing needs of clients and the changing face of justice administration”, consumers I interviewed spoke of archaic procedures and resistance to change from staff marooned for too long on what is an isolated, specialist „island? of an NGO.

I was unable to confirm precise staffing numbers, but – for reasons I? ll explain later – I find it hard to believe OARS still employs 55 staff, a figure found on the organisation? s website and last updated in 2008. According to existing clients, prospective residents are turned away by OARS, often on the basis of favouritism and not need. The “prison services” OARS supposedly provides were a spurious claim – I? ll explain why below – as were the “emergency assistance” for their residential clients. “The only time they get off their * For obvious reasons, the clients I spoke with preferred to remain anonymous. Written Task 2: SOAD 9106.

By Andrew Melgaard-Lerche, Student #2078018 3 arses and come see us is when someone has run amok or hasn? t paid his rent”, one client told me. “The [OARS houses] are run down, there? s little maintenance, and the only time we see [a staff member] is when something? s badly wrong”. I witnessed such chronic laziness and apathy first hand during a low-key visit to one OARS property at Christies Beach. The house was in a disgraceful state and the staff member in attendance merely turned up in his company car, walked to the walled-off staff area of the house and sat there, doing little in the way of work and never venturing „out back? o mix with the unwashed masses. At the conclusion of his 4hour „work? day, this staff member simply returned to his car, drove off and left the residents to their devices. As your colleague Andrew Paterson (a former Superintendent at Mobilong Prison) will attest, such a „work ethic? is consistent with that of prison officers, who spend their days huddled together in groups, doing as little as possible and only springing to their feet when there? s a disturbance. Such similarities aren? t coincidental: OARS residential staff don? t just mimic prison officers; they are former prison officers (or “screws”, as inmates call them).

Ms Stagg, who insisted that no former prison officers worked at these half-way houses, told me a bald-faced lie. The pattern of former “screws being screws” goes beyond bone laziness. According to residents, these middle aged-to-elderly men have simply carried on where they left off in prison, handling virtually all of OARS? „interventions? through the use of, shall we say, „physical means? familiar to them from their days at Yatala or Mobilong. Such „means? , even when used on former inmates, would be abhorrent to virtually any other HSO.

Far from providing “Restorative Justice”, it turns out that OARS perpetuates the prison power dynamic for its residential clients, affording them little respite from the daily routine of incarceration, providing nothing in the way of proactive support (these are clients? words) and then, one assumes, expecting them to rehabilitate spontaneously. Study after study has concluded, to quote Borzycki and Baldry, that “without sufficient resources and social support upon release, the cycle of release and re-arrest is difficult to break”. 7 OARS? “Restorative Justice” goal presumably involves helping to break this cycle.

If my first-hand experience is any guide, it has failed in this goal utterly. As mentioned, the festering morass that is OARS was in part due to its isolation as a „specialist? organisation, immunized to a point against competition and meaningful scrutiny. The „outcast? status of its clientele with many members of the public and populist politicians left these clients unloved and under-resourced. Moreover, until recently, they were at the mercy of OARS? near-monopoly over services to offenders. Such monopolies are never a healthy situation: fiefdoms are the order of the day, power imabalances are the norm and services tend towards atrophy.

Clients thus faced a „perfect storm? of monopolistic bureaucracy and pariah status, leaving them unwilling or unable to speak out. They were reduced to approaching OARS – the „only game in town? – on bended knee. Allowing for some bitterness and jaundice from the clients I interviewed, what I saw was enough to suggest that the efficacy of this organisation is minimal – assuming that rehabilitation (articulated within the framework of “Restorative Justice”) is in fact their goal. South Australian taxpayers weren? t getting value for their money, and Written Task 2: SOAD 9106. By Andrew Melgaard-Lerche, Student #2078018 fortunately for them, it seems someone at the Department of Correctional Services finally noticed. OARS festered along under its near-monopoly until 2009, when the Department shocked its long-time contractor by tendering out funding for its in-prison services. What ensued was a competitive process in which OARS had no experience or hope of success. OARS lost some $500,000 worth of in-prison funding in August 2010, mainly to Centacare, leaving the HSO in the unenviable position of having little or no in-prison presence to seamlessly transfer released prisoners to their accommodations.

Clearly, whoever has responsibility for in-prison services should logically handle outside accommodations. With Housing SA in the process of putting the latter out to tender, the „writing is on the wall? for OARS, which seems to have entered a tailspin of lost funding and structural shrinkage. Its former presence at two Adelaide office locations has been reduced to just one rather dingy Morphett Street address, and its website is – to be charitable – in a „state of flux? and partially „under construction?. Responding to these challenges, the organisation re-launched as OARS Community Transitions last August.

Clearly, the organisation is trying to reinvent itself, largely as a landlord (however briefly) for ex-prisoners and as a provider of the many, Commonwealth-funded counselling services it must see as its future. By definition, such services overlap with those provided by other agencies, so OARS seems destined to squabble for what it would formerly have seen as funding „scraps?. As Ming the Merciless might say, they must be “satisfied with less”. 8 In case my tone hasn? t betrayed my attitude, I can? t say I? m horribly upset at OARS? tribulations. If an organisation? worth is rooted in its efficacy, then the loss of $500,000 in funding – with more cuts likely – looks to me like competitive tenderingas-justice. It was near-impossible to glean meaningful information from upper management at OARS, and it was difficult to ascertain how effective OARS? efforts are in areas like counselling for drug and alcohol abuse, gambling and financial planning. I had limited time, a reluctant subject and few investigative skills, so I couldn? t delve deeper and perhaps confirm that dysfunction afflicts all of OARS? operations. However, if the neglect, the „us-and-them? entality and the alleged brutality of its „interventions? is any guide, the objective measure of OARS? efficacy – that of a meaningful contribution to rehabilitation – provides a damning indictment. OARS should be seen as a cautionary tale. Its leaching of South Australian taxpayers for little return over decades of futility leaves one wondering how many other NGO? s – to one degree or another – aren? t living up to their literature. Centacare is a larger, less-isolated and more competitively focused organisation, and will be less prone to the atrophy of OARS, the organisation it replaced. That said, the pariah status of clients, the „don? care? stance of politicians and the potential for offender services to become a „fiefdom? within the walls of its new contractors all warrant ongoing concern. As George Santayana put it, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. 9 *** Written Task 2: SOAD 9106. By Andrew Melgaard-Lerche, Student #2078018 5 BIBLIOGRAPHY 1 Foley, K. , Treasurer of South Australia,quoted in Wheatley, K. , „Packing our prisons just doesn’t stack up? , The Advertiser, Adelaide, 8 May 2008; 2 OARS Community Transitions, promotional pamphlet, Adelaide, August 2010; 3 ibid; 4 taken from interview notes with D.

Stagg, Social Inclusion and Enterprise Manager, OARS Community Transitions, 20 April, 2011; 5 OARS Community Transitions, promotional pamphlet, op cit; 6 taken from interview notes, op cit; 7 Borzycki, M. and Baldry, E. , ‘Promoting Integration: The Provision of Prisoner Postrelease Services? , Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice (262) Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra, September 2003; 8 Von Sydow, M. (as Ming the Merciless) quoted in Flash Gordon, Universal Studios, USA, 1980; 9 Santayana, G. , Volume 1, The Life of Reason, Dover Publications, New York, 1905.


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