Many bereaved victims of Northern Ireland’s conflict decided not to apply for financial help after those that did were left stressed and frustrated, the region’s largest victims group has claimed.
Calls were not returned, claims to cover the cost of befriending or counselling were delayed and onerous paperwork requirements left some who lost loved ones feeling it was not worth using the Victims and Survivors’ Service (VSS), a report from the Wave Trauma Centre said.
Wave has helped relatives in the hunt for those abducted and killed by the IRA who are known as the Disappeared. Among its senior members are Alan McBride, whose wife died in the 1993 IRA Shankill Road fish shop bomb.
A report from the centre said: “Many victims, particularly the bereaved, have decided against participating in assessments.
“Those who have participated in assessments have been stressed and frustrated by the failure of VSS staff to return calls or be able to adequately advise on the progress of a case.”
The Service was established by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) in April last year to channel £20 million Executive funding to those who need it most. It provides money for therapies and counselling for those injured during the 30-year conflict.
Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone has claimed the Service made people feel like beggars and alleged the assessment process was not fit for purpose.
WAVE is a cross-community organisation which provides practical help to those who have been injured, bereaved or traumatised by the Troubles. It is due to give evidence about the VSS to a Stormont committee on Wednesday.
Many of its clients have raised queries and complaints about the Service. These included alleged long delays before assessments and in processing claims and phone calls repeatedly not being returned despite repeated promises from staff to do so.
Other victims’ concerns included:
:: The need to supply three months worth of bank statements, despite meeting criteria for receiving a means-tested benefit.
:: Having to obtain three written quotes for services, which often caused embarrassment in shops.
:: Dissatisfaction at having to undergo assessment, when claimants have already been with a predecessor of the support service for many years.
“They feel they have to beg for help, disempowering them as victims/survivors,” the report said.
It claimed the new service did not appear to have the client at its heart.
“There is a lack of transparency and reluctance by Victims and Survivors Service to provide data on guidelines and criteria in qualifying for assistance under schemes,” it added.
“This is highly unusual for a government body and is a cause for concern. For many victims and survivors, engagement appears to be a disempowering and stressful experience.
“The client’s journey in engagement with VSS does not appear to have been well thought out.
“It would appear that experience and knowledge of the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund (The VSS’ predecessor) has been lost in the transition of help to victims from NIMF to VSS and this is most unfortunate as it slows down the processing of cases and can cause distress to some clients who have sensitive personal issues.”
It said a lot of onus was placed on the individual to prove their needs for medical help, services or financial assistance.
“Many victims/survivors of the Northern Ireland Troubles suffer from poor physical and mental health and struggle to produce all that is asked for them,” the document added.
“We submit that it is unreasonable to make these demands on vulnerable clients.”
The organisation said the amount of paperwork required was slowing work productivity and having a knock-on effect on staff morale.
A spokeswoman for the VSS said she was aware of the report.
In October, the organisation’s chief executive Anne Dorbie said the Commissioner’s criticism was grossly unfair.
Mrs Dorbie told the OFMDFM committee at Stormont that the organisation took the concerns of victims extremely seriously, and that the individual needs review process “has proved a little bit difficult for some people”.
“There’s no doubt some people get upset,” she added.