23 Dec 2016

Mother blames benefit prosecution warning for daughter's death

5:45 am on 23 December 2016

A mother believes her daughter would not have died if the Ministry of Social Development hadn't threatened to prosecute her for welfare fraud.

05072016 Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King. Ministry of Social Development on Willis Street in Wellington.

The Ministry of Social Development sent a letter to Wendy Shoebridge telling her she owed them $22,400. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Wendy Shoebridge was found dead in April 2011, the day after she had received a letter from the ministry telling her she owed them $22,400.

Not long after her death the ministry reduced the debt to about $5550.

Ms Shoebridge's name was soon cleared and the ministry admitted she never should have been sent the letter in the first place.

The investigator who sent the letter is no longer at the ministry, which has made changes to the way it deals with prosecutions and vulnerable clients.

Ms Shoebridge's mother, Barbara Cooke, said the family had not been able to move on in the five years since her daughter's death.

"I haven't been able to move forward." Ms Cooke said. "I haven't been able to progress in all that time. Life has been at a standstill with no progress since the moment of Wendy's death ... because of the fact we've had to wait so long for an inquest. We're still waiting for the findings."

Ms Cooke said her daughter struggled with depression and anxiety as well as being in a turbulent relationship at the time, something her mother believed was often the root of Wendy's troubles.

At the end of 2010 her daughter had been working to improve her life and had found work at a service station, Ms Cooke said. She received an MSD letter telling her it would open a fraud investigation into payments she received from the ministry between December 2008 and October 2010.

"She got letters from WINZ saying that she'd been overpaid, she got contacted by MSD to say that there would be an investigator investigating," Ms Cooke said.

After that, a letter warning of prosecution arrived.

"She came home from work on the second of April ... at the end of her work shift and there was a letter waiting for her telling her she was to be referred for prosecution," Ms Cooke said.

After a phone conversation with her daughter, Ms Cooke became immediately concerned.

"She sounded so dispirited and absolutely worn out, tired and really, really sad.

"I said Wendy I'll come down, don't worry, I'll come down and help you.

"That was later in the day, I was too tired to drive down [to Wellington] at that time of day, she didn't want me to ... I said we'll talk later then."

She told her she loved her and wished she was with her. "I'm very grateful to have had the chance to say that."

It was the last time Ms Cooke spoke with her daughter.

The next day police came to her home, near Palmerston North, and told her her daughter had been found dead.

She said her daughter would still be here today had the prosecution letter not been sent. The letter was frightening and had exacerbated Wendy's already stressed life, she said.

After Ms Shoebridge's death the ministry told Ms Cooke her daughter should not have received the prosecution letter, and apologised.

Yesterday a spokesperson for the ministry declined to respond to Ms Cooke's comments, choosing to wait until the coroner releases her findings.

But the spokesperson said his thoughts were with the family during this time.

The inquest into Wendy Shoebridge's death ended last week. The findings are reserved until next year.

Coroner Anna Tutton is waiting for lawyers' submissions to be completed and handed in by 27 January.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs