I was introduced to the notion of blogging as a result of two brilliant and well-established blogs by a Magistrate and a Police Inspector. Both are extremely well written and touch on many of the same issues that get me vexed. Until I started blogging, I hadn't realised how much I've been bottling up over the years. Just how helpless and angry I'd become as changes happened all around me, invariably for the worst, but felt powerless to do anything about. It eventually made me ill and after 22 years in the field I had to take sick leave for stress and undergo counselling. When I was training, there was much talk of 'burnout' but it's something you don't hear mentioned nowadays. The 'counselling' was pretty useless, but I endured it to keep my GP happy and because I didn't want anti-depressants.
The thing that's always struck me about being a probation officer is that as a profession we have an absolutely unique window on our society. We are in an unrivalled position to be able to identify when things are going wrong in social policy terms, assess possible remedies and in the days when we had autonomy and freedom to innovate, develop and implement solutions. I've always felt that as an agency we were there to apply 'sticking plaster' and help patch people up who'd either fallen through the net or been harmed in some way by society; be an agent of the state providing a humane way of dealing with society's deviant citizens. There was a time when I felt that a wise government would pay regard to such an agency that was so well informed and experienced and use that knowledge to both inform and improve social and penal policy. I guess it shows just how naive I've been when the opposite proved to be the case and the tables were turned against us - it was us that got changed.
One of the sadness's of the present situation is the difficulty we have in being able to adequately convey to new recruits the shear breadth and scope of innovations pioneered by the probation service in the past and during my career span. Supported housing, day centres, sheltered employment, youth projects, clothing stores, groups for drug users, problem drinkers, prisoners wives, family therapy, motor bike projects, intermediate treatment etc etc. etc. All this and much, much more has been stripped away from the probation service at a time when we have witnessed an unprecedented decline in the quality of some of our communities. A recent post by Inspector Gadget all too graphically illustrates the sort of world that will be familiar to many probation officers.
Of course the police are in a similar position to know what is and is not working in society 24/7. Whilst it might possibly be naive to think that we would agree entirely on possible solutions, the funny thing is that successive governments have been pushing them further into the territory that we used to inhabit. I'm sure I heard the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester fairly recently complaining that he employed 'thousands of social workers' rather than police officers. Some weeks ago I was speaking to a police officer on the phone and he was describing to me his role with something called 'Integrated Offender Management'. After a while I felt compelled to tell him that in my view I felt he was doing my bloody job! There are lots of other examples where I'm sure police are being used in ways that would at one time have been our purview or possibly that of a properly resourced youth service, social service or NHS even. While all this has been going on, many of our communities have been descending further into the state Inspector Gadget describes.
Do we remember when probation offices used to be small and located on or near estates and in communities? When we used to have volunteers and day centres? When probation was local, visible, responsive and adaptable? We allowed our management to convince us that the future lay in mega-sized probation 'factories' on the edge of town, a good few bus rides away from our clients so that we could breach them if they were late for appointments. I think it was all done in the name of 'economies of scale' and becoming more 'focussed' but in the process we've abandoned these failing communities and started speaking the language of 'businesses' instead. Home visits are now officially discouraged and we can't carry clients in our cars for health and safety reasons, FFS. We have become distant and process-driven, rather than local and person-centred. I have a great deal of sympathy for the police, who alone have been left to deal with the resulting obvious failure of so much social policy in recent years.