What IS a vocation?
I responded with these comments on Sunday, which were too long for the comments box to process and so I left it. But having read a Guest Blog on Wed, 4/2, I believe, with a very similar theme of commitment to the job, and also today's Blog (Thur) from a dissatisfied client, I am inspired to attempt to send it again, as a blog, with updates.
I came into Probation to help people sort out their lives, and thereby reduce victims. I had a background of working with disaffected young people, and working with charities and community organisations, and schools, before I became a PO at 48, and always gave my all, despite the irritation, indeed anger, at times, of my long-suffering husband.
Even after computers and targets took over our lives, I did not reduce the amount of time I spent on clients, and their victims, to support, to challenge respectfully, to encourage change of attitudes, and to listen. If you can do nothing else, you can listen. One female victim of a domestic violence client, who I would talk to in her home, prior to her terminating their relationship, brought in chocs and a card for me after her now ex-partner's Order had finished. I wasn't in the office, so didn't see her, but was very moved by her simple words on the card, 'thank you for listening'.
Incidentally, I note today's Guest blog (Thur 5/2), in a sadly disillusioned disclosure of his opinion of PO's, castigated Jim's use of the word 'challenge'. But we do, all the time, to get the client to look at the bad things they have been involved in, how it has made them feel, and how they think they might be able to change things - 'what made you offend?' is a challenge. 'Tell me why do you believe that?' is a challenge. 'Can you think of any reasons why...?' or 'what do you think your partner, mum, child, mate, would have felt....?' 'What would you ideally want to happen...?' 'how did you get into drugs?' The list is endless, adapted for every individual. And we listen, and encourage clients to reflect on what they have said. And again, I say, that to address the problem, you need to explore the causes, and I would often see the confused, frightened child, when I saw the adult.
As I have also said before on this blog, it takes time to get damaged, angry, frightened, arrogant, confused, resentful people, often society's rejects, to trust you and to open up and interact on personal, sometimes historic, repressed issues, and then there is all the practical work which eats up the minutes/hours - fighting officialdom, finding half-decent accommodation, employment, money, drugs, health and mental health, avoiding breach or recall and the temptation of 'old friends', and so on.
All this takes time and and as a result, I was one of the first in my area, to end up being investigated, in a new emphasis on Capability Procedures in 2005, because I was falling behind in some of my computerised recordings. But after a few months of wasting everyone's time, HR and above seemed to realise that NO ONE worth their salt was up to date, and they stopped using Capability for all but those significantly failing in aspects of their work, before it quietly vanished altogether.
My work, and that of colleagues, included frequent contact with public services, agencies, charities, health services, and persuading the likes of the Benefit Agency to take me seriously, when they would not listen to clients' genuine issues. Like the PO in Wednesday's blog I rarely worked less than 45 hours a week, and in my last 12-18 months, I was working up to 70 hours in periods of crisis! I never shortened time spent with clients, I stretched my time at work.
I don't consider myself a martyr, I resented it often. That's just how long it took to give clients the time required, they came first, and to try to keep up with recording and reports. My colleagues had said, years before I retired, that 'if you retired today, but got paid until you were 65, the Service would still owe you money.' And I was certainly not the only one who worked long hours. And when I retired, I left with 8 days annual leave not taken.
I was seen as a rebel, a battler, an oddball, a dinosaur, a fool by some. I was almost always the last one to leave the office, locking up, checking windows and computers etc, and also mostly the first one in the next morning, unlocking doors and cupboards. I would do spontaneous home visits - no warning, often after work and breaking all the rules, fearing nothing and always believing it would never happen to me, and it never did, even though I had been threatened a number of times by high risk offenders, who invariably backed down or returned to custody.
I have said this in a Blog comment before, that my ACPO, as the divisional managers were called then, said to me once - 'you are doing some amazing work, with the nastiest, most dangerous of people, which no other officer will go near...'. Indeed, my very unorthodox treatment, with those I trusted would not harm me, was to calm down distressed clients with a hug, if appropriate, even once hugging a large 30+ distressed man who had run out of my office into the corridor in hysterics, after finally disclosing childhood horrors following years of silence, and he turned into a dead end in the corridor in his panic, sobbing and squealing. But he did calm down as I held him, with my manager and half the staff standing in the corridor, staring at us. And I was never warned or reprimanded. But I would not recommend it unless you had a trusting relationship, and even then......
Staff and family would say that the job was not a job to me, but a vocation, (as it also was for some other wonderful staff) and that when I retired I would collapse. I refused to go off sick, even when I broke a bone in my foot - at work! - and was plastered up to the thigh for 2 months, and my hand in plaster several years later, for 6 weeks, with only my thumb visible. I learned to hit the right hand keys with a pencil jabbed between my thumb and the plaster, and drive a car, manipulating the clutch from the hip, as I couldn't bend my knee. As my 65th birthday fell the day before the law changed, to enable women to work beyond 65, I applied to do so, but my manager told me, and the ACO who had asked her opinion, that given the effort I put into the job, she was concerned that she would come in one morning and find me dead at my desk! And she therefore felt it would be irresponsible to let me work beyond 65.
I'm not bragging. I was a stubborn, foolish risk taker. I thought I knew best. I WAS a headache to manage at times (one manager in the 90's told me kindly, but in exasperation, that 'you listen to what you should do, nod your head, then go away and do it your way' - in my endeavours to help people), a nuisance to senior management, a curious dodo to colleagues, caused my family despair at times, and often put myself at risk in my belief that I was untouchable and could calm down most people. I don't ever remember being frightened. I don't know if that's a good thing.
But I loved the job fervently, and I was liked and genuinely respected, I think, and many colleagues still keep in touch, even an admin officer (at that time called clericals) who emigrated to Oz in 2000, (meeting up when she came over for a visit last year), and our office cleaner (or whatever pc word is used now). I have even maintained phone and e-mail contact with some ex-clients, and have been invited to one man's wedding (I got to know his partner well when he was on an Order), and have been emailed photos of their baby. Now THAT is very satisfying.
But yes, my vocation caused me to collapse 5 days after I left work, as I was getting ready for my leaving do. I managed to get there, aching and burning all over, before I became really ill, and so weak for several weeks, lying on the settee to watch Kate and Will's wedding - that I thought I had M.E. My GP diagnosed extreme adrenalin drop, as I had survived on the stuff for years. But I recovered, and am still passionately fighting for Probation, its staff, and its clients, and their families. But I'm now also actively involved with charitable organisations and spending quality time with the best grandson in the world!! And am glad that I retired at 65, and have never had to witness the death of a grand old lady?/man?
Was it worth it? Yes! I loved the job which took over my life. I know I was able to help many people regain a bit of pride in themselves, and I do often wonder how so and so is doing, and feel so sad if I see them named in the local paper for further offences. I remember the distress of some when their Order ended, but I would always remain professional when they spoke of me as being their friend. I would always say 'I am NOT, and never can be your friend, but I AM your Probation Officer, and will do all I can to help you sort out your life'.
And I apologise to those out there who must be thinking 'what a smug bastard she is'. But I believe THAT is what having a vocation means, not about controlling people negatively or being a monk (although I am a veggie, interested in Buddhism and their philosophy!) and I can see from other blog comments that I was not, and am not, the only one, and I am sad that anon 12:16 believes otherwise.
As does the Blog Guest today 5/2 to whom I can only say - ' I can only ask that you try to understand that for over a year now, 'floor staff' have been tossed about, many with huge case loads, some working outside of their specific skills zone, and seeing the floor collapse underneath them, asking many questions but getting no answers. And no one can forecast the future, now that it is under new management. The days I am recalling may indeed have gone forever, but don't blame PO's. I know there are a lot of committed and empathetic staff, all of whom would love to have quality time with their clients again. I know, I have seen them interact sensitively with every type of offender, and please accept, that some are very trying, time consuming and indeed dangerous. Working intensively with a whole range of people who need support is demanding. A Service collapsing around them, with systems which don't work, makes it so much harder.
This is a significant and sad day to write this - the original comment was written on 1/2/15, with additions today 5/2.
Good luck and love to you all, and a nod to fellow ancient rebel and social thinker Bob Dylan - The times, they are indeed a'changing.
Bye Probation. Long live Probation. x