This piece in the Guardian caught my eye:-My grandiose ideas of being a maverick probation officer were short-lived
When I was given a caseload of 50 strangers to manage on day one as a probation service officer, I must admit I was sweating it a bit. Like many other services – including healthcare, social work and teaching – high workloads, tight deadlines and insurmountable paperwork have put stress on service delivery while simultaneously battering staff morale.
I joined the organisation in the middle of a period of massive structural change, when many of my colleagues faced redundancy, demotion or reassignment. The probation service was split in two: one part has now been privatised, while the other remains in the public sector. The privatised service – the payment-by-results side that I work for – supports people who have been deemed low to medium risk. Thankfully for my vulnerable emotional stability, this means we don’t support people who have been assessed as a high risk of causing serious harm.
Landing the role of probation officer was a major achievement for me, considering I’d often found myself on the other side of the law as a young emotional landmine. Having a negative and mostly unhelpful experience of probation as a user gave me an incentive to work within the field. I had mildly grandiose ideas of being some kind of maverick officer delivering uniquely exceptional support; embarrassing in hindsight. It wasn’t long before I had a reality check: the officers are, on the whole, genuinely compassionate and highly skilled, and there is much I can learn from them.
I soon settled into a routine. Each day has its own uniqueness, but there are many constants: I start by looking at my diary to the day ahead, during which there can be anywhere from five to 12 one-to-one appointments with service users. Between appointments, there’s paperwork. So much paperwork. Unfortunately, I spend more time documenting what I’ve done, detailing the intricacies of people’s lives and writing reports for courts and prisons, than I spend doing practical and helpful things for and with people. But I still try to value every interaction.
Many convictions, if not most, are a product of history and circumstance, though personal responsibility is still a significant factor in the choices we all make. It is my job to foster insight into this, and instil motivation and courage to take on challenges. This can feel like a pipedream when working with some people: just getting them to turn up to appointments on time, or at all, can feel like an arduous and fruitless task; when they do arrive, developing a relationship built on mutual respect is the next hurdle. To many, I am “the authority” – just another part of the same punitive system that just gave them a roasting for getting up to no good.
Sometimes I get it right. There was a man, I’ll call him William, whose criminal record uses up more pieces of paper than my certificates that qualify me for the role. Within the first five minutes of meeting him, he told me he would refuse to do any group work. William had a history of domestic violence, which meant it was imperative that he addressed this by attending a group facilitated by specialists in that area. I spent a couple of months getting to know him and letting him suss me out during one-to-one meetings. He has, like many, a sad backstory of abuse, neglect and rejection. This was a major reason for his emotional and relationship instability, and probably his immediate strategy to push me away. But William, like many, just wanted respect and a human connection.
Eventually, he began talking to me openly, without embarrassment, and he accepted my view that group work was key to helping him move on. He got through it and, although he still experiences difficulties, he and his family are in a much better place.
Then there was Francis (not his real name), who was almost sent back to prison in his second appointment with me since being released from custody.
The first 40 minutes went well: he told me about his long battle with drugs, the hardship he has put his family through, his so far inability to change and the battering his self esteem has taken over the years. It was great that he was engaging, sharing and trying to get help. But as chaotic as some of these individual’s lives can be, so can their temperament. It all changed when he asked for money: we reimburse bus fares. He didn’t have a ticket and eventually admitted he had walked. I was willing to overlook the deception, but it didn’t end there. “If you don’t gimme bus fare, I’ll go to the nearest shop, nick summat and get it that way,” he told me. Our relationship never recovered, and he was sent back to court for non-engagement and was later caught trying to steal.
Despite the high workload, organisational changes, battered staff morale and the odd attempts at manipulation by service users, there are many uplifting experiences that make the job worthwhile. I see people who have had severe and enduring drug addictions, who, through incredible strength and willpower, get into a state of abstinence and voluntarily offer their time to help others through their personal struggles. Similarly, we have volunteers who have personal experience of alcohol addiction, severe abuse, acute mental and emotional distress, and prostitution. I continue to grow and develop, as a person and a professional, among these incredible volunteers, service users and colleagues.
I'm sure most will agree an inspiring piece, however I have two comments, firstly it's not entirely clear whether the author is a PSO or PO and indeed if they appreciate there is any difference, but secondly and much more worrying in my view is this statement talking of 'vulnerable emotional stability' and the naively inferred assumption that CRC's won't be involved in matters that might upset those of a nervous disposition:-
"The privatised service – the payment-by-results side that I work for – supports people who have been deemed low to medium risk. Thankfully for my vulnerable emotional stability, this means we don’t support people who have been assessed as a high risk of causing serious harm."