Monday, 10 October 2016

The Reality of Probation Today

Following on from the excellent BBC Radio 4 File on 4 programme last week and repeated yesterday, here we have an anonymous piece by a probation officer and published in the Guardian on Saturday:-

The needs of damaged, vulnerable women are being ignored here in the probation service

I am a probation officer and work with women like Sophie, who was abused by her partner for 15 years before she lashed out and stabbed him. Or Patrice, who struggles to stop drinking and using drugs, and really doesn’t want to cause harm to others, but who robs people to fund her addiction.

Women make up a tiny proportion of our caseload but are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system. If they are in prison, they are usually much further away from home than a man would be, because of the limited number of prison beds around the country. Women are also more likely to be sole carers, so children are affected much more and their experiences can lead to long-term trauma.

My job is to help these women understand how to live their lives differently, by understanding what has gone so wrong for them. But in a climate of cuts this is proving harder to do. Women’s needs are effectively being ignored because of limited resources and staff shortages.

Some women just can’t manage to make the changes that would help them. Women like Clare, who repeatedly goes back to her damaging relationship and has lost her children as a result. This causes intense trauma and it would be easy to wonder why she doesn’t leave her partner, but it’s never that simple. The abusive relationship has been built over time, at the expense of her self-esteem and ability to exist independently.

My job is to work with Clare to address the underlying reasons for her offending, but I also have to make sure that the public is protected, so I have to make decisions that may potentially hurt Clare further; like sending her back to prison or placing restrictions on her.

But that’s not the biggest challenge. Actually getting to see clients and balancing face-to-face work with the endless paperwork is. I must spend 70% of my time in front of a computer. At the start of my work with someone I complete a detailed assessment, gathering vast amounts of information and developing a plan for our work together, which is reviewed every six months or when something significant changes – and things change constantly, so there are lots of reviews. We also have to write reports about our clients for courts, for the parole board and the many other bodies we deal with.

You might think we would have a sophisticated IT systems for all of this paperwork but a combination of bad infrastructure, dodgy contract arrangements and randomly bolted together systems means nothing works well. Recently the system allowed us to make only basic entries and we couldn’t access reports all day. The system crashes all the time and work is lost. For several days recently, the whole national system went down and no one was able to access offender records or complete any reports or assessment.

This inability to do things properly impacts on staff morale and adds to the pressure. Under the new system, which is half privatised and half public sector, we have far less support with both work pressure and the emotional impact our work can have on staff. Managers now have to do all the HR work and no longer have the time to support us.

There are many moments of despair in our working lives. Our clients are damaged people who cause damage to others. We have to navigate bureaucracy and endless change. We often work under intense pressure to meet deadlines or justify decisions we have made. On an increasing number of occasions I have left the office unsure about a woman’s safety.

We rarely have the time now to check with the police and children’s services if there were any domestic violence or child protection issues – now 90% of court reports are done on the day, with no time to make these checks. It worries us all that such critical information could be missing.

Reading difficult material and discussing offences that most people wouldn’t want to even think about takes an emotional toll and we work hard to make sure we look after each other. I work in an open plan office and we survive on tea and laughter. When someone returns to their desk despondent or has a difficult phone call we are there to put on the kettle, to listen to them and remind them this is not all there is in life. We may take a colleague for a walk around the block, or to a nearby café for a bun.

Small things can help to heal the hurt caused by the job that we do. Burnout is inevitable unless we can get the resources we need to manage this difficult work. I hope the Ministry of Justice takes action soon or highly skilled staff will vote with their feet and this really important role may be lost for good.



  1. As has been observd on & by this blog for some time now, the 'reality of probation' is that probation as a noble profession has been assigned to history, it has been fatally wounded & profits for privateers are paramount. Individuals are stoically fighting to maintain a level of service provision that is meaningful, but at huge personal cost.

    Grayling, his acolytes & those who eagerly collaborated in this vile social experiment should be prosecuted for gross negligence in public office. They have damaged or destroyed careers, charitable organisations & peoples' lives. They should be required to make recompense from their own deep pockets - pockets filled with public money &/or gratuities from private companies. They should be exposed as the charlatans & fraudsters they truly are. They should be ashamed, but sadly they are without capacity for shame, they are without conscience.

  2. Well you let them in didn't you too many vote tory in our ranks. Not enough strikers when called and our leadership failed unified action. What do we want now as we remain apathetic.

  3. A well written and recognisable piece by the Probation Officer in the Guardian. It communicated on a number of levels including an emotional appeal. It would be interesting to see such articles appear in a wider cross section of the media, in particular the more right wing press, where I imagine that readership might be less aware of the plight of many public service workers and those members of the public (all of us) who lose out as a result. The account is one that might have been written by any number of public sector workers. Maybe more articles could be submitted with an ambition to find a wider audience?

    1. It was a good article, and I identified with much of it. And we do need more of similar in different places. Maybe we need more articles by or on behalf of those receiving the 'services' and how they came to need them in the first place. And how we criminalise people at the drop of a hat, sometimes from an early age. A sustained campaign would be good. We can't rely on the Howard league to do it all for us. And I don't think the public would respond primarily to the plight of probation staff. I think we would come across as feeling more sorry for ourselves than for victims of crime and service users put together. Sadly I don't think that those in charge at present will want the awareness they will need in order to be able to find it in their hearts to change things. They are hard - hearted.

    2. I would love some ideas from probation colleagues NPS as well as CRC about what we can do in our everyday working lives to resist together what is happening to our work.

    3. There never was a golden age. If you take out TR from this article, you have a description of probation in the years leading up to the split, not least the 70% of time spent in IT processing on substandard systems. Compared to the costs of imprisonment, sufficient funds have never been invested in rehabilitation – or the causes of crime: poor education, poverty, drugs, etc... Structurally unequal societies manufacture crime and discrimination. Frontline probation work, especially since the cognitive-behavioural revolution, has always been about dealing with generations of failing individuals who are part of the fallout of the wider social failings. There will always be crime, but, as the evidence shows, it prospers more where there is economic inequality and lots of law and order rhetoric.

    4. @11:47 just work to your contract and your contracted hours. No more, no less. This action alone will bring everything down.

  4. A very powerful, down to earth and thought provoking piece which deserves wide distribution. So much, that was sacrosanct to the core values, guiding principles and working ethos of PROBATION are increasingly being displaced by neo-liberalism ideals and marketization. Now happening to Social Work TOO. I too hope there is someone out there 'listening' as the hearts, minds and voices continue to 'speak up/out' against TR. Indeed, given distance travelled it speaks volumes about Probations Legacy/Vocation. Even if only a quiet but determined voice. Heartfelt thanks to the Author for being YET another humanistic voice speaking Volumes I for one will be RT this several times. I'm sure between us TOGETHER we can reach a much wider Public Audience. iangould5

  5. I've decided to start a rather more robust policy of deleting anti-probation comments that are simply designed to inflame and distract. Anything well-argued will, as always, remain.