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.