Paul Wiseman is a Probation Officer based in the North Antrim area.
I supervise service users who are subject to court orders or on licence following release from custody. I am responsible for writing court reports and taking action if people do not comply with court orders.
PBNI moved very quickly when social distancing measures were introduced and the lock down was imminent. There was very good communication from my Area Manager and Probation’s Senior Managers. There was also an awareness of what was coming; the guidance made clear that PBNI was planning for a different way of working. Then came an announcement about Probation operational hubs and new operational guidance and instruction was issued which has been very helpful.
I would normally attend court quite regularly for example to offer further evidence in breach cases. Courts have however been suspended and most court dates have been adjourned. Court report preparation has therefore reduced significantly during this period.
Whilst at home I have been able to carry out weekly telephone interviews with service users. I have also been able to interview service users for Court report preparation. These reports are then emailed to designated Court e-mail addresses for access when required.
I am able to work well remotely but as a social worker, I believe nothing can replace face-to-face contact. My role in public protection is to contribute to the safety of communities and reduce the likelihood of further offending. The rapport I have with my service users helps me find out about how they are feeling on a daily or weekly basis. The challenge for professional social workers based in probation work involves the ability to assess any changes to stability which could in turn increase risk of recidivism. This is more difficult when there is no face-to-face contact, and WhatsApp and video isn’t always a good alternative. Just because I can see a face on the video call doesn’t mean I have all the non-verbal signals I usually rely on, such as physical indicators of alcohol or illicit drug use.
The service users I currently work with have been supervised for a lengthy period and subsequently they have completed any required programme work already. Today I have ten telephone calls to make. I need to have conversations about the usual concerns, how they are feeling and if they are taking their medication, if required. Now, with the Covid-19 lock down, we have an added responsibility to supervision. My conversations have been extended to address each service users role and responsibility in protecting each other from the spread of infection, and the added issues the impact of enforced isolation and loneliness has had on them.
I’ve tried to remind service users that everyone is feeling the impact of having to stay at home. We all miss socialising with friends and extended family and I certainly miss seeing my colleagues in the North Antrim office. In the words of John Dunne, “No man is an island”. So isolation is tough for everyone.
We are living in unprecedented times and whilst there have been many sudden changes to how we work, what has stayed the same is our support for one another within probation and our desire to continue working to keep communities safe.