A Day in the Life – Working with high risk offenders to protect the public during COVID-19

The Covid-19 pandemic and current lock down has changed the way Probation works almost overnight.  Yet throughout this period, probation and partner agencies have prioritised public protection and continued to deliver vital services to help keep the public safe.

Paul Thompson is the Manager of Probation’s Public Protection Team.

I am the manager of the Public Protection Team based in a Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) station in Seapark. The team consists of five probation staff, six police officers and a senior Practitioner Social Worker. Together we are responsible for risk management of all Category 3 Offenders within the Public Protection Arrangements Northern Ireland (PPANI).

Sharing of information and close inter-agency working is absolutely vital in the area of public protection.  We have weekly briefings which are now conducted by teleconference with follow up actions a mixture of telephone and video calls, as well as making direct face to face contact if required. Chairing Local Area Public Protection Panel (LAPPP) meetings with PSNI, Healthcare Trusts, Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Northern Ireland Prison Service where all PPANI offenders are assessed and risk managed, are all conducted by teleconference.  We have worked together to make the new arrangements operate effectively and ensure that we can focus on those offenders who pose the highest risk to the public.

Although I had some experience of using teleconferencing in the past there is no doubt that working this way for long periods of the day can be intense and draining for staff.  I do miss the face to face aspect, and the opportunity to read body language.

We are particularly grateful to the staff in the Approved Premises who have continued to provide a service, within modified working environments, where many of our service users reside. Probation work closely with seven approved premises across Northern Ireland which are run by Extern, the Simon Community, the Salvation Army and the Presbyterian Church Board of Social Witness.   These organisations are providing a really significant contribution towards the resettlement of service users.

I know from feedback from hostel managers, that their staff have really appreciated support from PBNI and likewise probation staff admire the efforts which these voluntary and community organisations have made to sustain services.

The pandemic has exposed the lack of social support in place for the most vulnerable people in society and under lockdown we have seen an increase in domestic violence, alcohol and substance misuse. Service users have been remarkably compliant with the social distancing and other rules. A limited number have struggled and there has had to be less tolerance for non-compliance due to the potential impact on the health and well-being of other residents and staff. Probation has put in important safeguards to protect the most vulnerable in society particularly those at risk of domestic abuse. Additional screening tools and enhanced inter agency working enables us to minimise risks.

The overnight change in the way we work has been dramatic but, as professional social workers, we have continued to be resilient and innovative. We have built a strong peer support network around ourselves and within our organisation. If anything it has made us more focussed, more willing to reach out and to work together, and much more willing to support one another.  It has brought out the best in people in very difficult circumstances.