Tag Archives: COVID-19

ARTICLE: Reflections on a Pandemic How COVID-19 impacted upon Probation practice in Northern Ireland

Reflections on a Pandemic: How COVID-19 impacted upon probation practice in Northern Ireland 

Gail McGreevy

Published online: 18 August 2020


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In March 2020, the Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI) quickly and significantly adapted its practice in response to the outbreak of COVID-19 to ensure it could continue to deliver essential services to keep people safe.

In Northern Ireland, the role of probation is to change lives for safer communities by working with individuals to assess and manage risks, ensuring compliance with court orders, delivering interventions and programmes, working with victims of crime, and preparing individuals for release from custody into the community. In essence, probation staff work to rehabilitate and resettle individuals by addressing their offending behaviour and facilitating a process of change.   Social work values are fundamental to that work. We are committed to serving the public, addressing the needs of the most vulnerable, believing in people’s capacity to change and taking an individualised approach to each case.

This paper sets out how we have continued to adhere to these values while adapting our practice to comply with Government guidelines and restrictions and keep people safe.

Keywords: COVID-19, Social Work, Probation, high-risk offenders, prisons, courts, community service, psychology, victims.

* Gail McGreevy is Head of Communications at the Probation Board for Northern Ireland (email: gail.mcgreevy@probation-ni.gov.uk).



On 11 March, the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak. Shortly afterwards, the NI Executive put in place a range of restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the infection.   In response PBNI’s Senior Leadership Team (SLT) took decisive and timely action with the ultimate aim, at all times, being to carry out our public duty of keeping everyone safe as set out in the Government guidelines.

In order to comply with the NI Executive’s measures in relation to social distancing and working where possible from home, PBNI streamlined its service delivery, closing its 21 offices and instead opened seven ‘operational hubs’ throughout Northern Ireland.  At the same time PBNI developed Operational Guidance which covered the areas of supervision of orders and licences, high risk individuals, work in courts, work in prisons, work within psychology and work with victims of crime. PBNI staff played a central role in the early release scheme, engaging with those released early by Northern Ireland Prison Service (under Rule 27) who were subject to Determinate Custodial Sentences. This paper sets out how the organisation developed practice in each of its key areas of work.



In terms of supervision, staff continue to have supervision with service users in line with assessed risk using telephone or video contact.  In order to comply with social distancing guidelines home visits and attending meetings in approved premises were temporarily ceased.

There has also been a change in the dynamics of supervision during this crisis, with more emphasis on support and assistance for service users who are feeling vulnerable.  This is explained by an Area Manager:  “Every time a probation officer makes contact with an individual service user we need to consider whether they are living alone, do they have mental health issues, or are they struggling with addictions?  As well as holding people to account, we are asking questions about their basic needs.”

Staff recognizing the vulnerability of many service users have provided support by linking them into food banks and support services as needed.  This support is acknowledged by a service user who said the weekly contact with someone outside her family was extremely helpful.

“I look forward to talking to my Probation Officer, knowing that she is going to ring me each Tuesday at 11.00 – I can plan my day and time around that … it’s nice to know that I can talk to her on that day and just talk about how things are going … I don’t have to worry about upsetting others and it’s nice to talk to someone who is not in my family“ (Service User )

PBNI staff have also acknowledged the assistance and support of the voluntary and community sectors who have continued to provide importance resources to service users particularly in the field of addictions and mental health. For example, AddictionsNI an organisation which PBNI partners with provided a number of service users with mobile phones to enable them to utilise one to one telephone counselling sessions.


High Risk Offenders

Staff are continuing to see some service users face to face and the guidance reflects the need to ensure that high-risk offenders are prioritised.  It states: “All service users who are assessed as presenting a Significant Risk of Serious Harm (SROSH), or who are assessed as category 3 under Public Protection Arrangements Northern Ireland PPANI should have weekly contact, alternating face to face interviews with telephone contact”. Face to face contact can also be arranged if there are cases that staff had concerns about even if they didn’t meet the threshold.   The guidance also highlights the need for increased liaison with partner organisations – for example, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, hostel staff and Social Services – to verify the circumstances of high-risk service users and share information more regularly.

Amongst those high risk offenders that have been prioritised are violent and sexual offenders. During this period of increased social isolation PBNI were mindful of the fact that there was likely to be an increase in domestic abuse.  There has been an increase in reported incidents of domestic abuse during the first months of the Pandemic[1]. During April domestic abuse call outs peaked at 723 in one week, compared with the average of 537 for the same week in previous years.  The overall increase in April is approximately 20% compared to an average of the previous years.

PBNI operational guidance reinforced that fact that particular cognizance should be given to domestic abuse cases and cases where individuals may be vulnerable due to addictions or poor mental health. A new screening tool[2] was introduced to assess high risk cases where domestic abuse was a concern but also cases where child protection or mental health and addictions may be an issue.

Interventions and programmes continue to be delivered and again high-risk offenders including domestic abuse perpetrators are prioritised.   Programme delivery tales place using video technology and telephone.   Partner Support Workers who provide support to partners and ex partners of the men attending programmes continue to carry out their roles using video and telephone technology.

Hostels or ‘approved accommodation’ make a significant contribution in the resettlement of service users upon their release from custody and sustaining others in the community, particularly those who are high risk. Careful contingency planning by the hostels, individually and collectively, arrangements for self-isolating, moving those with underlining health conditions to hostels with en-suite facilities, support from Interdepartmental Planning around Homelessness and much welcomed extra funding from PBNI, has allowed them to continue to offer service during these extremely challenging times.



PBNI staff and partner agencies who operated within all prison establishments were asked by the prison service to leave and work remotely in an effort to reduce the numbers coming into custody. Probation staff while working remotely are continuing to help prepare prisoners for release including completion of release plans and complete reports for the Parole Commissioners. PBNI staff have also played a central role in the early release scheme, engaging with those released early by Northern Ireland Prison Service (under Rule 27) who will be subject to Determinate Custodial Sentences.  The focus of contact is on developing a case-plan and completing brief pieces of work via telephone. The recall process is unchanged and the same threshold for recall applies.



Courts have rationalised their operations into four hubs for emergency business only, and the Lord Chief Justice has given clear guidance as to what this constitutes.  All breach matters instigated by PBNI are now dealt with solely by way of report, without PBNI prosecuting presence in Court.  Warrants are still available in cases where there is risk to the public, and summons can still be lodged albeit with lengthy service periods.  PBNI staff are completing pre-sentence report appointments via video WhatsApp where possible or alternatively via telephone.

PBNI is currently involved in the Substance Misuse Court, which is a court piloted in Belfast Magistrates court and takes an alternative approach to help offenders when substance abuse is an underlying problem. It directs eligible offenders on an intensive treatment programme, to help tackle their addiction and change their behaviour.  While the court is not formally sitting, treatment work continues and indeed engagement has increased as probation staff work closely with those individuals currently receiving treatment. Probation officers report that engagement levels have increased because individuals are in need of additional support and help to tackle addictions at this time.



The COVID-19 lockdown has brought mental health and addictions into sharp focus.  The pandemic has increased stress, fear and anxiety and those who have poor mental health and who struggle with substance misuse can be particularly vulnerable.   The PBNI Psychology team has developed new ways of providing psychological support to those most in need.

Prior to the lockdown, psychological interventions with service users were face to face, but services are now delivered in a different way. PBNI quickly adopted the use of various technical solutions including skype and zoom and psychologists assessed that one of the biggest risks to service users was relapse and this framed service delivery.  Psychologists ascertained that the best way of providing support was through regular and meaningful contact that would involve visual worksheets, confirmation texts and telephone/video interventions.

This way of working has been time consuming as noted by psychology staff.

As service users have different psychological symptoms, and a variety of different problems, bespoke interventions are required. Worksheets for each individual client needs to be generated and this is time consuming. I started a new process of creating worksheets, posting them to clients with a request that they are read and completed prior to the telephone intervention. As the intervention is delivered by telephone, Socratic questioning and guided discovery have reduced to an extent with a larger emphasis on psycho-education. I originally envisaged that each telephone intervention would last approximately 10-15 minutes. In reality, each telephone call is lasting 30 to 40 minutes(PBNI psychologist)



Importantly work with victims of crime is continuing and victims can register on line and information is provided to victims by telephone.

One of the most significant impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic was the announcement by the Department of Justice that some prisoners would be released early. This had a direct impact and requests for information from victims increased as people contacted the victims unit wanting to know if perpetrators in their case would be eligible for release.

“Almost immediately, the Victim Information Unit telephone started ringing with enquiries from our service users anxious to find out if the perpetrator of their crime was eligible for early release.  There was a need to provide information and reassurance and deal with the many questions that victims had.” (Probation Officer)

The staff in the Victims Unit reported challenges in communicating on sensitive issues over the phone but also said there were some surprising benefits.

“Overnight I moved from face to face client contact to liaising with victims and victim representatives by telephone only. Now, as a referral comes in, we make sure we contact the victim as soon as possible by phone. Initially I was concerned about ‘cold calling’ however, I have been very surprised at the response. Some may be more receptive to taking the call and more inclined to engage in conversation in the current lock down.” (Probation officer)

The operational guidance is reviewed by the senior leadership on a weekly basis and following staff feedback, it has been amended and revised against the need to deliver essential services.


Learning from COVID 19 experience

There has been some clear learning from our work during COVID-19.

Firstly, the importance of technology has been critical in enabling staff to continue to deliver services.  Technology and the move towards ‘smart justice’ has been accelerated by COVID-19.  PBNI has approximately 400 staff and by the beginning of April 340 probation staff had been enabled to work effectively remotely from home with access to PBNI case management system and records.  The use of video and teleconferencing has been of paramount importance in enabling staff to deliver programmes and complete supervision.   Teleconferencing and webinars have been introduced for staff to keep in contact with each other and service users. Indeed PBNI’s experience is that the use of tele and video conferencing has been essential and is something, which should continue long after the COVID-19 crisis abates.

PBNI has also increased the use of its mobile phone app ‘Changing Lives’ which aims to provide services users with a range of resources and tools on their mobile device. Changing lives is the first app developed specifically to help offenders in Northern Ireland to desist from crime and become rehabilitated.

In order to continue with recruitment plans, PBNI also moved its induction course online in order to provide new recruits to the service with the appropriate training and understanding of required areas of work.

Secondly effective and regular communications during this period has been essential in reassuring staff and explaining changes in practice. The PBNI response and communications plan in relation to COVID-19 was underpinned by the aim of providing timely, accurate and regular communications to all.   The communications unit has developed a daily information bulletin with links to a range of resources including guidance on working from home and health and wellbeing links. The Chief records a weekly podcast for staff. We have also released through social media a series of video diaries from staff who are working on the frontline during the COVID-19 crisis.

Finally the skill set of probation staff and the values which staff hold dear, has been key in helping them to adapt to change.  During this difficult period, probation staff have been able to use their skills and resources to refocus and reprioritize their work.  Frontline staff and those providing support have been able to use such skills to adapt their approach and continue to provide an individualized service to all service users.  During this period, PBNI has come together with a ‘can do’ attitude and a compassionate approach to deliver essential services, support service users and support one another.



Confederation of European Probation, (May 2020) ‘Geraldine Woods: Working with victims during the covid 19 pandemic’ available at https://www.cep-probation.org/geraldine-woods-working-with-victims-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/ [accessed 27 May 2020]

Department of Justice, (April 2020) ‘Long: Collaborative working key to upholding intergrity of Justice system in NI’ available at https://www.justice-ni.gov.uk/news/long-collaborative-working-key-upholding-integrity-justice-system-ni [accessed 23 April 2020]

ITV News Report (April 2020) ‘Increase in NI domestic violence calls’ available at https://www.itv.com/news/utv/2020-04-13/increase-in-ni-domestic-violence-calls/ [23 April 2020]

Probation Board for Northern Ireland (June 2020), ‘A day in the life – delivering psychology interventions during covid 19′ available at https://www.pbni.org.uk/a-day-in-the-life-delivering-psychology-interventions-during-covid-19/ [accessed 10 June 2020]

Probation Board for Northern Ireland (May 2020), ‘PBNI delivering probation services in a rural area during covid – 19 available at https://www.pbni.org.uk/delivering-probation-services-in-a-rural-area-during-covid-19/ [accessed 06 May 2020]

Probation Board for Northern Ireland (April 2020), ‘PBNI response to Covid 19′ available at https://www.pbni.org.uk/pbni-response-to-covid-19-pandemic/ [accessed 27 April 2020]

World Health Organisation (March 2020), ‘WHO Director – General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on covid 19’ available at https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19—11-march-2020 [accessed 23 April 2020]

Young, D. Y (May 2020) Probation Services introduce new safeguards amid rise in domestic abuse ‘Belfast Telegraph’ available at https://m.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/probation-services-introduce-new-safeguards-amid-rise-in-domestic-abuse-39247681.html [accessed 02 June 2020]


[1] https://www.psni.police.uk/globalassets/inside-the-psni/our-statistics/domestic-abuse-statistics/covid-19/domestic-abuse-calls-to-05.05.20.pdf

[2] A new screening tool was introduced to assess cases where domestic abuse, ,child protection and vulnerable adults , or mental health may be an issue in order to  afford greater protection to service users and public.  https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/probation-services-introduce-new-safeguards-amid-rise-in-domestic-abuse-39247681.html


Photo of Patrick Frew, Community Service, talking about his work during COVID 19

A Day in the Life – Delivering Community Service in North Antrim during COVID-19

Patrick Frew is one of three Community Service Supervisors based in PBNI’s Ballymena Office covering the Coleraine, Ballymena, Antrim and Larne area. His role involves organising and supervising community service placements for people who have offended. Community Service Orders can range from 50 hours to 240 hours.

“It was hard to get placements during the Covid-19 pandemic.  Initially Community Service was on hold however as part of the recovery plan we are now delivering community service again and being careful to socially distance.

“Part of my job is finding projects we can get involved in for long periods of time. Projects where we can work as a team, build each individual’s confidence and help make a difference. Some of the people in the squad are new to community service, others I have seen a few times. In my opinion it’s up to people like us to be accepting, hold people to account and through our actions show them the value of respect.

“Here in Cloughmills we have been working closely with Cloughmills Community Action Team (CCAT), helping local people with a small team of community service volunteers who have been active outdoors throughout the Pandemic. In the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis the community response was about making sure people had food and the squad assisted in delivering food parcels to vulnerable people. We worked with the Incredible Edible Project preparing and distributing Growing Packs for families and local people to promote healthy eating, the importance of positive mental health and well-being, during the lock-down. The Growing Packs contained compost and either wildflower seeds or mixed vegetable seeds for people to grow themselves at home. We also worked with the local pharmacy and a local restaurant to provide a delivery service for older members of the community and to those self-isolating. We have delivered hundreds of meals. This week we have been delivering live chickens for families to rear.

My priority now is ensuring all the squads are back to work in the community and able to continue to give back to people. In my experience community work happens when there is tragedy and communities start to pull together. I’m pleased that PBNI’s community service has been part of this.”

Patrick Frew is Chair of CCAT.

Read more about our Community Service 

Probation offices reopening

From the 20 July 2020 local Probation offices will be reopening.  This phased reopening is part of the PBNI recovery plan for a return to the workplace.

PBNI have taken a ‘blended approach’ as part of the recovery plan, using staff rotas and remote working, together with protective screens, masks and gloves, sanitation stands and social distancing graphics to ensure the safe return of staff and the wider community.


Office Days open Times
PBNI Headquarters

North Street


Belfast ISU


Mon to Fri (inclusive) 9am – 5pm
Andersonstown Mon to Fri (inclusive) 9am-5pm
Ormeau Road Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri 9am-5pm
Newtownards Road Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri 9am-5pm
Lisburn Mon to Fri (inclusive) 9am-5pm
Downpatrick Mon, Thurs, Fri 9am-5pm
Ards Mon to Thurs (inclusive) 9am-5pm
Duncairn Gdns Mon to Fri  (inclusive) 9am-5pm
Armagh Mon and Fri 9am-5pm

(7pm on alternate Fridays)


Dungannon Tues and Wed


Magherafelt Mon and Thurs


Newry Mon and Tues


Portadown Wed and Thurs 9am-5pm
Shipquay Street Mon to Fri (inclusive) 9am-5pm


Tues and Thurs 9am-5pm


Mon and Wed 9am-5pm
Ballymena Mon, Tues, Wed, Fri 9am-5pm
Coleraine Mon, Tues, Thurs 9am-5pm

Contact details for all offices can be found here

Photo of Roisin Leckey, Victim Information Unit Area Manager, talking about how her unit is still delivering essential services to victims during COVID 19

Probation during Covid: Victim Information Unit Manager Roisin Leckey on delivering essential services to victims of crime

Probation Board for Northern Ireland Victim Information Unit Manager, Roisin Leckey talks about how Probation continues its  work with victims of crime during COVID-19.

Hello, my name is Roisin Leckey and I am the Probation Area Manager for the Victim Information Unit. The Victim Information Unit delivers three Victim Information Schemes, the first one is the Probation Victim Information Scheme, secondly, we are the Prisoner Release Victim Information scheme, and thirdly, the Department of Justice scheme for Victims of Mentally Disordered Offenders.

In normal working times when we are based in the office, we would write to victims offering them the opportunity to register for whichever scheme is applicable to them. Since lockdown, we have been now making telephone calls to victims explaining the information they could receive with regards to the offender in their case and inviting them to register. If victims chose to register, we can then discuss over the phone and tell them information over the phone, and follow it up in sending them information by email, obviously respecting confidentiality. The victim can then phone us or ask for further information.

Another area of our work is to provide reports to the parole commissioners on behalf of victims. Victims can do their own representative reports or they can have a Victim Liaison Officer from my team do it on their behalf. Each day during this lockdown, I email my staff every morning to check that they are alright. My main priority is that my staff feel supported and that communication with them is maintained during lockdown. We often use zoom meetings, that’s for team meetings, for ongoing supervision with staff and for other meeting that we are taking place on consultation processes and the development of the unit.

Photo of Kirsten McFarland, PBNI Forensic Psychologist, talking about how she is delivering essential mental health services during COVID 19

Probation during Covid: Forensic Psychologist on delivering essential Psychology services

Probation Board for Northern Ireland Forensic Psychologist Kirsten McFarland talks about how Probation’s Psychology work continues during COVID-19.

Hi, my name is Kirsten McFarland and I am a Forensic Psychologist in training within the PBNI Psychology Department. As a result of lockdown and similar to staff across the organisation, the PBNI Psychology Department has had to adapt  during these unprecedented times. This is to ensure we maintain our core business as much as possible despite the limitations that the COVID 19 pandemic have brought.

The Psychology Department is a specialist forensic service within PBNI and our main role is to provide  psychologically informed opinion or advice with regard to a service user’s offending behaviour.

Primarily we work collaboratively with staff across the service to consult on issues relating to individual service users. These issues may include but are not limited to risk, mental health, personality disorder, learning disability and learning difficulties or brain injury.

Whilst we are required to work from home we continue to complete these consultations with staff through phone contact. We have also been able to complete initial assessments with service users through video and phone calls and more recently we have been able to attend multiagency meetings with our partner agencies through tele and video conferencing. This allows us to consider how we can effectively manage an individual’s risk through a multidisciplinary perspective.

We recognise the profound impacts that the current circumstances can have on an individual especially on the factors relating to the individual’s offending including their mental health and addiction issues. As such, we have endeavoured to offer these service users additional support at this time and continue to liaise with the relevant services. This includes GPs, addiction services, mental health teams and specialist forensic mental health teams.

The advice and support that we have received  from these services continues to be invaluable to our Department and ultimately assists with the risk management of the individuals that we work with.

Photo of Catherine Gregg, PBNI Prisons Manager, talking about how her team is delivering essential services during COVID 19

Probation during Covid: Prison Manager Catherine Gregg on delivering rehabilitation & resettlement services

Probation Board for Northern Ireland Prison Manager Catherine Gregg talks about how Probation work continues during COVID-19 to deliver rehabilitation & resettlement services along with partners.

Hi my name is Catherine Gregg, and I am an area manager currently based at Magilligan prison.

Before Covid 19, my daily work day included going to Magilligan every day with the rest of my team.

The probation team in Magilligan works within a multi-agency setting, so we work alongside our partner agencies who include NIACRO, ADEPT, Barnardo’s and of course the prison service itself.

Therefore, normally we would work with maybe 50 other people alongside interacting and engaging with 450 plus prisoners in Magilligan.

In comparison to the last 6 weeks my daily working day has involved being in my house on my own with my laptop and my work mobile.

Managing a prison team from outside a prison is very challenging, however we have very quickly adjusted to a new world of increased emails and phone calls and we are also utilising the use of web chat and trying to interact as best as we can.

Obviously we still have a role to our clients and the wider public in relation to public protection.

Prior to leaving the prison PBNI were increasing our partnership with the prison service by trying to jointly manage and work together to best manage the risk and also support the prisoners in line with the 2018 resettlement inspection.

We continue to do this albeit we now just do it a slightly different way from outside the prison.

I continue to have daily interactions with the prison service through emails and phone calls and recently we have also commenced multi-agency meetings with the use of web chat which enables ourselves, the prison service and our partner agencies to come together to consider individual cases on how best to progress them despite the current circumstances.

Communication has been vital throughout this change and whilst we obviously look forward to getting back to a little normality with the workplace, in the meantime between ourselves and our partner agencies we continue to work the best we can to ensure service delivery both for our service users and the wider public.

Photo of Susan McBride, PBNI Business Support Manager, talking about how her team is supporting frontline staff deliver essential services during COVID 19

A Day in the Life – Delivering Support to Probation Staff during COVID-19

My name is Susan McBride and I am a Business Support Manager, in Probation’s Down & Ards team.  I also cover HMP Maghaberry, Hydebank Wood College and Belfast Community Service teams.

The role of a Business Support Manager in probation, involves supporting all staff, whether that be help with systems, technical equipment, or addressing any Health & Safety issues that may arise.  The team of Business Support Managers across probation also manage the administrative staff and their functions. We provide the Area Managers with help, support and information in relation to all aspects of Service User work.  The office premises also fall within our remit. Much of our work recently has been focused on preparing for the recovery process and ensuring offices are safe for staff return to the workplace.

Lockdown for me and many others, was a shock to the system.  Anyone who really knows me is very aware I am a creature of habit – into the office early and quite often out late, so working continuously from home was totally alien to me and to be honest, the first couple of weeks I found quite challenging as did many of my colleagues.

Anyway, here we are 11 weeks in and to be honest it has become a lot easier. Every member of staff has had to rethink about their day-to-day duties while working remotely.  In many instances face-to-face contact has been replaced by telephone calls and the majority of us now have laptops, which is fantastic and has ensured the core work is being completed.

PBNI also introduced a new electronic case management system over the last number of weeks.   Due to remote working, the training for the new system had to be developed in a completely different way.  The ECMS team were quick to organise training videos and were on hand to offer help and support as we made the changes to the systems.   As a result the implementation of this much needed new system was a success.

A new experience for me was interviewing prospective staff by Webex, something that I admit I did have doubts about. However it actually turned out to be a much more pleasant and relaxed experience than I had anticipated.   I gave positive feedback to the Human Resources team regarding this and suggested it may be something we consider for the future even when ‘normal’ (whatever that will look like) resumes.

No one could have imagined this time last year that the world would be in this situation – we certainly are in unprecedented times.

I do hope that over the next couple of weeks we will start to see some sort of normality back into the workplace however most likely it will be a long time before things go back to what they were like before lockdown – I think we are very fortunate regarding our working environment – many people now face the future unemployed.

I very much believe that there always is a reason when things happen so I personally will hold onto that going into the next few months.

Photo of Annie McAnallen, PBNI Learning and Development, talking about how she is delivering training to staff during COVID-19

A Day in the Life – Delivering Training to Probation Staff during COVID-19

Annie McAnallen is a Probation Officer who works within PBNI’s Learning and Development unit delivering continuous professional development to Probation staff

In March it was all hands on deck to transform PBNI’s 10 day Induction programme into a new ‘lock-down friendly’ induction experience for almost 30 new probation officers due to start in June.

I work as a probation officer in the Learning and Development team within PBNI’s HR Department and my pre-lockdown remit included PIP (Professional in Practice, the continuous professional development pathway for social workers, regulated by the Northern Ireland Social Care Council), trauma informed practice and undertaking a research project at Ulster University on trauma informed practice in criminal justice. I also helped manage PBNI’s five social work students on their final student placements from Ulster University and Queen’s University Belfast. They started their 100 day placement in January and on 18 March their placements ceased prematurely due to Covid-19. Then we all went into lock down.

Together with my colleagues, Kevin McLaughlin and Gary Connolly, we were tasked with approaching induction in a completely new way – online. Our original programme and resources were created for face to face delivery, in a training room environment. In the past staff would engage in conversations during tea-breaks and there would be an easy flow of informal questions, small group activities and shared learning.

The new challenge was to take a tried and tested induction programme and create a version that could be delivered to staff online and in social isolation. We had to substitute face to face contact with creative ways to forge online relationships and create an atmosphere that was welcoming and friendly. The process of acclimatisation is vital to any new recruit and we had to find ways to support our new staff in the absence of the informal networks and guidance provided through the everyday interactions with more experienced colleagues in the usual office environment.

With no previous experience of developing or delivering online programmes we quickly  familiarised ourselves with online platforms and online training methods, taking advantage of range of online training opportunities, including webinars, and virtual classrooms delivered via Zoom and WebEx. Using these technologies and training methods were invaluable in helping us design our own bespoke induction package. We focussed on the areas we needed to deliver and, working with our Manager Gayle McGurnaghan, made a list of topics for our Senior Leadership Team to approve. While Kevin’s strength is in networking and getting the right people to the right place on time, Gary is a technical wizard; together we coordinated our efforts looking closely at each of the 21 approved topics and considered the time required for each to create a robust and comprehensive induction programme.

The new ‘lock-down friendly’ induction has taken almost ten weeks to plan. It has been involved and is still evolving. We devised a five week schedule, offering induction 3 days per week, averaging 3.5hours per day. To support the direct inputs, we created a portfolio of resources on our internal computer database. Each topic has a dedicated folder, with a step-by-step guide and two sub folders, one outlining what is required to complete each topic and an additional folder with supporting materials, including journal articles, reports, and links to other resources to facilitate extended research and reading. We have had to be innovative and consider how to keep people’s attention. We organised set times for the virtual classrooms, incorporating this interactive time with flexible learning opportunities for reading articles, watching videos, and undertaking direct tasks.  Our approach factored in a level of flexibility as well as generous breaks. It was important for us to be mindful that there may be greater distractions and other commitments at home, with each individual dealing with their own unique lock-down situation.

As a team, we were cognisant of the importance of recognising the need for emotional support for new staff, something that was particularly acute during this time of lockdown. We were keen to find a way within the induction programme to buffer the challenges of starting a new job during lockdown. We came up with the idea of assigning all new staff members  into smaller groups called ‘collectives’ to facilitate small group activities and perhaps even forge informal peer support.  We are hoping these groups will create an emotional bond, as many of us remember our own induction and who we shared that journey with. We also arranged for new staff to have a team buddy from within their own team and a support probation officer from Learning and Development. We hope this wraparound support offers some reassurance to our new staff as they grapple with the demands of starting a new job and do so whilst we are in lockdown.

Although face to face training has many benefits and is a tried and tested approach, we will all be interested to read the evaluation findings post this virtual induction.  We may find that training in the future will benefit from our lockdown experiences.

Contents of the induction

The introduction to the overall programme includes a welcome video from the CEO and a focus on the role of Probation Officer, as well as a Q & A with our Director of Rehabilitation to bring the induction to a conclusion. The induction includes a mix of sessions on specific PBNI topics such as ACE, record keeping and report writing, case management, compliance, breach and recall, transition from custody and community, partnership working, SROSH, PPANI, child protection, psychology, programmes (generic and ISU), victims toolkit, trauma Informed practice, victims unit, as well as human resources topics including the Social Care Council, PIP and further education, health and safety, finance, personal safety and trade unions.

Photo of Paul Wiseman, Probation Officer in North Antrim team, talking about how he continues to deliver essential services during COVID 19

A Day in the Life – Delivering Rehabilitation in North Antrim during COVID-19

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.

Photo of A Probation Officer interviewing someone under supervision during Covid 19

Probation Adapting Practice To Deliver Services To Keep People Safe

The Probation Board for Northern Ireland has been adapting its practice during COVID-19 to ensure that it is able to deliver essential services and continue its work rehabilitating and resettling people into communities.

Director of Operations Hugh Hamill said:

“Throughout Northern Ireland probation has streamlined our offices into six operational hubs where high risk individuals under supervision can be seen on a face to face basis and other staff are working remotely with service users using new tools and technology.”

“We know that domestic abuse is an area of concern during the pandemic when so many families are social distancing at home.  Recorded crime shows a rise in reported incidents during the pandemic. We have therefore put in place additional safeguards to manage domestic abuse perpetrators and those with a history of domestic abuse.  We are maintaining our normal face-to-face contact with those who present as a significant risk of serious harm.  We are continuing to deliver programmes and interventions to perpetrators and our partner support workers continue to work with partners and ex-partners.   We have increased liaison with partner organisations including the police and social services.”

He added: “We have also introduced a new screening tool, which all probation officers must use to identify concerns in any case in respect of domestic violence or child protection. This tool will flag up any concerns in a case at the earliest stage and enable us to put measures in to keep people safer.”

Director of Rehabilitation Dr Geraldine O’Hare commented: “Those with mental health and addictions are likely to be more vulnerable during this period. Over 70% of people on probation’s caseload have a substance misuse problem and over 60% have a mental illness. With this in mind PBNI psychologists are carrying out assessments by telephone and video call.  Indeed assessments have increased significantly during this period.

“We have also enhanced  our award winning mobile phone app ‘Changing Lives’ which can be downloaded free and has a range of resources including a self-assessment tool and alcohol diary to help people manage their mental health and addictions. Probation officers are working with many service users remotely using the app”.

“PBNI provide a direct service to victims of crime who have registered with the victim information scheme. Importantly during this period work has increased. Indeed because a number of prisoners have been released early the work of the victims unit has increased. Victims unit staff who are probation officers are on hand to provide information on the type of sentence individuals are on, and the progress they are making. The system for referrals has now moved to an online system and staff are speaking directly to victims using the phone or video calls”.

Dr O’Hare continued: “Probation prides itself in our work within communities and many of our staff are currently working to help out in local community projects like foodbanks.  The people we work with have many vulnerabilities and often rely on support from local community groups.”

“Much of probation’s work is about providing an individualised service to people to tackle the causes of crime and prevent reoffending.  We have been innovative in adapting our practice to these new circumstances. Our aim is changing lives for safer communities and this work continues throughout the pandemic.”