Working in a rural area in Northern Ireland during the COVID-19 pandemic has its own distinct challenges. Yet staff in probation rural teams have been working hard to find creative solutions to overcome the isolation and deliver essential services.
A/Area Manager in North Antrim Denise Stewart writes: “An important element of my work is staying connected to team members who are now dispersed and working from home. I make a point of keeping in telephone contact with my team as much as possible. I am mindful that everyone’s circumstances are different. Some staff members have young families, are caring for vulnerable relations, others live alone. There can also be difficulties in getting a balance when you are working from home. Importantly we have also set up a WhatsApp group to stay more connected and it has been really important in keeping us all connected and there is a lot of reassurance for staff in being able to see and speak to one another.”
Likewise, working with service users means thinking differently about service delivery.
Probation Services Officer Cheryl Johnston says: “My role is to deliver interventions to help people change their behaviour and take responsibility for their actions. I am now delivering one to one interventions over the phone and through video calls. This approach is not without its challenges and has had a mixed response from service users. One of my service users is a single mum with two children and it has been difficult for her to focus on the telephone as she is constantly being interrupted as she has no childcare. Yet another service user reports that she finds telephone contact actually works better for her as she can be more open and forthcoming on the telephone than by talking face to face.”
Service users in rural areas have reported difficulties in accessing local services and in some cases, the only contact they have in any given day is from probation. Probation staff therefore have the added responsibility of trying to ensure service users, particularly those who are vulnerable, have basic necessities.
Denise continued: “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. Are you coping? Do you have enough food? Do you have electricity? Do you have medication?”
“Living and working through this experience has certainly had its challenges, however probation staff living and working in local rural communities continue to play their part in delivering services to keep people safe.