This is @ZoeStaffsGMPT seventh post in an ongoing series about her life and learning as a probation officer.
Having recently moved from front-line practice to the ‘back room’ I now realise what strange places probation offices really are. I mean – it’s an office right?, but not as we know it. Certainly, when I first went into my friend’s office for after-work drinks, I didn’t recognise it at all. For one thing, all their fax machines were working.
There’s a definite atmosphere in a probation office which you don’t get elsewhere. Sights, sounds, words and actions that are hard to depict on paper (and equally hard to depict on the small screen – as the TV drama “Public Enemies” showed – I mean really, how many probation officers wear a suit? and have their own office? Oh, and SLEEP with their clients?!? Pah.)
Here’s what really goes on day to day in a probation office near you:
Nice people saying nasty things
One of my first jobs was working alongside a lovely woman; let’s call her Dot. She had a shock of shiny white hair, was in her 60s, had the most gorgeous old school Lancastrian accent, and reminded me of my grandma. I loved her immediately. But I had the shock of my life when she returned from meeting a drug user, looking pretty miffed.
When I asked what’s wrong, she said:
“well, Barry’s only back on the stuff….he’s had a rock of crack…..told me the police were about to catch him so he shoved it up his arse….says he’s “on the smack now” too…….gauching all over the show……tells me he’s grafting again because he’s on tick to his dealer…..I told him he’s looking pretty bad and if he’s not careful, he’ll end up going off in th’ambulance”.
I just couldn’t compute that such words could be coming out of her mouth. It didn’t seem right that a lovely woman her age should know about all that….nastiness. Similarly, it’s taken me a long time to get used to having conversations with my boss about masturbation (when discussing sex offenders…not just general chit chat).
And I admit; I still find it slightly thrilling that I am actually allowed to write swear words into assessments, and sometimes into emails, when quoting witness statements or incidents with people I’m supervising:
“Mandy….Simon came in today and told me to ***** the **** out of his ****** face **** and if I ******* his **** I could go ****** the ****** with knobs on”
God knows how the probation email sensors deal with THAT one…..
It’s no coincidence that the risk assessment tool used by probation officers is called OASys. It depicts a small island of technology, surrounded by water creeping up on all sides ready to flood it. Unfortunately, our IT systems are not the best in the world, and they crash, flood and freeze more than I’d like.
The first sign that something’s wrong is an almost inaudible intake of breath by someone buried under a computer in the back corner. Then the slow, muted call of realisation (“no……no…..NO?……nononoNONONO!!!”) when they realise the work they’ve been doing for the past hour has been lost; gone to that place where all keys/socks/shopping trolley tokens go.
However, because probation officers are, in essence, a philanthropic bunch, they will always try to help out their fellow man. So, before doing anything else to recover your own work, it’s customary to give a “Titanic” shout of “save yourselves” to let others know it’s going down.
People’s heads bob up like mere cats, murmuring to each other:
“I’m OK I’ve still got Delius….oh no OASys has frozen!….Caroline: save your Cannabis Conundrum Quiz QUICK before Word goes too”.
It’s like a tidal-wave of technological inertia sweeping the room. You just cling to your keyboard and hope for the best.
The “Awkward” Call
Every so often, someone gets a ‘difficult’ phone call. It may be an offender ringing up to argue a breach; a mother ringing up angry that her daughter’s refusing to leave her house, or a domestic violence perpetrator who has decided he’ll try to hone his manipulation and intimidation skills on YOU for the afternoon. I once had a man ring me up, heinously drunk, to tell me he was waiting at home for his wife…with a gun in hand. Either way – it becomes very clear that this is one of “those calls” where you have to get your wits about you and deal with something pretty serious.
Trouble is, just at the point where you’d like a bit of privacy – and when you’re also worrying about saying the wrong thing – everyone else in the entire office goes deadly silent, pretends to look the other way and tap ineffectually at their keyboards whilst hopelessly listening in.
So as you’re there trying to get a word in edgeways whilst reminding the caller that you’re happy to talk so long as they stop threatening to chop bits of your anatomy off etc. etc. – you’ve got a fully fledged probation audience rating your conflict resolution skills out of 10.
Everyone remembers their first ‘call’, and if it’s the first one for a fellow team member I always used to try and go over after and reassure them. If you manage one particularly well, you may get some approving comments which is always nice. I once remember over-hearing a call where someone amazingly managed to talk an extremely angry man down with a few excellent choice words (wish I’d written them down). When she’d finished the call, she got a spontaneous round of applause!
Finally, a large percentage of my working life seemed to consist of half standing, half squatting in front of a computer screen, trying to quickly type something whilst squeezing a large case file under my arm, and creeping my feet slowly towards the door ready to go and see the next client. I’m not sure why, but probation doesn’t equip you with computers in interview rooms, so if you want to know anything about someone, you have to check out what you THINK you’ll need to know first, or (as is often the case) constantly jump back and to.
My supervision sessions often went like this:
Me: “Well, Bob, you’re doing well on your order, you’re attending your unpaid work a treat”
Bob: “Thanks. Exactly how many unpaid work hours do I have left?” “
Me: [up three flights of stairs, squat, type, back down three flights of stairs] “(pant pant)…43 hours…”
Bob: “Great…..and when exactly does my order finish again?”
Me: [up three flights of stairs, squat, type, back down three flights of stairs] “(pant pant pant pant)….April…(pant)…. 15th …(pant pant) this year”
Bob: “Great….and…..er…why have you gone a funny colour?
Me: [keel over]
I once did this strange stand-squat manoeuvre so many times in one day, I had the thighs of a Velodrome cyclist, but when I finally went to sit down on my chair, someone had ‘appropriated’ it for themselves (honestly – you have to NAIL these things down in a probation office) and I went straight down onto the floor instead.
I then had a bruised coccyx, a bruised ego, and everyone’s undivided attention.
Oh well. At least that meant the probation officer just about to take his first ‘difficult’ call got to do so without an audience for once.
Over and out