Remote probation insufficient for many service users

Inspectors praise probation for compassionate and professional response to COVID, but remote service not sufficient for many service users.

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Exceptional delivery model

Today (18 November 2020), Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation have published two reports detailing the impact of coronavirus on the probation and youth offending services respectively. This blog post summarises the findings from the thematic review of the Exceptional Delivery Model arrangements in probation services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tomorrow’s post looks at the conclusions from HMIP’s thematic review of the work of youth offending services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overall assessment

Probation inspectors conclude that probation providers (the National Probation Service and the 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies) are “to be applauded for the compassion and professionalism they have shown in quickly and effectively changing their working methods.” Delivery models have been redesigned to comply with government social distancing guidelines while retaining a primary focus on public protection. Contact with individuals on probation supervision has largely been carried out remotely by phone and has been commensurate with assessed levels of risk and need. Inspectors found that work to manage immediate risk of harm is generally good. Practitioners told inspectors that the enhanced focus on effective risk management had sharpened their practice, and inspectors reported increased participation at the virtual multi-agency meetings which replaced face-to-face case discussions. However, inspectors found that not all staff and agencies involved in public protection and safeguarding work have access to the same digital technology. This is a significant problem which needs to be resolved urgently so that all partners can engage equally.

Impact on service users

Lockdown has led to a reduction in a number of support services that probation relies on, including mental health and drug and alcohol provision. While inspectors found some encouraging innovations in work with and support for individuals with complex needs, the most vulnerable experienced a deterioration in their emotional wellbeing. Service users whose personal circumstances were relatively stable before lockdown adjusted well to the new supervisory arrangements. However, others felt lonely, disconnected and anxious about their futures. For them, remote contact by itself was insufficient to meet their needs. Immediate housing outcomes were good because of the effective mobilisation of partnership working and the additional funding that was made available by government to prevent homelessness. 

The report contains a number of quotes from service users which demonstrates that while some were happy to receive a remote service, others felt isolated and were struggling to cope:

“Telephone calls varied, some of them were about ten minutes, just to check that I was fine and there were no concerns. Some were slightly longer, if I’d got stuff to tell her about work”.

“I don’t like change. I like that it was always the same day and time before lockdown. Then it was changed and it’s now not the same each week. I know my probation officer is covering for other people, but it would have been good for him to take account of my mental health when changing things”.

“I was touched by the fact she telephoned me on my birthday to wish me well, and on the anniversary of my child being taken into local authority care”.

“The calls do help in some ways, but I need more support than a 5- to 10-minute nice chat over the phone”.
“I am stranded, I have no way to complete what is required of me”.

“I prefer the phone 100 per cent and feel it is possible to build and maintain relationships this way. Looking ahead, I think calls will make employment much easier, as I often have to take afternoons off, which were changed last minute, which made me feel uncomfortable at work”.

“Every day is a Sunday these days. With lockdown and a new baby, I don’t know what day it is and sometimes I worry I will miss the call and it will be a problem. My new probation officer recognises this and has given a number for me to call back on, which is better”.

Inspectors highlight the need for this temporary accommodation to be followed by more permanent provision and there is now a deep concern among probation providers that, as society returns to a new normal, the current emergency housing provision will disappear.

Impact on staff

Inspectors report that most staff felt supported by their leaders and managers. They had frequent contact from them and had established healthy mechanisms for peer support. This had created a sense of togetherness. Some organisations had made hardship grants available to staff, and staff had taken part in virtual events to raise money for charities. Home working did not suit everyone. Those who had access to designated work space and wider support from family members coped well. However, many others struggled with juggling home schooling, caring for vulnerable relatives, managing complex personal relationships and delivering probation services.

Conclusions and implications

I have reproduced the inspectorate’s overall conclusion in full below:

“COVID-19 has dramatically changed the landscape of probation service delivery. Senior leaders and staff in HMPPS, the CRCs and the NPS have worked at pace to implement EDMs which, at their core, were designed with public safety in mind. Immediate risk of harm has been managed well. Relationships with public protection agencies have improved and probation practitioners have become more confident in delivering effective risk of harm work. 
Lockdown has triggered remote working and, for staff, working from home. While flexible arrangements have largely been welcomed, many staff have found remote working problematic. Unsurprisingly, service users with complex needs have struggled to cope, with many experiencing a negative impact on their emotional wellbeing. 
There remain many challenges ahead. Some of these include: addressing the gaps in services, mental health and suitable housing; the compatibility of communication tools to deliver and receive effective services; the inevitable increase in workloads as probation services move into recovery; and staff wellbeing. The resilience that has been shown by providers of probation services must now be used to inform and design a new normal.”

 

Thanks to Kevin Grieve for use of the header image, originally published on Unsplash.

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