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Remote probation supervision – getting the balance right

The pros and cons of probation supervision by phone.

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Supervision during coronavirus

This is a guest post by David Coley and Jess Lawrence of the Kent, Surrey & Sussex Community Rehabilitation Company Research and Policy Unit.

Probation officers have always had to perform a daily balancing act, one that balances the constraints of risk management against the opportunities of rehabilitation. Though having always existed, this high-wire act has been compounded by the demands of the global pandemic with its resultant imposition of remote methods of service user supervision.

A recent report by Kent Surrey Sussex CRC and the Institute of Criminology – University of Cambridge, entitled Remote supervision: getting the balance right presents the findings of a joint research project that explored probation supervisory practice in the context of the Covid-19 crisis. The report examines the views of probation officers and the limitations and benefits of different methods of remote communication. As one respondent indicated:

I don’t think we ever would have gone to this phone contact if it hadn’t been for these exceptional circumstances. It’s been forced to come in. But there certainly have been some benefits…..it’s the mixture that’s needed. That balance between the two”.

Additionally, the report looks forwards towards future probation practice within a post pandemic world, asking as it does what practice methods, skills and technologies are currently being used by probation officers; and what is seen as valuable, with the potential to be developed further in the future?

Survey findings

The findings from the project survey (see graphic below) indicated that the suitability of remote supervision via telephone was rated highest for unscheduled checks on service users’ welfare, as well as scheduled meetings with service users both in the community and in custody.  

The least support for telephone supervision was given by practitioners for initial appointments with service users. This finding was supported by interview data, which revealed the sentiment that the development of a working relationship between service user and practitioner was more difficult to nurture when not delivered face-to-face.

Survey responses also revealed differences in perceived suitability of remote supervision for service users belonging to different groups; with higher suitability ratings for those with childcare responsibilities and physical disabilities, but less for perpetrators or victims of domestic abuse.

Issues of professional practice

Interestingly, in interview practitioners expressed views on their experiences surrounding the formation and maintenance of professional working relationship via remote forms of supervision. Differing views were offered as the balancing of intervention requirements, individual needs, and managing various stages of the supervision process were considered. In certain cases remote supervision methods appear adequate, whilst for some staff remote methods restrict their ability to collect necessary information to make in-depth risk assessments. Also, vulnerable service users and those with complex needs may find that remote supervision proves to be a difficult experience. Furthermore, the boundaries of any professional relationships can become somewhat confused. Homeworking compounded this situation, adding at times to the emotional demands placed on staff.

 

With reference to inter-agency work the pandemic appears to have increased the use of video and/or telephone conferencing. This was good news for some staff as it saves on time and resources in not having to travel.  However, others saw the downside of not being able to supporting vulnerable service users in difficult meetings, as they would do more in person.  

 

Looking to the Future

Despite the question marks presented above, it would appear that remote supervision retains some merits. If for example staff and service users know each other well then it can prove useful, especially if any risks are assessed as low. Travel to probation offices is also reduced, especially for those within poor transport networks. For some individuals, telephone supervision enables difficult conversations and reflections to become more comfortable and thus more genuine than those occurring in the office environment.

The study also suggests the possibility of developing structured supervision by utilising online resources. Despite the challenges presented by technology there is interest in this approach. Staff requested appropriate online resources, indicating a demand for some form of resource library that could be accessed as part of individual supervision sessions. Though staff had no experience of video enabled supervision, many saw the value of this approach as it offers the opportunity of seeing (as well as hearing) service users and their immediate surroundings.

Flexible working is a key theme of the report. Within future practice it may be hoped by some staff that the benefits of working from home might be maintained, including managing their family responsibilities more easily, travelling less, and staying late in the office less frequently. This is alongside the flexibility, when in the office, to have the option to use remote communication as required.

Finally, the importance of professional autonomy remains pertinent as some practitioners would welcome an increase in professional discretion in working remotely. Consequently, new guidance from various authorities or employers may be needed to take account of changes in working practices and dealing with professional boundary challenges. Developing the scope and use of professional discretion in this way also brings new line management support and training needs for staff. In summary it would appear that the complexities of the professional risk-rehabilitation balancing act may be multiplied by the greater use of remote forms of supervision in the future, yet for many practitioners:

“remote contact is a very useful option with the right service user; hopefully one legacy of the pandemic will be an increased recognition of this”.

 

To contact the authors of the report please email research@ksscrc.probationservices.co.uk  or jad78@cam.ac.uk

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