The demands of delivering a women-led probation service

Resilience, wellbeing and sustainability in women-led probation service delivery.

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An under-researched area

This is a guest post by Kerry Ellis Devitt (@CJResearch2018), Senior Researcher at Kent, Surrey and Sussex Community Rehabilitation Company (KSS CRC).

In a new report, Resilience, wellbeing and sustainability in women-led probation service delivery: Exploring the ‘Women’s Lead’ role, the experiences of female probation staff responsible for the supervision of women at KSS CRC were explored. Using a mix of interviews with 12 staff, and survey data with 13 staff, the research produced several major findings shining important light on this markedly under-researched area.

The uniqueness of supervising women

Working with women on probation saw a number of gender-specific challenges. One of which concerned the general incompatibility of trauma-informed practice with offence-focused practice. Women, and specifically traumatised women, were said to require a more empathetic and discursive approach when it came to probation work. This often sat at odds with the more structured and task orientated nature of offence-focused work – of note, work more typical in the supervision of men.

“I think there’s a lot of emphasis now on doing structured work and evidence, and I find that really frustrating because when a woman comes in I actually find that a conversation is better… with the women’s level of complexity, structured work only [scratches] at the top layer”

Pertinent too was the time taken for working with women. Women were said to be more reliant on staff, have more involvement with other services and agencies, and generally took longer to arrive at change because of everything else they were (mentally and emotionally) carrying with them. Moreover, women were also more likely to be primary care-givers, meaning difficulties for supervising staff when it came to dealing with missed appointments due to childcare reasons. Though staff endeavoured to work in flexible ways to accommodate this, it often engendered a level of internal dissonance when it came to enforcement.

 

“When you’ve got the woman that’s on the Order, there isn’t anyone else to look after the kids, and enforcement’s going to be detrimental… so it’s that added stress there. What happens to the children?”

The emotional demands of supervising women

 Such complexities saw substantial emotional strains for staff. The enactment of empathy, the need to neutralise and absorb the often intense emotions of the women, and lingering feelings of responsibility for their welfare and wellbeing saw staff constantly question their actions. The struggles of trying to leave things at work, often translated into mental health challenges for those not easily able to do so.

 

 “Have I just opened a conversation with a woman that you know is suicidal? Have I just opened up a conversation about their abuse that’s going to lead them to go and kill themselves? And if they do, is that my fault?  It just eats you up …”

Along with this came the potential for vicarious trauma. This was often compounded for staff who had histories of abuse themselves, and who additionally saw the risks of “over empathising” due to similar experiences.

“Working with women, realising that the work that you have done to recover from your own trauma… you find yourself absorbing little bits of their trauma… and it can be very re-traumatising for yourself”

Given all this, support was paramount, and it came in many forms. As figures 1 and 2 show, colleagues offered the highest tier of support, with clinical supervision and managers following behind. Friends and family offered support for some, but it was felt limited due to a lack of real understanding of what probation work involved. Support from senior managers came out lowest (Figure 2). Interview data suggested this was due to staff feeling that senior managers didn’t always recognise the demands placed on them.

Figure 1 Primary sources of support
Figure 2: Ratings of support received by group

Resilience and sustainability moving forward

In seeking to better equip staff to deliver a successful and sustainable women-lead service, a number of suggestions were put forward.

 

  1. Getting the staffing right: It was noted that some ended up in the role due to requirement rather than choice. This was seen as potentially problematic. Instead, it was thought recruitment should focus on those actively wanting to work with women, and not just those who were available.

 

  1. Providing a more supportive model of supervision: Supervision was fundamental to staff wellbeing but was said to have an overt focus on case-management. Staff called for a more reflective model of supervision, one which responded to the emotional wellbeing of staff as much as the administration of cases.

 

  1. Allow managers to support their staff: Time was thought to be a significant barrier for supervising managers. It was suggested that Senior Probation Officers be allocated more time (perhaps through freeing up other parts of their role) to allow them to support their staff more comprehensively.

 

  1. Making caseloads manageable: Staff wanted to continue to work fulsomely and holistically with women, but do so without jeopardising their own wellbeing. This was felt best achieved through reducing caseloads. Though it was acknowledged this might be difficult, opening the conversation was felt a useful start.

 

  1. Broadening the scope of clinical supervision: Clinical supervision was highly valued. To broaden its accessibility, staff suggested making it more widely available (e.g. through recruiting additional practitioners), more geographically accessible (i.e. held in more areas across KSS CRC), and with more options (e.g. offering 1-2-1 as well as group sessions).

 

  1. Flexible working: To counter the more demanding nature of women’s cases, staff suggested days or even half days set aside for home-working.

 

  1. The option of gendered provision: Finally, though female staff were generally considered better placed to work with women, male staff were felt equally up to the task, and where appropriate should be involved. This also carried the benefit of having more staff available to lighten the load.

 

Overall, despite the obvious challenges that such a role brings, staff also made it clear why they were in the job. For most, working with women brought personal fulfilment, and occasionally great joy in seeing a woman succeed. At the centre was a clear and indisputable desire to see the continuation of a strong women-lead probation service, alongside a demonstrable investment in those involved in its delivery.

 

For a copy of the full report, please contact research@ksscrc.co.uk

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