How should probation work with families?
Exploring the relationship between frontline probation staff and service users’ families
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This is a guest post by Kerry Ellis Devitt Senior Researcher at Kent, Surrey & Sussex Community Rehabilitation Company Research and Policy Unit.
Research released earlier this month by the Kent, Surrey and Sussex Community Rehabilitation Company (KSS CRC) has examined how probation staff respond to and engage with the families of service users, and how this is experienced by the families themselves. Comprising as 18-month study involving interviews, focus groups and written data, the Family Involvement Project explored the views and experiences of over 50 members of front-line CRC staff and 15 family members with a loved-one being supervised by KSS CRC. The abridged results to our study follows.
Family involvement promotes ‘partnership’ thinking
Both groups saw tangible benefits when it came to involving family members in a service user’s rehabilitation journey. For staff, families were seen as an extended arm of probation; facilitating communication, ensuring appointments were attended, and reinforcing core probation messages at home. Family members supported this view, with several making reference to the importance of a “partnership” approach. The families felt they could offer a broader, richer understanding of their loved one’s background, including the reasons for their offending. This, it was suggested, enabled more meaningful engagement between probation staff and the service user. Working in tandem with professionals, families argued, could and should be a two-way process.
“…the more engagement I can have, and where I can work in partnership with them, it’s more likely to be able to set him up stably to have a positive future moving forward… I’m his partner, looking at having a future together… I need to be a part of that unit, that dynamic, because I’m part of his life.”
(Partner of service user)
“I don’t know what to do”
Interestingly, this issue dovetailed with similar arguments for the importance of family involvement. Specifically, when families were out of the probation loop, they struggled to know what to do for the best – a point raised raised by staff and family members alike.
“[Family] just wanna help but they don’t know what to do. You’re talking about people that love someone and want to support them but don’t know how to. So it would kind of empower them too, feel like they’re doing something.”
“…[Probation] say like, ‘Oh can’t your family help with this, can’t your family help with that?’. Well no we can’t, because we don’t know what’s going on. How can we help and support people if we don’t know what we are supposed to be helping and supporting them to do?”
(Partner of service user)
Family involvement not always appropriate
Though there were clear advantages to involving families, there were sometimes issues in practice. For example, staff talked of the challenges of managing different types of families i.e. those who had personal agendas, those who were permissive, collusive or enabling (facilitating problematic and/or criminogenic behaviour), and those who were coercive or controlling. Indeed, staff were resolute about not involving families where there was known domestic abuse, both for fear of breaking trust with service users and in case of putting victims at further risk.
“We had an interesting dynamic. It was a case a while ago and she was the person who was actually under the Order. Right from the onset, her [partner’s] agenda was to tell us how crazy she was, and she needs help and she needs this. After meeting her it transpired that she was in a very controlling relationship…”
“I’ve had a situation where the dad came here and he wouldn’t leave so I went down to him and I said, ‘OK, say what you wanna say, but I can’t tell you anything’ […] I asked him to leave after that. I wouldn’t engage with him.”
‘I’m not a family counsellor’
Significant too for staff, was the potential for blurring professional boundaries. By projecting a more family inclusive approach, staff felt there were increased risks of being perceived as performing functions similar to that of a social-worker or family therapist. Interestingly, this was reflected in the comments of family members, who communicated confusion as to the function and purpose of probation, with several describing it as a ‘support’ service.
A future model of family inclusion
Staff and family members both described ways in which a more inclusive family involvement model could be adopted. Practical suggestions included family reporting times, family days, school-holiday reporting, and a dedicated family support worker. Staff talked about having flexible ‘co-locations’ to deliver probation services. This was felt especially important for single mothers who were seen to be particularly disadvantaged when it came to childcare options. This need was also reflected in the responses of family members, who often struggled to understand why children were not permitted on the premises.
Staff in particular talked about the idiosyncratic nature of ‘family work’. It was frequently said that not all cases were going to be appropriate for family involvement, with each needing to be considered on a “case by case” basis. It was argued that there was potential for family involvement to become detrimental to the probation process, with some calling for family ‘assessments’ when it came to deciding whether or not a particular family would be an asset to a service user’s rehabilitation.
The final word goes to the families. Being treated with respect and dignity was paramount when it came to interactions with staff, with many talking of the importance of just being listened to. Where this happened, families were hugely positive about their probation experience. Being recognised for the crucial, and often invisible, role they play in their loved one’s desistance journey seemed to be key in forging the best possible relationships with frontline probation staff.
“(his probation officer) was able to call me up and say, ‘is everything OK? Are you sure? Tell me if there’s anything wrong, we can work through this’. Do you see what I’m getting at? Sometimes it’s just a few kind words…….It’s because she was willing to talk to me, and I phoned her, and I said, ‘can we do this? Can we do that? Tell me what I need to get’, you know, she was just brilliant and I felt very, very grateful for that… she understood. She helped me out. And we did it!”
(Partner of service user)
For a copy of the final report, including the recommendations to come out of this research, please contact [email protected] .
Thanks to Volodymyr Hryshchenko for permission to use the image in this post which was published on Unsplash.
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