‘We deal with horrific crimes. We have to consider the victims but we have to look after ourselves too’

What I Do: Probation officer Jessie Flood on misconceptions about the role and influencing positive change

I’m a probation officer on the homeless team in Dublin. I’ve met a lot of people who don’t know that mostly all probation officers are social workers.

There’s a lot of misconceptions around what we do. Many people think we are gardaí or that we work directly for the court. We are officers of the court, but it’s important to know that we are social-work trained, and a lot of our work is to support people to get their lives back on track and ensuring that they are reducing their risk of reoffending.

Some of my family and friends don’t understand why I do the job I do. I’m from a small(ish) town in Co Wexford but enjoy living in the city, and getting to meet people who want to change and don’t know how.

I was obsessed with trying to figure out why people got into crime and addiction from a young age. For my Junior Cert art project, the theme was “the big clean-up”, and instead of doing it on a natural disaster like the rest of my class, I did it on cleaning up your life after drug addiction, a figurine depicting life before and after rehab. I thought I wanted to study criminology, but while speaking with my guidance counsellor, he mentioned probation. I hadn’t a clue what it was until he went through what it and social work involved, and so I studied social work with the sole purpose of getting into probation.

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Even people who receive a probation order in court often don’t know what we do. Yes, we have to bring people back to court if they’re not complying with their order or the conditions the judge set out, but for the most part, we’re there to help and influence positive change, and to listen to and support them.

A lot of people we work with have been through an awful lot in their lives and, as their probation officer, we act as an agent of change for them, trying to do as much as we can to address the factors that got them to where they are today, be that addiction or mental health.

Living in a homeless hostel can be really institutionalising. Residents must ask permission for everything, and it’s really important for our team to bear that in mind when we’re setting expectations for our clients. They’re sharing rooms with other people, may not have slept well the night before, there’s a lot of intersectionality when it comes to their criminogenic behaviours. We try to be an advocate for them and point them in the right direction.

We have conversations with people who may never have thought about why they committed a crime in the first place, working in conjunction with community-based organisations to give clients as much of a wraparound service as possible. But our clients put in the work; we just facilitate it.

Probation is community based. We have teams in the prisons too but would get referrals directly from the court that would request an assessment or report, or either request that we supervise someone in the community instead of a custodial sentence or after completion of a custodial sentence.

If someone has really challenging mental health difficulties, being locked in a cell is not the most reparative place for them to be

We come across all types of offending, from minor offences up to murder and sexual offences, and as social workers we’re always open to the fact that people can change. We must hold hope for them because they often don’t have hope themselves. It’s a challenging job but it can be really rewarding when you see people get out of the cycle of criminality and start to turn their lives around.

We rely a lot on our case management plans. We meet with the clients and plan for them to address their risk factors in the community, and work with other agencies in their life to make sure that someone’s doing what they’re supposed to, or that they’re doing okay. There can be a lot of triggers that could cause someone to relapse or stop taking their medication. It’s about keeping an overall lens on it, that we’re not the sole contact person for our clients either.

It’s a lot of diary management, phone calls, sending appointment letters ... But it’s flexible. If someone is unwell and can’t come into the office, I’ll meet them in their hostel, or day programmes, or work. It depends on how far along they are and how much they’ve progressed. I’d meet most clients weekly, but the minimum in-person contact would be once a month. It depends on the risk that person poses to society.

We go into the prisons to prepare clients for getting out into the community, because it’s daunting coming out of custody and going back into the chaos of homelessness and the unknown.

They don’t know what hostel they’ll be in, who they’re sharing the room with or the level of drug or alcohol use that might be there.

It’s really important for us to look after ourselves, too. We hear a lot of traumatic stories and deal with horrific crimes in some instances, and we have to consider the victims of our cases. We’re only as good at our job as we are to ourselves.

We must balance the difference between how much work we can do with someone in the community and how effective a custodial sentence would be for them. If someone has really challenging mental health difficulties, being locked in a cell is not the most reparative place for them to be.

I think judges are starting to weigh that up and see a lot of work can be done in the community. But probation is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. If they aren’t doing what they’re supposed to, they can go back to prison, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.

– In conversation with Ellen O’Donoghue