Presumably most of us who work in the Probation Service do not set of for work wondering if we will return home safe. I am not sure about those who work for CRCs. I do know from past conversations with members who work in the Family Court services about concerns over protest groups such as Fathers 4 Justice. Indeed, on Cafcass member told me how she was stalked by a parent who was angry about her assessment, before stalking became a talked about issue.
No one should fear going to work or be anxious about what they may face when they get there. Recently, however, I was made aware of just how vulnerable staff are, by an incident where an angry client tried to confront his officer. After abusing the reception staff, who are often the first in line when faced with such behaviour, he turned on others waiting in reception dropping a large knife in the process.
It is true we have the sanction of breach or recall, but this is small comfort in the face of the possibility of serious harm from someone already upset with the system. Someone who has the means and possible inclination to use a weapon – a reflection of the increasing prevalence of knife crime on the streets of our towns and cities.
In court I am presumably protected from those appearing by searches and other checks. The question is who is checking those who enter the doors of probation offices? Offices that are being consolidated through closures, requiring clients to travel further for appointments and in so doing having to cross territorial boundaries leading them to feel the need to arm themselves for protection.
Also, spare a thought for those who have to see clients, often with no information on their history, in court buildings where there is little chance of any support if they turn violent. It shouldn’t happen but it does, and any incident of staff harm is one too many, especially when there are incidents like one some years ago where a member was so badly assaulted in a cell interview they were unable to continue working.
While we all have a responsibility for our own safety, it is becoming increasingly evident that many working in the public sector are having to deal with predominately high risk cases that no longer seem constrained by the conventions of the past. Also the concept of our work being part of a law enforcement agency has changed the nature of our relationship with those we work with.
Probation staff are also in danger of becoming the target for a general anger by those we supervise at the failure of the system and cuts in other services. Staff are seen as representatives of a that unfair and uncaring system.
On a personal level, I have the subject of two episodes of violence during my career. One early on was a result of my inexperience; the other more recent one was an example of the person’s frustration with the system.
Each brought about different responses from the service but they both made me question my judgement and left their mark. The recent incident was followed by a second staff alarm that left me more shaken than the original confrontation. It was almost 24 hours before the private company tasked with repairing the alarm came to silence the unbearable noise that made it impossible for staff to work in part of the building. Turning off the internal panic alarm for any one dealing with the aftershock of violence at work is not so easily done.
I feel sure these anecdotal examples are only a part of the underlying concerns Probation and Cafcass staff have about their safety and sanity; and this is before taking account of the dangers for staff working in, and about to be sent in to, the increasingly volatile prison system.
It is time to end the silence and give voice to our very real fears. Staff may be stirred by challenges but they should not be shaken through violence and our concerns must be spoken out about and addressed.
National Vice Chair Finance