Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice

JOANNE WOOD (Kent, Surrey & Sussex CRC)

JOANNE WOOD (Kent, Surrey & Sussex CRC)

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AWARD WINNER 2015-16: Joanne is a Probation Officer with Kent, Surrey and Sussex CRC. She is granted an Award for outstanding dedication and all-round excellence in her work with persistent prolific offenders. According to the colleague who nominated her, “if there was a mould for the perfect probation officer it would be in the shape of Joanne Wood.” [This Award is sponsored by Serco Home Affairs.]

Jo WoodJoanne Wood is a Probation Officer for Kent, Surrey and Sussex Community Rehabilitation Company (KSS CRC) and her nominator, Shane Bruton of the Resettlement Team at the Crawley Probation Office where she is based, neatly summed up Jo with her first sentence: “If there was a mould for the perfect probation officer it would be in the shape of Joanne Wood.”

“Jo deals with some of the toughest cases in probation – those who are under 25 or those with families, who are prolific persistent offenders,” explains Shane. “She is the first to arrive at work and the last to leave and the one who sets the benchmark for everyone around her. She stands out, she’s looked up to, and she gets enviable results. Reoffending rates for PPOs in Crawley have reduced by about 20 per cent more than the national average – and I have no doubt that the reduction in crime is in no small part down to one person: Jo.”

She goes on to praise Jo’s “incredible empathy with her service users… She uses it time and again to make emotional connections which in turn lead to that breakthrough moment when she knows she’s completely won the trust of the service user and the real rehabilitation work can begin.” Shane gives an example in which Jo connected over bike riding: “When the service user wanted a travel warrant one day, she cycled a 10-mile round-trip to deliver them to his door one evening. As she had predicted, they talked about her cycling gear and when she entrusted him with her bike and let him ride it around, he reported back to her that he’d never before ridden a bike he hadn’t first stolen.

Jo understands her service users intuitively. She doesn’t signpost – instead she physically takes them to the place – a family centre for instance – because she knows how it feels to not want to seek help in new places, how awkward it can feel going into the surroundings, not wanting to admit how hard it is to do these things. So Jo removes all the anxiety by accompanying the service user, showing them around and experiencing the whole process with them.” Shane describes another case where “Jo’s connection with a very vulnerable woman with significant mental health problems and a history of violent offending was enough to convince magistrates to impose a 51-week suspended sentence so she would remain under the care of Jo… The woman has not been arrested since.”

Another example of Jo’s “highly creative approach” is particularly affecting. In Shane’s words, again: “When one of her service users, who was newly out of prison and wanting to rebuild his relationship with the young mother of his baby, became anxious about an upcoming birthday present for his partner, Jo went around to his assisted accommodation one evening and together they baked a cake for her. Not only did he experience melting chocolate for the first time in his life, but he learned he didn’t have to steal a present for her. He also discovered that his partner – who was brought to tears when she saw the cake – was more impressed by the thoughtfulness and care he’d put into it than any stolen or bought present could have achieved.” They’ve since asked Jo to help them bake another cake – this time for their daughter’s first birthday.

In another instance, Shane recounts, “Jo enticed one of her cases to start attending a family centre by getting her children involved in the centre’s sensory room. Mum joined in and has gained so much confidence that the centre offered her a part-time job.”

She cites Jo’s “phenomenal memory for her cases” and that “nothing ever gets past her so she only has to get a sniff of a name or a type of offence, for example, and she’s joining up the dots and has worked out which of her cases might be at risk and need vigorous monitoring. She’ll alert the police, pull in other agencies and get a support package ready. She’s the same with less experienced members of staff; like a radar, she hones in on any risk issues, anything not done well enough. Recently she stepped in when a victim safety plan had not been prioritised and there was a real risk of a case being released into a situation with a high risk of domestic violence.”

Above all, Shane reports, “Jo will not give up until she’s made a breakthrough with a case, committing herself wholly to solving the problems of her service users. So when one of her cases was recently released from custody and unfairly not allowed to live with his partner and new baby, Jo took on the battle to have the decision overturned and won the right for the family to live together.”

Shane concludes her nomination by noting that “if I had committed an offence and was on probation, I wouldn’t want anyone but Jo looking after me because I know for certain she’d be in my corner, believing in my ability to change, fighting her heart out for me.”

Suki Binning, Deputy Chief Executive at KSS CRC, adds that “Jo is being nominated for doing her job extraordinarily well, for her tireless dedication, and her ability to get tangible results with persistent prolific offenders – some of the most difficult and complex cases that exist in probation. She has an extraordinary ability to elicit trust in her service users that is second to none. She uses that trust to make great strides with them.” She gives another example of Jo’s work with a prolific persistent offender – M – in Sussex over the last couple of years which “resulted in him recently being rescored on the risk matrix from 278 – the highest in the county and probably one of highest in the country – to less than 100.” Jo calls this “getting to grips with cases”.

The impact of her work is extensive, and an example of how inspiring change can ripple across families and agencies. Suki describes how, when Jo first started working with M, “it was impossible to make any progress on issues such as housing or family – he was literally being arrested every week for any manner of charges. During one custodial sentence, Jo worked relentlessly to stabilise his family life. She worked hard to develop a trusting relationship with M’s partner and children and supported his partner to get her five children downgraded from child protection plans to children in need. Jo took a risk, had M released early so he could benefit from them working together on a parenting course to improve their family relationship. The family didn’t trust social workers but they trusted her. The children – who had been re-placed onto the child protection plan when M returned home – are now off it. M has been recalled since but the process was managed, and at Jo’s behest, he handed himself in which meant he could explain to his children what was happening.”

Describing Jo’s “enviable ability to build trust with service users with difficult and complicated histories”, Suki adds that Jo “frequently allows other agencies to get a foot in the door. For example, M hated the police and the feeling wasn’t entirely un-reciprocated. But he trusted Jo and she smoothed the way for M to develop a working relationship with her police colleague – so much so that they can now even meet and make progress without her being present.”

Suki praises Jo as “an exemplary role model to her cases. She teaches her service users new ways of behaving and thinking and a whole new set of values… she simply gives it her all – going as far as even saving the life of a young woman with severe mental health problems and a history of violent offending who went missing following a dog bite. Jo discovered she might have septicaemia and eventually tracked her down, passed out on someone’s sofa. Jo took her to the hospital and stayed with her while she was given life-saving treatment.”

Jo joined as a trainee and has now been in the job for 10 years and, says Suki, “she lives to help her service users. She is the mainstay in their lives: their focal point for support; the one that understands them and believes in them; she’s their role model, and sometimes even – to all intents and purposes – their only family.” As Jo says, “I want them all to have the best future. I do believe in them. I believe they can change and that in itself helps to build their belief in themselves. Acknowledging their achievements enables them, so they can make changes and that opens the door to tackling the bigger offending issues.”

Suki notes Jo’s “unflinching intention to see them through the hard times and out through the other side to a crime-free and happier existence. She simply won’t accept anything less of herself,” and again quotes Jo herself: “I find it really rewarding seeing a service user make progress. It’s obvious they’re so much happier and it’s so easy to see a potential for such a bright future… If you listen to the service users – really listen to them – you’ll learn a lot” And, Suki points out, “she has really listened to them. Jo goes to immeasurable lengths to get to grips with her complex cases with the intention of building the trust she needs so she can start making headway with the tough offending issues. She is robust in her handling of cases: if there’s a tough message to be delivered or a recall to be made, she’ll be the one doing it; they trust her judgement, and they trust her so much so that they’ll even hand themselves in to custody if she deems it best.”

Suki notes Jo’s “visceral understanding of her cases” and how she “stands out because she cares deeply. She stands out because she believes in them. She stands out because she values them. Last year Jo sent all her cases in prison a hand-written Christmas card with a personal message and a couple of blank cards and envelopes for them to send to their friends.”

Jo also has an enviable ability to reel off “the exact names, ages and birthdays of the children of her service user cases” and “to connect with service users… They trust her like they would trust no other. She can and does make gains that open the door to other agencies getting a look-in where otherwise they would not. Everyone should have a Jo in their office.”

Service users agree. One says: “I’ve been in the system for a long time. I turned a corner with Jo. In the past I’ve kept stuff from other probation officers. It’s difficult for me to be vulnerable. I don’t know what Jo does but she allowed me to open up and I was comfortable with her. I gave her the information about me so she could offer the right support. I’d been homeless for nine years and now I’ve secured a tenancy. I’m building and maintaining relationships with my kids. I’ve done a counselling course and I’m looking at going to Uni. This is all down to Jo. She does empathy, not sympathy.”

Another service user adds: “Jo goes out of her way to help, when other people wouldn’t care. She’s nice and just cares a lot. I know she believes in me and that makes me feel good and it’s made me want to prove to others that I can and have changed. Jo also helps me think in different ways and do good things for my girlfriend and family and I’ve learnt a lot from her as well as got new skills. Jo can always just tell when something ain’t right, it’s like she’s got some magical power, she’s superhuman!”

Her police colleague PC Graham Thurley describes Jo as “a dedicated, highly motivated and skilled professional who uses a no-nonsense approach to motivate and rehabilitate offenders. She has a brilliant capacity to retain information and constantly challenges inconsistency. Jo will enforce when necessary, while being flexible, realistic and compassionate with those in chaos, an approach which empowers offenders to make changes… I’m constantly in awe of her ‘going the extra mile’.”

Social services Practice Manager Lin Gualt says: “If all professionals could be half as committed as Jo to their clients, far more would have positive outcomes in their lives.” Sharon Rawcliffe, a Senior Project Worker with YMCA Downslink Group, a community non-profit, adds that “Jo works tirelessly and effectively for all of the offenders… Her passion for her job is amazing and she works above and beyond what she is required for each of her cases. In my opinion everyone needs a Jo in their corner.”

Nigel Bennett, Chief Executive of KSS CRC describes Jo as “truly extraordinarily good at her job”, adding that “the best thing about her commitment and dedication is that it gets results. Like her line manager, I too believe that the local drop in prolific persistent offending is in large part down to her work. She gets stunning results.”

In Jo’s own words: “I believe in my cases. I understand them as people – and I believe and know they can change. I build trust and I won’t give up on them – I’ll just keep going until I get that break-through. I always think about the bigger picture. I like to really explore what type of change is a genuine possibility. My cases are complex and I frequently have to use creative means to get to that all important break-through moment.”

She adds “my style is simple, really. When I get a new case, I research it thoroughly. I don’t just scrutinise case records and the history but I look for the gaps and then go to great lengths to fill them. I’ve found a way to get other – very busy – agencies to give me that invaluable nugget I need to get the full picture. It means I rarely have surprises. It makes for effective case and risk management.”

Unsurprisingly, Jo acts as an unofficial mentor to a large number of new practitioners. This write-up is intentionally lengthy, as Jo’s nomination offers an exemplar of truly outstanding probation work, as this case history involving Jennifer* shows.

Jo describes how Jennifer “has so many complex problems that she has 16 agencies dealing with her. She takes any type of drug and misuses alcohol. She was an abused child. She has been a sex worker. Her mother is also on probation. She has recently just lost her father. Her children are in care awaiting adoption. I really needed her to believe that I was there for her and would support her.

“She was released from prison one bank holiday weekend without medication or a prescription for it. She was homeless and unstable and likely to commit a crime. I spent hours and hours trying to get the prison to confirm she had been released without either the medication or a prescription (I had to go all the way to the governor), find a doctor willing to register a homeless person (a near impossibility) and then get the prison to issue her medical records to the doctor (another scarily tall order). She believed in me enough to know I’d get the job done. I’ve got her out of trouble now and into supported housing where she’s thriving in the routine and sense of community. She’s stable and no longer needs 16 agencies to manage her for her own wellbeing and the protection of the community. “

Another case shows the benefit of Jo’s extraordinary and empathetic attention to detail. In Jo’s words, David “is a 22 year-old currently in prison. He’s committed a string of burglaries and drug offences after struggling with very difficult family issues. I work very successfully with him. He’s trying – every day – to change his life. He’s even applied to university to study counselling. But when he struggles to cope, he deteriorates rapidly and a couple of petty crimes can spiral into a crime spree. I’ve learnt to hone in on the slightest of changes in his tone and manner and can detect it before it happens.”

Jo is keen to bring her particular expertise into prisons, noting that current legislation “gives us greater latitude to work with service users while they’re still in prison – so by the time they’re released we can get them into a psychological place where they’ll make greater progress once they’re out.” She sees this as “a fantastic opportunity to make greater progress with service users, help to change the focus of prisons so they’re more outward-looking, and take advantage of some great – but under-used – facilities such as HMP Highdown’s great training department that is currently in use only half the time.”

Jo concludes by saying “If I had to write a formula for getting great results in probation, I’d say it was about the right balance between empathy and toughness, a thoroughness borne of innate curiosity, a belief in what’s possible and a commitment to not give up until that possibility has been reached. I’d like to disseminate this formula across my own CRC and then across probation in general.”

[*Names of offenders have been changed to protect their privacy.]

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