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

SHARON THOMPSON (National Probation Service, London)

SHARON THOMPSON (National Probation Service, London)

Sharon Thompson (National Probation Service, London)

COMMENDEE 2014-15: Sharon is granted a Commendation for all-round excellence in her role as a Probation Officer in the London area, in particular in her management of especially complex, high-risk and high-profile cases.

Sharon Thompson, working for the London Probation Trust (LPT), does outstanding work in dealing with some of the most difficult offenders in the sector – including high-profile extremist cases. While doing so, Sharon has established excellent relationships with a range of partners, and continues to share her expertise with the next generation of probation officers through her commitment to mentoring and training.

Sharon has worked with LPT for 15 years, and is praised by a wide range of colleagues as an outstanding probation officer. Elizabeth George, Head of Communications for LPT, says that Sharon has “demonstrated a long-standing and consistently committed approach to public protection work.” With a caseload that includes 85% high risk cases, involving some very high profile extremism-related cases requiring intense cooperation among multiple agencies, this is work that concerns us all.

Elizabeth notes that “Sharon has achieved particular expertise in her work with individuals who have committed offences linked to extremist activities”, and identifies the “excellent links she has established with the police, LPT central extremism unit, and other Criminal Justice key workers over the years [which] enable her to effectively manage some of the most risky individuals on supervision.”

Sharon’s excellent work is backed by performance data, with 100% successful completion of orders/licences for 2013/14.

Sharon also plays a major role as a mentor to Probation Qualification Framework students in LPT’s Wandsworth Local Delivery Unit. Elizabeth describes a “highly skilled practitioner who undertakes her work with some very challenging cases in a quiet, unassuming way.”

When dealing with extremist cases, Sharon explains, “there can be a lot at stake, because it is difficult to know how to reach individuals who are ideologically driven. I have to assess areas like their own vulnerability to extremist influence, as well as their potential to influence others around them, both within prisons and in the community.”

Such work is never undertaken in isolation, and requires extensive collaboration, for example with prisons and the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Unit, as well as other partner agencies, in order to protect the public and assist offenders to achieve positive outcomes in their lives.

Detective Sergeant Helen Rance, of Wandsworth Jigsaw Team, has worked with Sharon over the last three years on a number of high risk and sensitive cases, including terrorism cases, sex offenders and violent offenders. Helen pays tribute to Sharon’s “diligent and professional manner. She is very thorough and meticulously well prepared,” and “a true asset to London Probation Trust.”

Liz Dixon, Head of Restorative Justice at LPT agrees, describing Sharon as “a consummate professional – rigorous with a strong value base. Unstinting in her effort to engage with challenging and unmotivated offending and service users as she is crystal clear about her objective – to work with offending and anti-social behaviour to prevent more victims.”

As Elizabeth emphasises, “The complexity of these cases require dedication and making sure all bases are covered.” That includes the individual offender, too, of course, as Julia Houston, Consultant Clinical Psychologist for Forensic Mental Health Services at the Shaftesbury Clinic in Springfield Hospital, points out.

“Sharon is able to engage and work with very challenging offenders because she sees each person as an individual and always treats her clients with respect. She is able to walk the difficult line between helping the individual to move on in their lives whilst protecting the public, and does so in a calm, thoughtful and open manner.”

As Sharon says, “The challenge to succeed is always there, and while not every case is a success, I’m immensely proud to be part of a probation service that adds value to people’s lives.”

IN THEIR OWN WORDS

[Sharon Thompson gives her account of the work for which she won her Commendation]

As a Probation Officer working within the Criminal Justice System I have been recognised for good practice in my work with Service Users, many of whom have had negative relationships with authority figures in the past and have therefore been distrustful of anyone working within ‘The System’. An added challenge for us both in working together is a knowledge that he or she is not sitting across the desk from me by choice, in other words, they have to be there.

How To: Reducing barriers requires an approach that conveys a non judgemental, positive regard for the person who is sitting in front of me. This often calls for self reflection and honesty about personal biases both positive and negative, I may not even be fully aware of or prejudices I may hold. A ”Sex Offender” must become just “John”, a Life Sentence Prisoner, just “Michael”, and so the working relationship begins. Building trust takes time, transparency, openness and a willingness to say, look, “I don’t have all of the answers” and ability to honestly convey that actually, “I do want to hear what you have to say”. I believe that over time, an open, engaged, consistently motivational approach to supervising those we work with builds a human connection that can for some Service Users, provide an impetus for positive change in behaviour, decision-making and lifestyle choices.

The Butler Trust recognised my committed, consistent, effective approach to work with Service Users and my ability to build strong professional relationships with partner agencies also involved in managing risk. My empathic approach to working with Service users who present significant risks towards the public and those with complex needs was also recognised.

How To: My primary focus within my role in working with those convicted of offences linked to extremist activity is relationship building. Without a human connection, understanding possible drivers in their behaviour would be extremely difficult. Once a connection is established, I look for opportunities to identify and explore such barriers as a deeply held grievance or anti authority view. It may then be possible to encourage their engagement with a support group or mentor within the community and to thereby begin work towards reintegration. It is important not to over simplify the painstaking work involved here or to imply that there are always tangible measurable signs of progress and the key role played by others is vital to my ability to manage any risks such a Service User may present. So here, a strong working relationship developed with multiple agencies including prisons, Local Authorities Safeguarding departments and community outreach organisations has enabled me to monitor any emerging concerns and put in place measures to protect the public.

My role in working with Service Users with complex needs, e.g Personality Disorder and/or dual diagnosis of mental ill health and drug addiction, again involves relationship-building with the individual as a means of gaining trust, gauging their decision making ability and attitudes and awareness of consequences. Here, sound assessment skills and an ability to negotiate for early crisis intervention is critical to effective management of risk, both in terms of themselves and the victim. I have found effective clinical supervision has been particularly helpful to my practice with this particular client group, given the emotional demands of working with individuals who may be extremely volatile and challenging in their behaviour. I approach one to one work with those with complex needs by being a consistent professional presence, that reassures where necessary and is supportive, whilst being clear in communicating expectations and boundaries. So, an example of how this would work in practice is ‘Terrance’, who was effectively risk managed by monitoring his compliance with medication and therapeutic interventions, whilst assisting him with a practical problem such as dealing with an eviction notice.

I consider any sign of positive attitudinal or behavioural change in a Service User to be a successful outcome. For some individuals we work with fear of change can feel particularly disabling, so to see that even the smallest change is possible to achieve can have significant motivational impact for them. To see that change achieved and maintained also serves to underline my belief that we can make a difference within our professional sphere of influence, even against what at times appear to be almost insurmountable odds.

I believe my ability to forge human connections that convey an openness and that “I’m listening” to individuals I work with both Service Users and with other professionals, who may have differing organisational priorities and constraints, have been factors in my success; as is a willingness to acknowledge fallibility and learn from mistakes.

The primary challenge I have faced in working with an involuntary client group has been how to balance ensuring that I am harnessing motivation and keeping the individual invested in positive change with my professional risk management agenda, although the two are clearly not mutually exclusive. Additionally, the challenge for me, remains one of delivering quality interventions tailored towards individual needs, within the constraints and the (at times) unavoidably high-level workload demands of working within a statutory Organisation.

To conclude, to date, my fieldwork practice has developed through a growing awareness of ‘What Works‘ with Service Users and a commitment to maintaining this through a flexible, responsive, considered approach to case management. An equally essential component of my effective risk management ability is the strong professional relationships I have developed over the years. Insights I have gained through my professional relationships have assisted me in achieving a positive performance record of successful completions of Orders and Licences in recent years as partner agencies we work with often hold key insights to our understanding of issues a Service User may face
or specific areas of risk.

I believe that with the right approach we can effectively ‘reach the unreachable’ and that this can be achieved, despite the hurdles of high-level workload demands, organisational issues and resourcing constraints that we may face. In the future I would hope to continue to pursue sharing my experience and knowledge to support the next generation of Probation Officers.

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