DC Public Safety Radio
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See the radio program at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2015/10/parole-and-probation-officer-stress/
Leonard Sipes: From the nation’s capitol, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, by our microphones today, Lorenzo Hopkins. He’s supervisory community supervision officer known elsewhere as a supervisory-prone probation agent from my agency, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, www.csosa.gov. Lorenzo, welcome to DC Public Safety.
Lorenzo Hopkins: Thank you for having me, Len.
Leonard Sipes: Today’s topic is parole and probation officer stress. As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the most ignored topics that you can possibly imagine. I see all the time. I witness all the effort to deal with police officer stress and that’s a mighty subject. We know what’s been happening throughout the country over the course of the last six months, and in terms of fully integrating law enforcement in the community and the controversy that that has entailed. Everybody’s looking at police officers. Nobody’s looking at the stress of parole and probation agents. Am I correct or incorrect?
Lorenzo Hopkins: You’re correct, Leonard. I’ve been in this business for over twenty years, and I’ve seen it change. What I mean by that is, probation and purple agents are asked to do more. The government is talking about reducing the prison population, which is going to mean more people coming back on community supervision. When you have that, you’re going to have those increased stressors. Again, some of the prison criminal probation population is getting more and more violent. They’re getting younger. I’ve seen the national trend. DC, again you can see the shootings went on the street, how young people are getting and our agents are going out into the community in those environments, dealing with people just released from prison, some of them just fresh off of probation. Really, there’s limited to no talk about the stress that they undergo each day.
Leonard Sipes: Now, I have to, just for the sake of grounding the people who are listening to this program, there are five million people caught up in the criminal justice system on any given day in the correctional system. Two million are involved in prisons and jails, which means the bulk are under community supervision with parole and probation agencies. When you talk about correction in America, when you talk about incarceration, when you talk about America’s response to crime, the vast majority of Americans’ response to crime are individuals assigned to parole and probation agents, correct?
Lorenzo Hopkins: That’s correct. We have a huge impact as relates to attempting to reduce [inaudible 00:02:46]. What that entails today was much different than it was when I entered the business over twenty years ago. Back when I first started, you simply received a court order and it told you, “Pay restitution, do community service and things.” We made sure they did that. We’ve since transitioned CBI, cognitive behavior intervention, motivational interviewing. Now you’re going to take those four thousand people, most agencies have trended that way, and instead of checking boxes saying they’re completed, no. You have to actually change behavior and change thinking patterns.
Leonard Sipes: When I was first involved in the correctional system and we’re talking about a quarter of a century ago, I was told by parole and probation for the agency that I represented, which was the Maryland Department of Public Safety, that our role in parole and probation is to enforce the will of the court and enforce the will of the parole commission. That was it. It wasn’t talking about changing individuals. It wasn’t talking about intervening in their lives. It wasn’t talking about providing them with the support they needed to deal with their substance abuse, deal with their mental health issues, deal with their reunification of their children. It was simply to enforce the will of the parole commission and enforce the will of the courts.
Now, as you’ve just said, it’s much more than that. What we have to do is to intervene, is to get into the lives of individuals under community supervision to find out what makes them tick, what makes them angry, what their issues are, what their hopes and dreams are and try to provide wrap-around programs to support that individual. The mission of being a parole and probation agent has changed dramatically just within the last ten years.
Lorenzo Hopkins: Certainly it has. What hasn’t changed is the fact that we’re still required to put public safety first. That’s primary, but I would say our biggest job now is being change agents, meeting a person where they are, CBI.
Leonard Sipes: Cognitive-
Lorenzo Hopkins: Cognitive behavior intervention. Right.
Leonard Sipes: Cognitive behavioral intervention.
Lorenzo Hopkins: Yes. What happens is, we used to just take people and say, “Okay, the court says you need to go substance abuse treatment.” Now, you have to say, “Is that person ready to go to substance abuse treatment?” If that person is not ready, you’re wasting money. That’s what research has shown. If you make a person just go to treatment for the sake of going to treatment, they will program, as we call it. They will go through a program, complete it just to satisfy it. They still have the same cognitive thinking, the negative thinking that they used to have and eventually they go back to using.
Leonard Sipes: Okay, well let’s talk a little bit about the people under supervision before we get onto parole and probation agent stress. The vast majority of people under supervision have histories of substance abuse, and in many cases, really raging histories of substance abuse. I’ve seen surveys where up to fifty percent of the offender population have histories of mental health problems, lack of job history, did not do well in school, many with anti-social attitudes. If you talk to women caught up in the criminal justice system as I have before these microphones, the great majority have had histories of sexual violence directed at them as children, as teenagers by people they know. The point is that they bring an awful lot of baggage to the table. Suddenly they come and they sit in front of Lorenzo Hopkins and Lorenzo Hopkins has got to somehow, some way, break through all those barriers, deal with all of the issues that that person brings to the table, and do it in such a way that does not make him crazy, correct?
Lorenzo Hopkins: That’s correct, because right now when we talk about dealing with the substance abuses you spoke about, and I’m glad you prefaced it by the other issues, the trauma and things of that nature, for years, when I say “we,” parole and probation, we’ve treated the symptom. The symptom was substance abuse. We never really got to that underlying trauma.
A brief story. I was briefly assigned to the mental health branch as a supervisor. I had this older lady, mid fifties, maybe. She was a heroin user for years. She and I had a conversation and she kept getting violated. That’s when the parole commission, if you violated substance abuse, you will get violated and go back and go back under supervision, correct. I sat her down one day in my office and said, “Tell me what’s going on.” She said, “You’re the first person who asked me about what’s going on instead of just saying, ‘You need to stop using heroin.'” Then she went to a story about being sexually molested as a child and all those things. I’m like, “Wow, if we don’t treat that trauma, we’re going to fail with substance abuse.
Leonard Sipes: You know, we’ve increased our rate of successful completions here at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency from about sixty-two to about sixty-nine percent. Our rearrest rates have been down, as of late. Obviously, we’re moving in the right direction, but we have a fifty to one case load. I know of parole and probation agents in various states that have a hundred to one, a hundred and fifty, two hundred to one, and more. When you’re carrying a case load of a hundred and fifty to two hundred individuals caught up in the criminal justice system, it doesn’t strike me as that person having a snowball’s chance in Hades of actually breaking through those barriers and to meaningly intervene in the lives of the human beings under supervision. If they’re talking about doing cognitive behavioral therapy, as you’ve said, getting into the heart and soul as to why people are doing certain things and training them as to how to deal with those problems, when you have a case load of two hundred to one that seems to me to be impossible.
Lorenzo Hopkins: It’s extremely difficult and that’s where a lot of stress come in. Even with case loads in DC being fifty to one, if you could imagine. Let me put you in a probation officer’s seat on a reporting day. On reporting day, let’s say it’s Thursday. You may have thirty of your people coming in on that day for drug testing, to speak to you. Could you imagine hearing thirty different trauma stories every day and the kind of stress you would take home with you every day?
Leonard Sipes: That’s just it! Half of our contacts need to be made in the community. You could be walking through the community and see your person under supervision. You could be going into their home. It could be a surprise visit. You could be taking along a police officer with you. All you’re hearing all day long is trauma, trauma, trauma, correct?
Lorenzo Hopkins: That’s absolutely correct.
Leonard Sipes: How do you escape that?
Lorenzo Hopkins: The thing is typically most people don’t. They don’t recognize it. That’s one thing I talk to my staff about right now, even being in diagnostics. People think that they are the report writers. They don’t have to hear. They don’t have to see the finish. Could you imagine interviewing someone at the local jail, even someone at the office, and they’re telling you about the trauma they’ve suffered, the sexual abuse they’ve suffered, standard sibling murder, their mother mother murdered, and you read that day in and day out? That’s secondary trauma and I don’t think people pay much attention to secondary trauma.
Leonard Sipes: If you’re going to get into the heart and soul of that person, if you’re going to use cognitive behavioral therapy and intervene in the life of that person, you’ve got to somehow, some way, take on the emotions that that person is talking about. It cannot be just, “I dismiss it at the end of the day. I’m going to go home and have a beer and walk the dog and play with the kids.” That trauma stays with you. It’s inevitable that that trauma is going to stay with you to some degree.
Lorenzo Hopkins: Well, to be human, it has to. The problem, Len, is a lot of people don’t know what the symptoms look like. They think going home and just having a beer or two is normal. That could be their way of coping. You’ve seen research about law enforcement professionals, correction officers. They end up with substance abuse problems, drugs, and alcohol to cope.
Leonard Sipes: There are higher rates, I’ve seen, of substance abuse amongst people in our profession than in terms of the larger society.
Lorenzo Hopkins: Absolutely, because that’s a coping mechanism. Some people can’t sleep at night. Look at the divorce rate among people in our profession also, because you take things home.
A quick story. Before I started working in probation and parole, I worked as administrator at a juvenile detention facility. I went home after hearing this stuff and seeing these kids every single day who weren’t doing well. You know what I did?
Leonard Sipes: What?
Lorenzo Hopkins: I was a young married guy and I said, “I don’t want any children.” Seriously. My wife said, “Honey, are you serious? These are just the children you see. All children aren’t like that.” I tell that story to say when you are starting to become jaded in this business, you start to become skeptical of everyone.
Leonard Sipes: It takes its toll on you. I’ve always said after forty-five years in the criminal justice system, I’ve become acidic. I see the world differently than the average person because I understand bands in humanity towards man. We had a woman at a conference one time dealing with women caught up in the criminal justice system who stood up in the conference and said, “The woman I live with pulled a knife on me last night and pulled a knife on me and my child and we had a huge argument. I had to get out of there. I now have no place to live. I now have a child and I now have to go back and get my private possessions out of this apartment from a woman who pulled a knife on me.” Then she took a look at everybody in the hall and said, “Now, what are you going to do for me to help me out of this situation?” That’s what our people deal with every single day, correct?
Lorenzo Hopkins: That’s correct. When you have young officers just into the business, or even some more seasoned ones, if you get that every day, you’re in, I call it crisis mode every day because you never know what’s going to happen.
Again, before I went to diagnostics and mental health, I had my day planned out most days but it never failed. Someone came in. They started to decompensate. One of my staff and I had to take them to the CPAP, for the condition they’re dealing with [inaudible 00:13:39] medicine to admit them. Your days are not yours. Then, you run into another stressor is, when you try to get help, as you talked about the young lady at the meeting you were at, take that and multiply that by decreasing city budgets and town budgets when there really is no housing out there.
Leonard Sipes: Right. Yeah, finding housing for people caught up in the criminal justice system is really difficult.
Lorenzo Hopkins: Absolutely, and then you try to put them in a shelter. The shelter could be full. Then you have women and children, which is another difficulty trying to place because there are limited resources.
Leonard Sipes: My phone number is the only phone number on the website and I get calls at night. I get calls on the weekends. “Why is my son on probation? Why did my son was taken to jail? What’s happening with my son? He was supposed to go to this rehab clinic and he’s not doing well. Now he’s out. Are you guys going to get a warrant for his arrest?” There’s a certain point. It’s like, “Folks! I can’t just do this every night. I can’t do it every weekend. I’ve got my own life to live,” but you can’t tell them, “No.” You cannot not listen to them. If I’m experiencing that and I’m the spokesperson for the agency, what are you all going through?
Lorenzo Hopkins: Well, that’s a huge stressor. When I first left mental health and went to diagnostics, my staff at my first meeting were saying, “Well, Mister Hopkins, we’re working on weekends and evenings trying to get these reports done.” I said, “That stops today.”
Leonard Sipes: Yes.
Lorenzo Hopkins: “That stops today, because I understand that you have to have healthy work-life balance. That’s extremely important in this business because what happens is, I found myself doing it late. I’m not telling you something I’m thinking of or guessing about. I found myself with my Blackberry on at my child’s karate meeting contest.
Leonard Sipes: Yes, yes, yes.
Lorenzo Hopkins: I found myself checking the newspaper to see if a defendant was ever arrested. What do I have to face tomorrow?”
Leonard Sipes: Every time somebody goes out and commits a homicide or commits a crime, you’re sitting there going, “Oh my God, I hope he’s not on my case load.”
Lorenzo Hopkins: Exactly! You take your eight hour day, just an average eight hour day, and you go home and you take it home with you. That’s twenty-four hours a day besides the time you’re sleeping that you’re dealing with something about seeing so-and-so or about this profession.
Leonard Sipes: Well, we’re halfway through the program. I do want to reintroduce you, ladies and gentlemen. We’re talking to Lorenzo Hopkins, a supervisory community supervision officer with my agency, our agency, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, www.csosa.gov. We’re talking about parole and probation officer stress.
Lorenzo, you went to the American Probation and Parole Association in Los Angeles and you gave a seminar on parole and probation officer stress. What are the key points of your address in Los Angeles dealing with a national audience on this topic?
Lorenzo Hopkins: Well, one thing we have to realize is that, and I actually said it like this, oftentimes in this business, we take far too much credit for peoples’ success and far too much blame for their failures. We’re always looking at something that, “Well, did I do this or did I do that?” We try to be but we are human and you can’t be everything to everyone. That’s one. Two, when you leave your work and you’re not on duty, the biggest mistake people make is leave that cell phone or Blackberry on. They check it religiously. I told them in LA that actually it’s an addiction. It’s an addiction because you find yourself in conversations with people. You’re checking your work phone. When that occurs, you’re actually cheating your family because your family deserves some you time.
Leonard Sipes: Some work-life balance.
Lorenzo Hopkins: Right. You also deserve some time away because you can’t continue at that pace. You can’t. You’ll be surprised how many people, Len, that work for me that I have to make take vacation. What you get to carry over in the government two hundred forty hours, or whatever the case may be?
Leonard Sipes: Yup!
Lorenzo Hopkins: I’m sitting down with them doing a life plan. “You need to take off some days.”
Leonard Sipes: I do want to emphasize this, is that our rate at successes here at Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency is going up, so we are succeeding in getting people to do the right thing. I understand that there’s no such thing as the perfect offender on supervision. I understand that they all bring a tremendous amount of issues with them, in particular, substance abuse. We have done a better job. We have been able to get into the lives of individuals. We’ve gotten into the lives of their families. We have helped them deal with all the different things they had to deal with to the point where our success rate is going up. What toll is that taking on what we call community supervision officers?
Lorenzo Hopkins: It’s taking a tremendous toll. We talked about earlier, we put a lot of effort into CBI, cognitive behavior intervention, motivational interviewing, things that change the thinking of the defender or defendant population. The problem is, as you alluded to earlier, there’s not a lot of research or anything about people who actually do the work. We have to really start to think, as managers, I’m a supervisor, take a look at your people and start speaking to them about how are things impacting them.
Leonard Sipes: Your employees, yes?
Lorenzo Hopkins: Yeah, my employees. You have to start talking to your employees the same way you want them to invest in the defender population, you must invest in them.
Leonard Sipes: You’ve got to do the same thing for them.
Lorenzo Hopkins: You have to, because guess what. A lot of these ladies and gentlemen are young.
Leonard Sipes: Right.
Lorenzo Hopkins: They’re young. Half of that stuff they’re reading about or talking to the defenders about, they haven’t lived it.
Leonard Sipes: It’s interesting. They are college educated. Everybody comes to us with a bachelor’s degree. The great majority of our agency have master’s degrees. Some have above. That’s a very well-educated workforce that we have, but they’re still people. Regardless of their education, regardless of their understanding, regardless of their grounding, they’re still people subject to the same levels of stress as any police officer, as anybody in any profession.
Lorenzo Hopkins: That’s true, Len, because you alluded to the national epidemic what’s going on between law enforcement and many communities. In that whole conversation, you don’t hear people talking about probation and parole because guess what, we’re in the community also. We’re there daily. We’re engaging people in conversations, so a police officer’s law enforcement. We’re law enforcement also, so that same sense of heightened expectations and anxiety when we go into some of the worst neighborhoods in our cities is there. It’s natural. The hair stands up on the back of your neck.
Leonard Sipes: It rubs off on everybody, whether you’re a police officer or whether you’re a parole and probation agent. The trauma that you deal with, you could not simply separate that from your life. There’s just no clean break. You’ve got to acknowledge the fact that this exists.
Lorenzo Hopkins: Right, and that’s why it’s imperative on partners being partners. When you have a partnership with people you work with, if your supervisor doesn’t do it, look out for your colleague. Look out for your co-worker. You can see when they’re under undue stress. You can speak to them about it. Most of our friends, let’s be honest, in law enforcement, you’ve been in law enforcement a long time, they’re other law enforcement people. Guess what we talk about when we go out.
Leonard Sipes: Oh yeah!
Lorenzo Hopkins: The job.
Leonard Sipes: We sit there and we gripe about the criminal justice system. We gripe about those idiots at headquarters, and I always laugh because then I became an idiot at headquarters as a spokesperson for, again, Maryland Department of Public Safety. The point is is that we sat there and we griped and we drank too much.
Lorenzo Hopkins: There was no release.
Leonard Sipes: We drank too much.
Lorenzo Hopkins: Right.
Leonard Sipes: I’m not quite sure when I went home from one of these drinking-too-much, griping-too-much sessions, I’m not quite sure I felt a whole heck of a lot better.
Lorenzo Hopkins: No, because guess what. If you’re anything like I used to be when I entered the business is that I still thought about, well come the other night, thought about, “Did I do this? Did I do that? Maybe I should have done this differently.”
Leonard Sipes: Because we are talking about the lives of people in crisis and there’s no way of leaving that behind. You have to acknowledge that, deal with it, and come to grips with the tools that help you cope with it. Alcohol or drugs certainly is not part of that coping mechanism.
Lorenzo Hopkins: Right, and you have to have balance. When I talk about work-life balance, work-life balance isn’t splitting time between work and life. Work-life balance is what’s important to you. If you’re a person who loves playing golf, make some time. Take some time out of your week to play some golf.
Leonard Sipes: Yup, play that golf.
Lorenzo Hopkins: You deserve that, because you need a release. If you’re not going to release it doing something you enjoy, you’re going to release it doing something destructive, i.e. drinking too much.
Leonard Sipes: Okay, now what I was told years ago, I was told when I entered in the law enforcement, take meditation. Take classes on meditation. Learn how to meditate. I was taught to talk to your spouse. A lot of us, when we bring work home, when we come home we don’t want to talk about work. The last thing in the world we want to talk about is work. If you’re in a bad mood and if you’re affected by your experiences throughout the course of the day, you owe it to your spouse to tell your spouse what’s going on. There are tools for coping.
Lorenzo Hopkins: Absolutely, Len. We do the same thing in my household. I’ve been in this business a long time. My wife and I give each other fifteen minutes apiece to vent about work, to decompress.
Leonard Sipes: Oh, that’s a great idea.
Lorenzo Hopkins: After that … huh, it’s over. You have to have that because she understands that my job is stressful. She’s an accountant but she also has those stressors also and she needs to understand, “If my husband comes home in a not-so-good mood what’s going on out there.” Certainly, we don’t use names because that’s privacy, but we also are human because you can’t take it. We’d like to take your hat off when you get home and that’s all I’m thinking about, home. Our lives blur and they blend all the time.
Leonard Sipes: Sure. Well, it’s like the woman who I talked to one time about her history of sexual abuse and she just said, “You know, I was raped multiple times before the age of eighteen by family members and people who I know, who I knew.” Then she just looked at me in front of the same microphone you’re sitting in front of now and said, “Now, what is the system going to do for me in terms of my trauma?” It’s like, “One human being. Excuse me. I can’t undo the fact that you were raped multiple times before the age of eighteen.” That’s what our folks go through every single day.
Lorenzo Hopkins: Right, and the difference is though, we have to get to the point where we recognize when we’ve had too much. I’m not talking about retiring, I’m talking about taking leave. I’m talking about making sure you have your supervisor having your people schedule leave before the end of the year, because they need some time away and apart to spend with their family. I encourage it. When I speak to my staff at mid-year or whenever, I talk about work-life balance. What are you doing for you and you family? What are you doing to improve yourself outside of work? That way, I keep that in the forefront of their mind to let them know it’s not only about work, you know?
Leonard Sipes: Mm-hmm (affirmative), but you can tell in law enforcement because the person becomes too aggressive.
Lorenzo Hopkins: Yes.
Leonard Sipes: You can tell it when the person apprehends somebody and instead of just cuffing them, they’re slammed against the police car and that’s the point where you’ve got to walk over, and we did, whether people believe it or not, walk over to that person and say, “You know, Johnny, you’re taking this too far. You need to back off. Do you want me to finish this?” What do you see in terms of parole and probation agents?
Lorenzo Hopkins: Well, typically what happens when I see stress is they’re short-tempered. When I’m short-tempered, I don’t mean exploding but their conversation is about evil in the defendant or defender population, you can tell they’ve become certainly desensitized. “I’m going to start going through the motions like a robot,” you know? “I’m just going to do the job because I have to, but I’m not really caring.” People can feel when you don’t care. When it gets to the point where it starts to become not a good situation, I typically have the defendant wait, if I hear it from my staff, pull them aside, and say, “Hey, decompress. Take a deep breath and just relax a little bit,” because sometimes we have to recognize the symptoms. Not us, because if I don’t sometimes you don’t see yourself in this situation.
Leonard Sipes: Yes.
Lorenzo Hopkins: As colleagues, we have to make sure we’re paying more attention to what’s going on because you’re going to start saying, “Offenders, stop coming in.”
Leonard Sipes: That hurts the mission. That hurts the bottom line in the same way that the police officer being overly aggressive hurts the bottom line because he’s breaking confidence with the community. We, on the front lines, you all on the front lines whether you be parole and probation agents or whether you be police officers, people need to understand how unbelievably stressful these jobs are. People need to provide some space, work-life balance, and some tools in terms of whether it’s deep breathing exercises, whether it’s meditation, whether it’s talking to your wife, whether it’s playing that game of golf, everybody needs to come to grips when that stress is enormous. That stress exists in all folks caught up in the criminal justice system.
Lorenzo Hopkins: Right. I think what gets lost when you’re talking about probation and parole professionals, that’s what I like to call us, is that we wear so many hats, because you’ve got to realize we’re the person who, in most jurisdictions they can have arrest powers. This one, you do reports. Actually, it’s also your responsibility to be able to take someone’s freedom. They gave it to you, more or less. However, however, but what we have to really start to understand is that people who do that are humans and they don’t want to take peoples’ freedom. When you start dealing with non-compliance, it doesn’t make people happy so when you go that house the next time to do a visit, how are going to be received? You don’t know that. Because guess what, that person just got released from prison after you did a report that got him sent back for two or three years.
Leonard Sipes: Right, right, right, but that’s the part of the stress and part of the dilemma of being a parole and probation agent, again what we call community supervision officers here in the District of Columbia, is that cognitive intervention, you’ve got to get into the mind, get into the heart of that person. Build bond. Build trust, but at the same time, you have that responsibility to protect public safety and send them back to prison, if necessary.
Lorenzo Hopkins: Absolutely.
Leonard Sipes: No therapist on the face of the earth would work under those circumstances.
Lorenzo Hopkins: Could you imagine wearing all those hats?
Leonard Sipes: No.
Lorenzo Hopkins: Because you’re a social worker one day, no, not one day, one second. The next second, you’re saying, “Oh, you’re violated. This is unacceptable. I’ve got to put a VR, a violation report in.” Those are those fine balances that a lot of people don’t understand. The difference between us and police officers, again, great work. A police officer can arrest someone on the street. They throw them into the court and that’s it. That’s it.
Leonard Sipes: And walk away from that, entirely. You’ve got them for the next five years.
Lorenzo Hopkins: I have to deal with that. If they go in and out, in and out, I’m still the person who’s there.
Leonard Sipes: You’ve got to deal with them for the next five years, which is stressful unto itself. Lorenzo Hopkins, I’ll tell you. This has been a fascinating conversation. Lorenzo is a supervisory community supervision officer for my agency, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. We’ve talking today, ladies and gentlemen, about parole and probation agent stress. Lorenzo, I really want to thank you for a fascinating conversation. Ladies and gentlemen, our website, www.csosa.gov, ww.csosa.gov. This is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments and we even appreciate your criticisms, as stressful as they may be. We want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day. Thank-