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Parole and Probation Officers and their Contributions to Public Safety

DC Public Safety Radio

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Leonard Sipes: From the nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sykes. Today, ladies and gentlemen, parole and probation officers and their contributions to public safety. We’re celebrating, in conjunction with the American Probation and Parole Association and their motto, “A Force for Positive Change”. These individuals come from my agency, the court services and offenders supervision agency. By our microphones today we have: Kaitlin Forshay, a supervisory community supervision officer; we have Jamie Thompson, a community supervision officer; and we have Jasmine St. John, again, a community supervision officer. And to Kaitlin, and to Jamie, and to Jasmine welcome to DC Public Safety.

Jasmine: Thank you.

Kaitlin: Thank you for having us.

Leonard Sykes: In a world where there is just a ton of media and television shows about police officers, and I used to be one, there is only one that I’m aware of, and that’s, I think, A&E’s “Pitbulls and Parolees”, so there is really not a lot of publicity about parole and probation agents. We call you community supervision officers; that’s DC’s term for parole and probation agents. But parole and probation agents throughout the country, community supervision officers, you guys are on the front line. Out of the seven million people under correctional supervision, five are the responsibility of yourselves, people like you and your counterparts throughout the United States. So when you talk about corrections in this country, the vast majority of people are under the supervision of parole and probation agents. How does that make you feel? That’s an awesome responsibility, is it not?

Kaitlin: It is an awesome responsibility but its also an awesome opportunity.

Leonard Sykes: Okay.

Kaitlin: We have a lot of resources here in DC, we have a lot of great people working to make a difference in people’s lives. They come to us for whatever reason it happens to be, with their risks, and with their needs, and we have the opportunity to help them, to make them more productive members of society, which not only makes them better, but makes them available for their families more, makes them contribute to society in a more positive light. So it is a huge responsibility, but its also a great opportunity.

Leonard Sykes: We have people, a large and significant percentage of our case loads have mental health problems, have substance abuse problems. A lot of them have not had a long job history. We have individuals with real challenges. And those challenges are tough to deal with, correct?

Kaitlin: That’s correct.

Leonard Sykes: And tell me about that.

Kaitlin: Well it’s great. I just recently started working with C-SOSA. I started in October.

Leonard Sykes: Welcome.

Kaitlin: And I came from another agency. So being here, not only have I been afforded with this opportunity but I am able to make referrals to the population that I deal with for employment services, school. If they have a substance abuse problem we have our own in-house treatment that would handle that, anger management, mental health, sex offender treatment. Pretty much you name it, we have the resources at our hands to provide them with this opportunity to really help them.

Leonard Sykes: I can’t let you go too far without asking, I came from another state agency too, the court services and offenders supervision agency. Our ratio was 125:1. Here at the Court Services and Offenders Supervision Agency, its routinely less than 50:1. Here you have an opportunity to do something with the people under our supervision, to do something meaningful. All of the probation agents throughout the country who are listening to this program are going to stare at us through their radios in disbelief because they’re saying, “What? You only have 50:1?” I mean, most states don’t have that opportunity so I’m not going to ask you what state you came from, but is it a big difference from wherever you came from here to the Court Services and Offenders Supervision Agency?

Kaitlin: Yes it is.  And I know this sounds cliched, but I really feel like being here I can kind of live up to that idea of being an agent of change because I do have more time to meet with individuals, reach out to their families, and really get to know what’s going on to be able to help make a difference in their life.

Leonard Sykes: Jasmine, what is your experience? How long have you been with the agency?

Jasmine: I’ve been with the agency since 2011. And currently I’m a minimum supervision level officer. And actually, my case load is a little higher than the 50.

Leonard Sykes: Right. Because you have the lower level people?

Jasmine: Yes. But we do have, like you spoke about, a lot of co-occurrent offenders who have the mental health and substance abuse co-occurrent issues. And so we do, specifically with that population, deal a lot with referring them out to the services they need within the community as well.

Leonard Sykes: Jasmine, I’m going to continue with you. What we do as parole and probation agents, community supervision officers, we have to sit and get into the heart and minds of that individual in many cases who is distrustful of you. He’s been caught up, or she’s been caught up in the criminal justice system. They’re not particularly seeing you as their friend because you have the ability to send them back into the criminal justice system or send them back into prison. The person does have substance abuse issues, does have mental health issues, does have anger management issues. How do you break through those barriers?

Jasmine: Honestly, with a conversation that kind of opens the door to them trusting us with information that may have led to substance abuse issues. Showing that we actually care, showing up and being consistent with the information and the resources. Because a lot of my clients will say, “I’ve never had anybody say this like that before to me” in regards to “I just want to see you do well”, “I want to see you here for your family”, just kind of pulling out those things that motivate them to change within their own lives. Because when supervision is over we want to leave the person whole. And so we break down a lot of the barriers just with conversations with our clients one-on-one. And just trying to figure our exactly how we can help, show that we can help. And then have them own the plan by letting us know: what is it that you want to change in your life; what is the plan, the steps that you’re going to take to take care of that issue. And then we guide them along the way, as their officer.

Leonard Sykes: Okay, but I’m going to keep hammering away at this. Because you all are giving me very correct answers and I appreciate that. But I can’t think of anything more difficult to deal with than a person with a 15 year history of heroin abuse. I mean, breaking through that 15 year history, that’s almost impossible. I’ve had, especially women under supervision, before these microphones, telling me “Wait a minute, Mr. Sykes, you want me to get through my history of sexual abuse, my substance abuse problem, my mental health issues. You want me to go and get a job even though I don’t have any occupational background and you want me to reunite with my kids. That’s impossible. What you’re asking me to do is way too much. I cannot do all of that.” So, to the individual under supervision who tells me that they cannot do all of that, how do you respond to that?

Jamie: I think it’s important when that’s presented to kind of identify with the client, what are their short term goals and start small. Not try to tackle everything at once. Work on stabilization issues. Like I said, the short term goals. To kind of help them see that there is an end in sight when you take baby steps. Rome wasn’t built in a day. When you have a 15 year history, for example that you used, of substance abuse, you’re not going to tackle that in your first meeting.

Leonard Sykes: Right, but can you tackle it in the third or fourth or fifteenth and twenty-third? Kaitlin go ahead.

Kaitlin: Yes, it’s extremely important that we build rapport. And doing so is, as Jasmine said, being consistent and being fair. But we have with the smaller caseloads, we have a lot of opportunities to use motivational interviewing techniques, to use cognitive behavioral intervention …

Leonard Sykes: What are, for the uninitiated, what is cognitive behavioral therapy, what are motivational interviewing techniques?

Kaitlin: Okay, so motivational interviewing. A lot of the times what we’re doing when we’re trying to get to the root of the problems is to ask open-ended questions. And then to help develop rapport we’re going to use reflections and summarize to make sure that the client we’re dealing with understands that we understand what they’re going – maybe not what they’re going through – but we understand what their needs are. And how they feel about a certain subject. So, demonstrating that we’re listening, those active listening skills. I’m trying to get them to open up a little bit about themselves.

Now the cognitive behavioral interventions come in. Specifically, a lot of the reasons that they’re here relate to perhaps a cognitive distortion. Their behaviors are not necessarily the events that they’ve been through but the perceptions of the events that they’ve been through. So we have to try to figure out and understand why they respond a certain way. Why they behave a certain way. And using that information to try to change the way they think about their experiences. And then we have the opportunity with these small caseloads to use these evidence-based practices, the time that we need to really invest in these people.

Like you said, we can’t do everything all at once. So the goal is to address one or two action items at a time. And we determine which ones we’re going to start at first. We know that we need to address stabilization factors primarily but whatever we can get the offender to buy into. They may not be ready to see their kids yet. They may not be ready to go down that path, but they are ready to address substance abuse. So we’re going to go that way with them. We kind of let them them take ownership of their plan and build it around what their needs are.

Leonard Sykes: Do the three of you fully understand that we have a national discussion now about change within the criminal justice system? I can’t tell you how many articles I come across every day from national publications talking about senate bills, talking about house bills, talking about initiative on the part of the Department of Justice, initiatives on the part of individual organizations. And every time they’re talking about the fundamental change within the criminal justice system, the heart and soul of that fundamental change is you. The heart and soul of that … never in my forty years within the criminal justice system have I seen such an emphasis on parole and probation officers.

So what they’re saying is that if we’re not going to be sending that many people to prison or if we’re going to let people out of prison earlier. What they’re counting on is quality supervision on the part of parole and probation agencies throughout the country. I’ve spoken with parole and probation folks throughout the United States and they’re tell me “Leonard, I’m not quite sure with 100:1 or 50:1 to one ratios if we’re ready for that type of responsibility.”  In DC are we ready for that?

Jamie: I believe that we are.

Kaitlin: In coming from another agency, I can say that I think that we are ready here. And just from our successful case closures, that speaks for itself.

Leonard Sykes: Yeah, because the great majority of our cases, around two-thirds, are closed out successfully. And that has to be due to the efforts on the part of people like yourselves. Jasmine?

Jasmine: Absolutely. I think this agency does a really good job at providing the training that we need in order to better suit our clients. When we went to the cognitive behavioral intervention and motivational interviewing, adding that more into how we actually manage our caseloads. We were provided with adequate training that really helped us get what it actually is that we need to do with our offenders within the community versus just sanctioning and sending them back and letting that only be our option. It really helped us engage with the offender, get to the core of the issues and the risks that they might have. And the needs. And kind of given us, I would say, like a briefcase of all this information and resources. And told us how exactly to do this. And we’ve seen results, especially with the caseloads that we have at minimum. We’ve seen results of how we’ve had clients not only be successfully be terminated at the end of supervision but also early terminated because they’ve done so well in the community.

Leonard Sykes: We’re one of the very few probation agencies in the United States that control our own resources. I mean, we have half-way back programs. We have our own structure, our own building, this huge … where we process hundreds upon hundreds of individuals every year that are struggling on community supervision. Instead of sending them back to prison we send them back for intensive treatment. So, it’s weird that we, because we’re federally funded, with a local mission. The Court Services and Offenders Supervision Agency, we are in a better position than many, if not every parole and probation agency in the country, to do the job that people want us to do. To both serve the individual under supervision at the same time protect public safety.

Kaitlin: I just came back from American Association, I’m sorry, the American Probation and Parole Association’s National Training Institute. And networking with other individuals from around the country who do exactly what we do, it’s amazing to me what a wide range of difference that we have between our agency and the way other people are doing things.

Certain things, like motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral interventions seem to be standard across the board at this point. But to speak, at C-SOSA we have specialized units. We have a women’s unit, we have a sex offender unit, we have domestic violence, we have many different units so that we can target specific needs in specific populations. And a lot of other agencies don’t have that opportunity.  They may have sex offender come in at eight o’clock and then a domestic violence offender come in at nine. And then a general supervision, young adult …

Leonard Sykes: Right

Kaitlin: So the resources we have and the opportunities we have are much greater than some of our counterparts in other jurisdictions.

Leonard Sykes: Yeah, the individual teams – domestic violence, young offenders, women under supervision, I mean it goes on and on – mental health is a big one. Drug court, about forty-five percent of our populations at the highest levels of supervision. So we have an immense amount of contact. In the state that I came from, intensive supervision was two face-to-face contacts a month. At the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency they could have eight contacts a month just with you and that’s leaving out the treatment people and that’s leaving out coming in to be drug tested. So we have an immense amount of contact with the people under supervision.

Jamie: And we’re given that opportunity because of our different focuses with our teams and having that smaller case load.

Leonard Sykes: I find this to be a fascinating conversation. I do want to come back and talk about the stresses and the successes and how you personally feel about what it is that you do.

But ladies and gentlemen, we’re doing a radio show today on parole and probation officers and their contributions to public safety. We are celebrating pre-trial probation and paroles supervision week in conjunction with the American Probation and Parole Association. Their motto “A Force for Positive Change” is something that we embrace.

The three individuals are from my agency, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. It’s Kaitlin Forshay, she is a supervisory community supervision officer; Jamie Thompson, a community supervision office; and Jasmine St. John, again a community supervision officer; what we call parole and probation agents in the District of Columbia, Court Services and Offenders Supervision Agency. We are a federal agency, federal independent branch, executive branch agency here in the nation’s capitol.

You know, ladies, this has got to be one of the most challenging things that you have ever done. I mean, I can’t think of anything, including my law enforcement days. Here’s my law enforcement day: I get a call, I go in, I resolve it or arrest the person or deal with it with through non-arrest and I leave. You have got to deal with this individual and their family and their kids for years in some cases. I mean, for me it’s a ten minutes intervention; for you it’s the next two or three years. That’s got to be immensely stressful.

Jasmine: Absolutely. However, weeks like this that we are given the opportunity to kind of relieve some of that stress while at work and then the initiatives of the health and wellness committee to kind of have some opportunity throughout the year to also get out and relieve some stress does help. (Laughs)

Jamie: Helps with the burnout. (Laughter)

Leonard Sykes: Yeah, I mean do you go home and kick the dog and throw the glass up against the wall. You know, it’s a stressful job …

Jasmine: It is.

Leonard Sykes: I mean, you’re dealing with people with drug addictions and mental health issues and you know. We had the women’s conference a couple of years ago where a woman stood up in the middle of the hall, in the middle of our gathering and said “I, and a woman that I live with, last night had a fight and she threatened me and my child. And I had to pull a knife to keep her away from my child and me. And now I’m homeless. I don’t have a place to live and I’ve got these problems. What are you all going to do for me?” And dead silence filled the room for the next ten seconds. I mean, that’s the reality of who it is that you deal with.

Kaitlin: When I first started at C-SOSA, I was on the sex offender unit and I had accidentally left my cell phone on overnight. I got a call at two-thirty in the morning with an offender who was calling from a pay phone saying he was going to jump off a bridge. Two-thirty in the morning, woken up from a sound sleep. The amount of stress that puts on you, knowing that you are responsible. This man was considering ending his life and the person he chose to call was me?

Leonard Sykes: There you go.

Kaitlin: And I had no, hardly any experience, as a probation or parole agent. So it was alarming to me that somebody that I had affected, he at least trusted me with that information. That he didn’t end up … we were able to engage in that conversation, he didn’t end up hurting himself at all. But to know that I was on his mind when he was thinking about making such a serious decision. You know, it is stressful. There’s secondary trauma that comes with it. Every day the decisions that we make affect people’s lives, for good or for bad. I mean that’s a tremendous responsibility that we have.

But then we also have stories. One of my officers recently, I was doing an observation and he was talking to a young adult who was just about ready to graduate from high school. And at one point it didn’t look as if he was going to be able to graduate from high school. Now he has great family support in terms of his grandmother, but one of the things he was struggling with was trying to figure out who was going to get his tickets for his high school graduation. And his father, who hadn’t been in his life at all, all of a sudden wanted to, was recently coming back in his life and wanted a ticket to graduation. And he decided not to give his father a ticket to graduation because he had saved that last ticket for his community supervision officer …

Leonard Sykes: Wow

Kaitlin: … who he felt was more of an asset in his life and more of a motivation in his life to complete his high school education than his own father was.

Leonard Sykes: I spoke to a community supervision officer and the person under his supervision one time jointly. And he told me, the person under supervision said “You know what? This individual is the only person in my life that I can turn to, to talk to and have a decent conversation. This is the only person in my life who cares. And because of that I take my meds. And because of that I don’t screw up. And because of that I do the right things. Because I do not want to violate the trust that I’ve built up with your community supervision officer who was my community supervision officer.” That’s profound.

Jasmine: That is. And it’s again, a huge responsibility. But on the flip side that’s very rewarding to know that in our position we were able to make an impact on a person’s life. Because often times we are the only positive role model that they have. And so it’s very important for us to always make sure that we practice that anti-criminal modelling for them. Since we are a role model.

Leonard Sykes: And in terms of talking. I mean, Jasmine, the whole idea is to give that individual an opportunity to talk to somebody who truly does care. And the thing that impresses me about probation agents, community supervision officers, is that, by and large, we do care. By and large, this aren’t throw away human beings. Now I understand that they’re frustrating, and I understand that it’s difficult, and I understand that it drives you crazy at times. Most, if not eighty-five percent, of the people that I have encountered that work for probation agencies genuinely do care about whether that person does well or not.

Jasmine: Absolutely. When you give your offender, your client, the opportunity just to talk. And just ask “how are you doing today” or “what’s going on in your life” or “what’s changed” so many things can come as a response that you never know where that conversation is going to lead. [Background conversation and noise [00:21:47]] And you never know if perhaps just within that conversation. One day they can say that they’re absolutely fine but then you have this deep long conversation about something that might have happened recently and it will open the door for so many things that they were pushing back for years. And that would open the door for that trust to be built. To talk about that.

Because, I feel, at least a lot of my population really don’t have people who just pause to say “How is your day going?”

Leonard Sykes: Right, right.

Jasmine: They’re either back in the community and no one wants to be bothered with them because of one issue or the other or lack of employment or funds. Or they’re being pulled in so many directions they just don’t have time to really pause and get some stuff off of their chests until they get to our office. It’s a huge responsibility to hear that information. The things that we hear, the stories that we hear about the trauma that happens in their day-to-day life, I cannot imagine some of the things that they have gone through. Just getting up, it’s almost one of those things I am surprised that all you are is on supervision because of the things that have happened in their day-to-day life.

Leonard Sykes: Right, we deal with individuals that carry a lot of life trauma.

Jasmine: Absolutely.

Leonard Sykes: I did, years ago, in terms of volunteer counseling, and a person who was going to take their life. And ended up very intimately involved with that person’s life on a professional basis and conversations. And there are certain times the person’s telling me stuff where I am saying to myself “I am not quite sure I want to hear this. I am, this is way too deep. I did not know that we were going there (laughs). And then it becomes more, and then it becomes more.

And there’s a certain point where you as a professional, you have this opportunity to break all of this and help that person. But at the same time it, even though we have low caseloads, it’s still fifty people telling you these stories. And fifty people communicating with you like this. And sometimes, when you go home, I am assuming you feel like the world is riding on your shoulders.

Jamie: That’s why it’s very important to find balance in your life.

Jasmine: I was going to say I can’t even watch the news because half the time …

Leonard Sykes: (Laughs)

Jasmine: … I am so inundated at work with stories that if I watched the news or Law and Order, anything for recreation I am thinking about work. Because it’s like, oh that reminds me of so-and-so or …

Leonard Sykes: Yes.

Jasmine: I saw …

Leonard Sykes: Yes.

Jasmine: … them come through my email today …

Leonard Sykes: Yes.

Jasmine: … or something reminds you of work.

Leonard Sykes: Yes

Kaitlin: If I have to watch one more episode of Intervention …

Jamie: And then on the flip side …

Kaitlin: … No, thank you.

Jamie: But then on the flip side, you’re watching and you’re like “Please don’t be one that belongs to me. Please don’t be one that belongs to me.” (Laughter)

Leonard Sykes: But in sitting before these microphones in terms of talking to women in supervision, and I’ve done that probably six or seven times. And I’ve been to a couple of group interventions. And I have three women tell me similar stories about being sexually abused before they were thirteen years old. And talk about who did it, and how it affected them for the rest of their lives. And how it created a spiral that got them involved in drugs and mental health.

And I’m sitting there and I’m saying “This is the most intense conversation I’ve ever had in my life.”  That’s the sort of conversation you go through every single day.

Jasmine: Absolutely. And one client comes to mind, who is a female and who also has a mental health issue and a substance abuse issue that started from sexual abuse. And when you start to factor in okay, well, you’re still using. And these are things that we have to address as far as public safety. At the end of the day, though, you have to ask those questions “what is going on that you’re currently using” and things of that nature. And out comes this story of “I’m taking care of my grandkids, and I shouldn’t and it’s overbearing” and things of that nature. And it all leading, then you start to wrestle with now if I take you off the street, who’s going to watch the grandkids?

Leonard Sykes: Yes.

Jasmine: And if I take you off the street what are your daughters going to do because they’re depending on the little bit of money that you get for disability or whatever else they may be getting money for.

So, a lot of their life stories factors into pretty much how we supervise their case. Because those are the things you have to consider all the time at the same time before or, in addition to, writing a violation report.

Leonard Sykes: What is the most important ingredient in terms of being a good parole and probation agent, a good community supervision officer? What must you have?

Jamie: Patience.

Jasmine: That’s exactly what I was going to say first.

Leonard Sykes: Patience?

Kaitlin: Because it is difficult. In addition to hearing all of these stories and having to find that work/life balance, there are some times that phone rings and I look over and I see who’s calling. I don’t want to answer it. I don’t. There are so many, some of these clients where they call non-stop or they call. And every time, or they only call when they really need something. But when they really need something, it’s a lot of time out of your day. And one of the things I love about this field, is that no two days are alike. It’s also what I hate about this field. (Laughter)[crosstalk 00:26:49]

You can’t plan a day. Things come up. And you’re constantly, it’s crisis management every single day. So even if so-and-so is now skating, you know, and they’re moving on their way, you have another offender where you’re just at the start.

Leonard Sykes: You have to be on every single day, is that correct?

Kaitlin: Absolutely

Leonard Sykes: I mean there’s no such thing as having that bad day, we all have them. I have them, you have them. But you get to the office, and I want to remind the public, that these individuals are out in the community. They’re just not just sitting, riding a desk. They’re out constantly doing home visits, interviewing this individual on a surprise basis. Sometimes going to their place of employment. So you guys are always out in the community, so you’re always interacting with people. Are you ever afraid by the way? Good question, do you think?

Jasmine: Good question, and not so much.

Leonard Sykes: Okay

Jasmine: Because of the rapport we build with our offenders, at least the ones that I have, I’ve never been in a situation where I was afraid of my client. Just to be honest.

Jamie: I am in agreement with Jasmine.

Leonard Sykes: All right. You’ve got to travel some pretty rough neighborhoods by yourself.

Jasmine: Or with a partner. But you have the support of MPD here …

Leonard Sykes: The Metropolitan Police Department, yes

Jasmine: Absolutely. So we know the officers who also patrol the area. And at the same time because you are so much in their lives and see them so much, if it comes to a situation where we’re about to walk into a dangerous situation you’ll have offenders who call you and say “Not today, because it’s not safe over here” and things of that nature.

Kaitlin: Or they’ll walk you to your car.  [crosstalk 00:28:20]

Jasmine: I actually had one walk me to my car one day. [crosstalk 00:28:22]

Leonard Sykes: All right, so everybody is working with each other, everybody is exchanging information, everybody is cooperating. They’re looking out for you, you’re looking out for them.

Jasmine: I would say for the most part. [crosstalk 00:28:29]

Jamie: For the most part

Kaitlin: There are some that don’t want you to come to their house, period. They don’t care to see you there. They don’t want to have a conversation with you. You say goodbye and they hope they never have to see you again. But for the most part being able to develop a rapport really aids in that feeling of safety.

Leonard Sykes: I think this has been a fascinating conversation. I think that the people of Washington, DC, and throughout the United States, owe a debt of respect to parole and probation agents, community supervision officers. You guys really are on the front lines. You really are the people who we depend upon to protect our safety. And who, at the same time, do the fair administration of justice in terms of the people that we supervise.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s been an honor for me today. Kaitlin Forshay, she is the supervisory community supervision officer. Jamie Thompson, community supervision officer and Jasmine St. John, again, community supervision officer. The program today was focusing on parole and probation agents and their contributions to public safety. We’re celebrating pretrial probation and parole supervision week here in the District of Columbia in conjunction with the American Probation and Parole Association and their motto “A Force for Positive Change”.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticisms. And we want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.

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