The Importance of Connecting with Your Probation Clients: An Interview with Paul Ventura

Managing probation clients can be similar to managing employees: it's critical to make a connection with your clients. Such connections can help to set the tone and diretion of the relationship for months – even years to come.

But HOW do you do that efficiently – especially when a probation officer can be managing a mountain of cases?

 

Join webinar presenters, Michelle Hart and Paul Ventura, on August 8 to learn:

  • effective supervision strategies for supervising clients, including what to do with a resistant client,
  • key issues for the supervision of clients ranging from the importance of honesty,
  • responses to positive and negative behaviors,
  • creative supervision strategies,
  • effective drug and alcohol monitoring and case planning.  
  • and the importance of building a rapport and the balance between accountability and social support.  

 

Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Your webinar is specifically about supervising clients.  Let’s start from the beginning: what makes a supervisory relationship successful? What are the most important things you do to help the client be successful?

Paul: I am a firm believer that a rapport must be built between the supervising officer and the client and this starts with the very first conversation.

During the initial meeting, the officer should establish a rapport with their new client, while providing some guidelines, setting goals for the short-term and long-term, discussing the roles of everyone that will be involved in the supervision process and, lastly, discussing confidentiality. Some version of this has been done by successful officers throughout the years, but having a good format can be key.

In addition, I do not believe in bogging down the client with paperwork on that first meeting. The extremely necessary implementation/documentation can be done on the first meeting, but I think it is important to keep this meeting fairly brief, establish the rapport and have the client return within a week or so, to complete all the other documentation needed.

I have seen supervising officers over the years speak with clients for 1-2 hours (and I was guilty of this at one point) and inundate them with document after document. Our clients will shut off their attention after a period of time if we do not engage them.  This is a great time to let the client know what “kind” of a supervisor you are and what your expectations of them will be. With that, you can get their previous experiences with the criminal justice system, explore what goals they may have in the personal life and for their supervision period and discuss who will be involved in assisting them to achieve those goals.

Many people that were on a level of supervision in the past, may have just had an officer tell them what they were required to do, per the order of the Court, and not delve into what they had as expectations and not explain fully what they could expect. By doing this, it shows the client that you have a stake in their success and it lets them know how you will be helping them through the process and what they will be held accountable for.

 

 

JCH: What are the most challenging situations you face with supervising clients? How do you solve these situations/challenges?

Paul: I have always had the understanding that our clients come to us with needs and are at risk of reoffending if certain things did not change in their lives. Due to that, I have maintained realistic expectations of what they can do and what they need help with achieving.

I would say that, living in and working in a fairly rural county, has had its share of obstacles. The two main obstacles (that have been most frustrating for me throughout my career) have been a lack of transportation (and long distances to travel) for the clients and a lack of resources for the supervising officers to provide to the clients through outside agencies. The county that I have worked for over the past 5 years, has a public transportation system, but it does not extend out to outlining areas. I encourage my clients to develop relationships with people that are engaged in the same behavior change as they are and to work with them to be able to get transportation to their required appointments, such as work, treatment and support group meetings. I believe this helps them in multiple areas: not isolating themselves, they can develop a support system and they are able to meet their requirements.

The external resources have always been an issue and something that continues to be a struggle. I have done a few things to combat this and attempt to better assist my clients in behavior change. One thing that I have done is research outside agencies that can be used by our department through mail order or via the internet (if it is suitable for the client). When a new agency or smaller counseling firm comes into the area, I make it a priority to be a part of any inter-agency discussions or forums so that I can develop relationships with them and offer support. I have also done this with established agencies to better assist our clients and our officers to develop a more streamlined process for all of us to work together and to be able to voice the concerns of both the clients and the department. This can be helpful for each supervising officer when they are establishing their rapport with their clients, as well. It is impactful if you can speak about the treatment agencies with knowledge of the counselors and the process that the agency uses. Unfortunately, there are no easy fixes for these problems and money is always a part of it.

 

Probation Direction

JCH: What are the most important characteristics a good client supervisor should have?

Paul: This is a great question and something that I speak about when training new and experienced supervising officers. I think that one of the most important characteristics to have is to be open-minded and open to new ideas.

Be open-minded with our clients. Their life experiences may have been totally different than the supervising officer and understanding why they have made the choices they have, to get to the point of being under supervision, is important to assist them through the change process. 

Supervising clients is also something that is forever changing and being open to new ideas is extremely important. Something that is common in our profession is to think that there is a new “flavor of the month” in training. People who have been around for 10+ years have seen trainings come and go and do not want to jump into something new. They have what has worked for them and they stick to it. These people are a resource for our clients if they can be open to continued education. Their experience, combined with new training, equals an extremely dynamic individual.

The last characteristic is really multiple characteristics that are used together. I believe that a supervising officer that can utilize active listening, effective communication (to include affirmations and disapproval) and is consistent with holding people accountable for their actions is a well-rounded individual. People that I supervise are never shocked by a consequence or reaction to their behavior. This is due to effective communication and utilizing active listening so that I know what is important to them and what their goals are. This goes back to developing rapport. If you begin that process on day one, you can revisit it many times throughout the supervision process to emphasize the things that the client has expressed as being important to them. This is a great motivational tool.

 

 

JCH: You’ve been a probation officer for many, many years. The work that you do is important, but must be challenging at times. What drew you to this specific area of justice and protecting the public? What keeps you motivated or inspired to keep going in light of some of the challenges you must encounter as part of your jobs?

Paul: I am almost at 12 years in the probation field and each year has had its ups and downs; challenges and successes. My father was a probation officer for 30 years, so I kind of grew up knowing what probation was and what type of work it entailed. I used to walk to his office after school and do my homework there. I would hear my father and the other probation officer he shared an office with speak with their clients and the types of challenges people were facing. I think this helped prepare me for this type of work. I feel like I fell into the probation field and I was a good fit. As I progressed in my degree in college, I realized that I had more Criminal Justice credits than anything else, so I decided to get my degree in that field.

As a requirement, I had to do an internship. I applied for the internship program at Coconino County, AZ Adult Probation and had an interview with my co-presenter, Michelle Hart. Michelle ran the internship program for that department. During my interview, Michelle was able to see some promise in me and she encouraged me to apply for a job. I did, got the job and the rest is history, I guess. I was able to fit in fairly easily and was willing to learn from the great experience that I had around me.

I was fortunate to be in a department with many officers that had been doing this line of work for 15-25 years. I took in what they all had to offer and molded it into my own style. Michelle was my first partner and she took the time to teach me as much as she could so I was prepared going forward.

I think that one of the most challenging aspects of the job is putting a large amount of effort into helping a client make changes and they end up failing in some way. I have learned over the years that this has nothing to do with me and it isn’t personal. They are struggling much more than I am and I have to understand that some people will not achieve what I hope they will. The way I work through that is celebrating the successes I have and making it a big deal for the client and for me.

I will usually stay in touch with clients that I have developed a rapport with and who move on to great changes in their life. This brings me continued motivation for the next challenge that comes my way. Another challenge is dealing with department politics and/or decisions that I may not agree with because I do not feel it helps the clients or officers to be more successful. This is something everyone will deal with at some point in time throughout their career and it affects people differently depending on how much they put into their work. The way I have attempted to help this is to be a part of decision making. In my current role, I am a leader from the line staff position. I chair several committees and make my voice heard (sometimes on behalf of the line staff) in management meetings and with our leadership. By proving myself as an officer, I have garnered respect from my peers and management, alike, and I use this to help foster a better working environment for everyone. One of the committees I chair is called “The Morale Committee”. All we focus on is improving morale for our department. Through this committee, we have initiated several activities and processes throughout the year that helps to continue making this a good place for people to work while celebrating the success of our clients.

 

 

JCH: A large number of our readers and subscribers are in law enforcement, but we have representation from all parts of the justice arena. Can you share some specifics of what different types of justice professionals or first responders will gain by attending your webinar? What skills or new knowledge will they gain that they can immediately use the next day on the job?

Paul: Michelle and I developed this training several years ago (and have continued to add to it), have presented on this topic several times now and each presentation has been attended by probation officers, parole officers, counselors, administrators, etc. If the audience is from a specific background or field, we tailor it to their needs and I think that each area can learn from it.

The things we are speaking about can be used as skills to deal with clients in the justice system or with employees, if you are a supervisor or member of management. It is all evidence based and therefore, we know it works. In addition, we have both used the skills we are talking about in different arenas and we have experienced seeing them work. There is no “one size fits all” approach to this work and that is not what we are saying in our presentation. This is one set of skills to use when working with a difficult population who face many obstacles in their change process.

When using it with employees, it changes slightly, but the main focus is there: rapport is important and essential to a good working relationship. I feel like there are aspects of the training that will be able to be used immediately the next day. Our outline of some effective supervision techniques is able to be immediately put into practice without having to be an “expert” in the area. We focus on a multi-faceted approach to supervision which includes the use of office contacts, field/community/residence contacts (for medium to high risk offenders), drug testing (or other testing if you are supervising sex offenders or other specific groups of clients), appropriate counseling/treatment for the clients and effective communication skills for the supervising officer to use with the clients and with outside agencies.

It is important for supervising officers to communicate with all the stakeholders in the client’s change process to show a team aspect. We did not invent these techniques and are not reinventing the wheel, but rather, we have used our combined experience, the things we have learned through our training and education, and evidence-based practices to develop a presentation/training aimed at imparting that information to those who may need some guidance.

 

To register for "Stop It! Words that Probation Officers Should Practice, Not Just Preach," click here.

Additional Resources
Choices Graphic
4 months ago
Practicing What Probation Officers Preach: An Interview with Michelle Hart
While community-based supervision is an important part of any probation program, many supervisors […]
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