Wearing multiple hats
The purpose of my job is genuinely to help people move on with their lives.”
That’s how Alicia Smith, Probation Officer with the Department of Corrections, describes her job. She works in Portland now, having transitioned recently from working primarily with people in Drug Court and Veterans Court.
That’s not how people usually think of probation officers, who are charged with monitoring their clients’ court-ordered conditions (which often include not using drugs or alcohol), tracking their activities, and sometimes sending them back to jail until they can see a judge if they violate the conditions of their probation. Clients most often end up in jail if their conduct creates a public safety issue, and probation officers have the option of summonsing a client to court if their conduct warrants it. But for other violations, probation officers often use a “graduated sanctions approach” – they acknowledge the client’s violation and then make a plan to keep them in the community, where there are more supports like treatment and housing, than in jail.
Smith explains it this way: “We understand the individuals we work with don’t choose to be addicts and their journey to recovery isn’t easy. Our role is building working relationships with them. It’s a balance between holding them accountable when appropriate and supporting them to get the treatment and services they need in working on their recovery.”
Michael Lyon is one of three Regional Correctional Managers in Cumberland and York Counties. Lyon says that probation officers wear two hats – one as a law enforcement officer and one as a social worker. “A good officer needs to know which hat to put on in any given situation. Probation officers are case managers with accountability,” he says.
Clients might not trust law enforcement, especially in the beginning, Lyon says. But probation officers try to build trust, to offer support and accountability at the same time. “We want to get to know clients, who they are as people, what their interests are, what their hobbies are, what motivates them, and then work with them to get those things back in their lives.” If clients are willing to show up and do the work, probation officers can be part of the solution.
Smith agrees. “My job is about building rapport with clients, supporting them, and getting them the help they need.” Smith and the 24 other probation officers in the region are familiar with community resources – like recovery residences, treatment providers, Portland Recovery Community Center, Preble Street Resource Center, and MaineWorks – so they can link clients with the right services to help them get back on their feet.
“When people are struggling with their recovery, we reach out to community resources to help get the person back on track with their recovery,” Smith says. “We realize now that it’s not about putting people back in jail, it’s about finding what they need to support their recovery.”
When asked what she likes most about her job, Smith says, “I love the fact that I am here helping people. We do play that law enforcement role, but the whole purpose of why we’re here is for people to be contributing members of society. We want people in recovery to be healthy and get the support they need. I love the fact that I can help with that process.”
For Lyon, the best part of the job is witnessing the growth of people as they get involved with their families again, can be there for their siblings and their kids, and are present as parents. “It’s amazing to watch people become active members in the community, active in their families. Those successes drive every officer. You can’t put a price on that.”