‘Social work values are essential in my work with high risk offenders’

Jo Hebb, a forensic social worker and lead for offender treatment at a mental health hospital, discusses the professional and personal challenges faced by social workers working with high risk offenders.

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The challenge of supervision

Working with high risk offenders presents both a personal and professional challenge which means supervision is crucial. During my career, I have been supervised by social workers, psychologists as well as a drama therapist.

Having supervisors from across a variety of disciplines has provided me with unique learning opportunities. In my experience, the quality of supervision is paramount and poor supervision is often highlighted when things have gone wrong. 

The potential for serious harm is always a consideration when working with high risk offenders. Therefore clinical supervision and line management support are an important part of risk management and personal well-being.

The challenge of the offences

The nature of social work can potentially expose those in the profession to vicarious trauma. Personal resilience is generally a characteristic of those engaged in the profession, and an essential one for those working with high risk offenders. 

Social work values encourage the practitioner to explore an individual’s strengths, working collaboratively with him or her to use and improve those strengths to develop a meaningful life.

As a result, it’s important to see the person as an individual and not just for their offence. Ways to help manage the feelings evoked by harmful offences include:

  • Not labeling
  • Recognising and validating experienced trauma
  • Understanding attachment difficulties
  • Understanding the pathway an individual has undergone to get where they are

This approach can encourage an individual to change their thinking and behaviour – providing them with the self-belief that they can have a meaningful life and attain personal goals without harming others.

The challenge of assessment and management

Safe management of high risk offenders is based on comprehensive assessment, formulation, treatment and care planning.

Being familiar with, and being able to interpret, clinical assessment tools to support clinical judgement is an essential part of balancing the safety of the public with the rights of the individual. This requires training and practice.

Additional training and experience is also required to deliver therapy and evaluate offender change. Social work values have stood me in good stead for this part of my role.

Care planning has always been a social work task; therefore it’s easily adapted to incorporate the needs of high risk offenders and public safety. For instance, any child protection plan will evidence the skills of social workers in managing risk.

The challenge of developing credibility

In a career spanning over 20 years that has included dealing with probation, prison, child protection and forensic mental health, one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced has been to show the value of social work.

I’ve learnt that it’s vital to develop skills that facilitate a good working relationship across multi-disciplinary and multi-agency organisations.

Understanding other agencies priorities, such as Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA), the police or healthcare, establishes a strong foundation for discussions that will lead to the best results for all involved as well as the service user.

Having the confidence to challenge the thinking and decisions of other working models has come from this understanding. I’ve found that it’s important to familiarise yourself with the literature across a number of disciplines. Being knowledgeable and well informed helps to increase credibility with other professionals.

The on-going challenge

Ultimately, the end goal is to ensure social work values are adhered to when working with high risk offenders. This will help ensure that those individuals in the long term lead healthy, fulfilling and offence free lives.

Jo Hebb is specialist programmes lead for offender treatment at The Huntercombe Group’s Beech House Hospital. Jo is a qualified social worker and has nearly 20 years experience of  working in the treatment of sexual offenders within both community and secure settings.

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