Probation services have introduced a series of new safeguards in response to rising domestic abuse rates during the coronavirus pandemic.
Police have seen an increase in reports of domestic abuse during the lockdown while calls to a 24-hour helpline for victims are also significantly up.
The Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI) has implemented measures to ensure increased monitoring and focus on abuse perpetrators and other offenders with a history of domestic crimes.
Steps include a new screening tool to ensure any concerns about a domestic setting are flagged as early as possible.
While probation officers have introduced remote monitoring for lower-risk offenders during the pandemic, face-to-face supervision has been maintained for many of those guilty of domestic abuse and other high-risk offenders.
PBNI director of operations Hugh Hamill said: “Throughout Northern Ireland probation has streamlined our offices into six operational hubs where high-risk individuals under supervision can be seen on a face-to-face basis and other staff are working remotely with service users using new tools and technology.
“We know that domestic abuse is an area of concern during the pandemic when so many families are social distancing at home.
“Recorded crime shows a rise in reported incidents during the pandemic. We have therefore put in place additional safeguards to manage domestic abuse perpetrators and those with a history of domestic abuse.
“We are maintaining our normal face-to-face contact with those who present as a significant risk of serious harm.
“We are continuing to deliver programmes and interventions to perpetrators and our partner support workers continue to work with partners and ex-partners.
“We have increased liaison with partner organisations including the police and social services.”
Mr Hamill added: “We have also introduced a new screening tool, which all probation officers must use to identify concerns in any case in respect of domestic violence or child protection.
“This tool will flag up any concerns in a case at the earliest stage and enable us to put measures in to keep people safer.”
PBNI director of rehabilitation Dr Geraldine O’Hare outlined how probation officers are dealing with other challenges during the health crisis, including those around addiction and mental health.
“Those with mental health and addictions are likely to be more vulnerable during this period,” she said.
“Over 70% of people on probation’s caseload have a substance misuse problem and over 60% have a mental illness.
“With this in mind PBNI psychologists are carrying out assessments by telephone and video call. Indeed assessments have increased significantly during this period.
“We have also enhanced our award-winning mobile phone app ‘Changing Lives’ which can be downloaded free and has a range of resources including a self-assessment tool and alcohol diary to help people manage their mental health and addictions. Probation officers are working with many service users remotely using the app.”
We have been innovative in adapting our practice to these new circumstancesDr Geraldine O’Hare, director of rehabilitation
Dr O’Hare also said the early release of some offenders from prison due to the pandemic has seen the workload increase for its victim information scheme.
“PBNI provides a direct service to victims of crime who have registered with the victim information scheme,” she said.
“Importantly during this period work has increased. Indeed because a number of prisoners have been released early the work of the victims unit has increased.
“Victims unit staff who are probation officers are on hand to provide information on the type of sentence individuals are on, and the progress they are making. The system for referrals has now moved to an online system and staff are speaking directly to victims using the phone or video calls.”
Dr O’Hare said probation staff were also responding to the pandemic in other ways, with many involved in community projects like food banks.
“The people we work with have many vulnerabilities and often rely on support from local community groups,” she added.
“Much of probation’s work is about providing an individualised service to people to tackle the causes of crime and prevent reoffending.
“We have been innovative in adapting our practice to these new circumstances. Our aim is changing lives for safer communities and this work continues throughout the pandemic.”
The 24-hour domestic and sexual abuse helpline can be reached on 0808 802 1414. In an emergency call 999, otherwise the police can be reached on 101.