23rd June 2020

Effects on those who deliver services to justice involved populations

By Prof Michele Burman, Prof Robin A. Robinson and Dr Annie Crowley

Although largely out of government and media frames of ‘essential workers’, and within a wider context of rapidly diminishing resources and precarious funding, many community-based voluntary organisations working with criminal justice-involved groups are in crisis mode as they adapt their ways of working during Covid-19.  

Working environments have been transformed:  workers now must often conduct from home what is normally community-based work, with accompanying challenges of also caring for family and children. They may struggle to maintain fragile relationships with already socially-excluded clients whilst trying to ascertain progress with delayed court cases and navigating legal processes on their behalf. They must manage increased concerns about the safety, health, wellbeing and finances of those with whom they work as – due to illness, self-isolation, fiscal crisis or reductions in staff numbers – many safety nets and other forms of support have been altered or completely removed for these groups.

Many people who are justice-involved have historical and/or current experiences of victimization, abuse and trauma. A range of traumagenic behaviours, often arising directly or indirectly from exposure to these experiences of abuse of all kinds, may also affect those who are working with them to try and lift these burdens.

The pandemic has affected many individual and organisational protocols, procedures, and coping strategies. Bearing witness to clients’ past traumatic accounts of illness, bereavement, anxiety and financial ruin during the unprecedented time of Covid-19 whilst simultaneously trying to provide emotional support and practical assistance requires considerable resilience, and robust and structured support.

Boundaries that staff have laboured to put in place between their job and home, though challenged with work-from-home and round-the-clock juggling of concurrent and conflicting responsibilities, can be supported with revised approaches to routines or activities that help cope with the work. Such supports include debriefing, supervision, and staff training, adapted to online instruction and virtual meetings. Though illness and self-quarantine will limit face-to-face supervision, and may impose increased shifts on workers who are well, managers and supervisors should develop virtual supports that maintain the dynamics and substance of staff support and well-being. Access to accurate and timely information about clients, and to operational policies and procedures to help decision making in challenging situations, may be reduced, so shifting to online communication with and about clients becomes critical:  for accuracy, confidentiality, and expedience. Staff at all levels are already aware that voluntary organisations may not survive the lockdown measures, and that job precarity has increased, though the need for their services, going forward, may be greater than ever; this tension can and should be addressed through responsive, virtual supervision and peer support networks.

Myriad individual, organisational and structural stressors may manifest in emotional, cognitive and behavioural impacts, as well as poor physical health, on the personal and professional lives of those working with justice-involved people in the voluntary sector. Close and constant work with traumatised individuals can result in secondary stress or vicarious traumatisation (VT), a cumulative process of psychological and somatic symptoms; core dynamics, which can ebb and flow, include isolation, helplessness, hopelessness, depletion, and altered or collapsed belief systems (Robinson, 2015; Pearlman and Saakvitne, 1995). It may also intrude on relational strengths in the life of the person affected, and place strain upon interpersonal relationships (Beaton and Murphy, 1995). The process of VT can disrupt an individual’s sense of safety, resulting in increased fearfulness, terror, and perception of vulnerability to harm (Robinson, 2015) and may advance to fears of illness and death.

Since the nature of this work is relational, and requires trust-building and continuity, VT can fundamentally affect the efficacy of services.  Our pre-Covid-19 research exploring VT amongst those who work closely with justice-involved women and girls, indicated relational challenges of emotional distancing and boundaries, because of client vulnerabilities. Now, the challenge to workers at all levels in voluntary organisations is to work together, to create new and sustainable ways to connect with clients and, importantly, with each other.

Effective best practices of education, training, and peer-to-peer support to deal with the complexities of working with justice-involved clients (e.g. awareness of and support concerning staff mental health, acute and post-traumatic stress, despair, and chemical dependencies) can mitigate VT. Such efforts normalise experiences of VT, so that staff understand what they experience as ‘part of the job’, therefore lifting the burden of negative cognitions such as self-deprecation and self-blame, and contributing opportunities for communication and solidarity amongst peers, and managers. 

The accompanying infographic reveals the dynamics of VT for this work, in this time, and proposes ways to lift the burden for staff, and to provide more effective service and support for clients in peril in any case: during Covid-19, and in other trauma-saturated environments.  

Further Reading

Beaton, R.D. and Murphy, S.A (1995) ‘Working with People in Crisis: Research Implications’, in Figley, C.R. (ed) Compassion Fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized. New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.pp. 51-81.

Pearlman, L.A. and Saakvitne, K.W. (1995) Trauma and the therapist: Countertransference and vicarious traumatization in psychotherapy with incest survivors. New York: W.W.Norton.

Robinson (2015) Troubled Girls, Troubled Staff: Comments on Vicarious Traumatisation and Limits of Help. Presentation given at SCCJR, University of Glasgow, May 2015.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash 

Criminal Justice and Health

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