New NI probation safeguards after rise in domestic abuse

There have been major concerns over an increase in domestic violence during lockdown. Credit: PA

New safeguards have been introduced by probation services in Northern Ireland in response to rising rates of domestic abuse during the coronavirus pandemic.

The number of reports to police and calls to a 24-hour helpline for victims are both on the increase.

The Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI) is now working to ensure increased monitoring and focus on abuse perpetrators and other offenders with a history of domestic crimes.

PBNI Director of Operations Hugh Hamill said: “We know that domestic abuse is an area of concern during the pandemic when so many families are social distancing at home.

“We are continuing to deliver programmes and interventions to perpetrators and our partner support workers continue to work with partners and ex-partners.”

While probation officers have introduced remote monitoring for lower-risk offenders during the pandemic, face-to-face supervision has been maintained for those who present a risk of harm.

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.

“PBNI psychologists are carrying out assessments by telephone and video call. Indeed, assessments have increased significantly during this period,” she said.

“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.”

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.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

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