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'Sex offenders can be isolated - sometimes I'm the only person they talk to'

We spoke to a probation officer featured in tonight’s hard-hitting RTÉ documentary.

probation-large-01 Probation officer Nick Clarke Source: Midas Productions

AROUND 10,000 PEOPLE on probation, sometimes for serious offences, walk the streets throughout Ireland every day.

There’s another group, whose job is to stop them re-offending, and help them re-integrate into society – they are the probation officers.

TheJournal.ie caught up with one of them, ahead of a two-part RTÉ documentary, Inside Probation, which starts tonight.

‘It’s not nice work’

Nick Clarke has been a probation officer in Dublin for the last 15 years, after arriving in Ireland from his native Liverpool.

While all the officers profiled in the documentary seem to have incredibly tough jobs, Clarke has chosen a particularly difficult specialisation – working with sex offenders.

It’s not nice work. And most people simply don’t want to do it.But they have to be re-introduced to society at some point.

One scene in the documentary shows Clarke desperately trying to find accommodation for a client who was kicked out of a B & B when it emerged he had been convicted of raping a woman.

“I don’t want him to be homeless, I don’t want him to have to sleep in a shop doorway,” he pleads down the phone.

“You see, the last time this happened, he did a burglary with a knife,” he tells a colleague.

Probation-Large-06 Source: Midas Productions

The Probation Service supervised 211 sex offenders in the community last year, which is just 2% of their overall caseload.

For obvious reasons, though, it’s extremely complicated work, and requires a multi-agency approach.

Along with the Probation Service, this involves the Garda Síochána and a number of community organisations, who share information and expertise via SORAM – the Sex Offender Risk Assessment and Management system.

Given the horrible acts some of his clients have committed, you might assume Clarke has to switch off his moral conscience to do his job. Not entirely.

No, of course you can judge people, you have to judge people. But the point is – they’ve already been judged.
What really matters is whether they can accept responsibility for their actions. They have to admit what they’ve done.

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Probation-Medium-05 "I don't understand why people do the most horrendous things. And the more I get into it, the less I understand." Source: Midas Productions

That trust is crucial to the relationship between a probation officer and their client, says Clarke, who trained as a social worker before working as a probation officer.

Sex offenders can be quite isolated. So sometimes I’m actually the only person that they’ll talk to on a regular basis.
There has to be mutual respect and trust, and boundaries have to be established.

If this sounds to you like a parent-child dynamic, you’re not far off.

It can definitely feel like a father-son relationship. There’s a lot invested in them.
I have to make it clear that if they don’t respect the boundaries, they will go back to court.
And when they do, I feel a lot of disappointment with myself. I definitely feel like I’ve failed, sometimes.

‘Hearing voices that aren’t really heard’ 

Pamela Drynan, the producer of Inside Probation, hopes the documentary, which was made by Midas Productions, will spark a conversation in Ireland about the lives of offenders, and how we can rehabilitate them.

We’re hearing voices that aren’t really heard – offenders talking openly.Our intention wasn’t to shock viewers, but there were a lot of extraordinary conversations and stories there.
Just seeing the way probation officers and their clients interact was extraordinary.I was surprised by how important that relationship was, and how much trust was built up.

Probation-Medium-03 "I'm gonna be watching you like a hawk." Majella, another probation officer featured in tonight's documentary.

For offenders, the prospect of probation is not always a simple one, says Drynan, who along with director Judy Kelly, spent a year following the probation officers and their clients.

In some cases, life on the outside poses horrendous challenges. Some people don’t have a stable home, or there are mental health and addiction problems.

For Nick Clarke, the most important thing for viewers to take away from Inside Probation, is not to “demonise” offenders.

If they withdraw from society, and become more isolated, the problem just gets worse.You have to give people a chance to change.

Inside Probation starts tonight on RTÉ One at 9.35 pm, and concludes next Monday, 13 October, at the same time. 

Read: Homeless offenders: ‘Yes, there are bad choices – but a lot have been victimised’>

A Week in the Family Court: 6,500 children are in care – here are some of their stories>

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Dan MacGuill

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