Dr Nicole Renehan is an ESRC-funded postdoctoral Research Fellow at Durham University, UK. She specialises in domestic violence perpetrator programmes and her research interests lie within the area of domestic abuse, both victims and perpetrators, and workforce development. Nicole also has a practice background in domestic abuse.
Last weekend I was inspired (or should I say felt compelled) to respond to a #HiddenHeroesDay post which was shared (and ironically I missed) on 28th September 2021. Hidden Heroes Day celebrates the work of prison and probation practitioners. Their work usually takes place away from public view. Hidden Heroes Day recognises their “tireless” efforts which often go “unnoticed”, and it is an opportunity to remind these “unsung Hidden Heroes” they are not “forgotten” and to “truly appreciate them for all they’ve done, and continue to do”.
The “unsung” hero described in this post was a prison Interventions Facilitator. Interventions Facilitators deliver Offending Behaviour Programmes in prisons, or in the community to people on probation. This role often involves, for example, working with people on approved programmes to address their sexual offending, general offending, or domestic abuse. The Hidden Heroes post wanted to put a “spotlight” on an enthusiastic prison Interventions Facilitator, by asking her some questions about their role.
The Interventions Facilitator had been motivated to do this role to help others change their lives and said that seeing people make positive changes was the best thing about being a facilitator. Such experiences had also changed her as a person, making her more “assertive, resilient and patient”. The proudest moment in her role had been supporting a vulnerable prisoner believe he had reasons to live. She concluded with advice to prospective facilitators that, while the work is challenging, a true passion for helping others makes the work “rewarding and worthwhile”. This Interventions Facilitators’ reflections will no doubt resonate with some criminal justice practitioners and provide inspiration to those thinking about entering the field.
This is just one of the many Interventions Facilitators who would be described as an ‘unsung Hidden Hero’. In fact, my research with Interventions Facilitators working with men convicted of domestic abuse offences revealed that they are not just hidden AND forgotten, but are systematically neglected and excluded in theory, policy and practice. Shockingly, a literature search threw up just one single article that explored the experiences, perspectives and impact on Interventions Facilitators when working with domestic abuse perpetrators. Depressingly, though this research could and should have been ground-breaking, it was written over a decade ago and has received as much attention in 13 years as have facilitators.
Like the prisons Interventions Facilitator, my own interviews with probation-based facilitators revealed that they were motivated to do this work because they too wanted to help others and believed that people can and do change. But when given the permission to speak freely and provide detailed facilitation stories, these laudable vocational endeavours did not necessarily play out in practice. The facilitators often felt unable to deliver interventions in ways that were commensurate with their own values. Some observed that the men they worked with experienced many emotional vulnerabilities and structural disadvantages that the programme could not (nor did it purport to) address. Despite knowing that many more resources would be needed to support these men to change, their calls for more training, time, and knowledge to help them do so went answered and unnoticed.
The lack of practical and emotional support had significantly impacted on the facilitators’ wellbeing. Like the prisons Interventions Facilitator, the job had also “changed” them. But instead of feeling more “assertive”, some facilitators felt there was little point in continuing to raise important practice issues because they were either minimised or ignored. Concerningly, some facilitators even lacked the confidence to speak out about issues affecting their own wellbeing for fear of being seen as weak or emotional. Instead of feeling “resilient”, facilitators said they felt “exhausted” and “stressed”, comments that were qualified during the research where I observed two facilitators crying as they arrived on shift. While resilience can be a significant human capacity for learning to cope with many of life’s difficult situations, it can also be used as an invisible tool to silence and responsibilize employees instead of investing in policies which foreground wellbeing in practice. Instead of feeling “patient”, some experienced facilitators had become more cynical about whether the people they worked with could change, no doubt a defensive reaction in the absence of the resources they needed to be able to work in responsive ways.
While helping others can be “rewarding and worthwhile”, these intangible rewards cannot be used as currency for everyday essentials. The facilitators I spoke to felt undervalued and underpaid. There were no structures in place for career development and no pecuniary incentive to stay. “But this work is vocational” we often hear politicians say, who have hijacked the word to justify low pay, pitiful pay increases, and deteriorating working conditions while clapping on their doorsteps for our “unsung” public service heroes.
“These experiences are just subjective or localised issues” I hear you say. While they cannot be generalised, one only has to read Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation’s report on domestic abuse work in Community Rehabilitation Companies. This found that the confidence and support experienced amongst Interventions Facilitators was varied. The experiences and perspectives of Interventions Facilitators in my research have certainly resonated with many other criminal justice facilitators who have contacted me to say reading these accounts had made them feel validated. One stated that she had found the research “emotional to read” as she had “consistently felt much of the negative aspects” the facilitators had described. Another contacted me to say that “decent pay and a proper career structure” was lacking and that while Hidden Heroes were being acknowledged, “you can’t eat a hero award”.
So, while it is important to put the “tireless efforts” of facilitators in the “spotlight”, we should shine a whole road of streetlamps on the institutions, organisations and cultures within which they work. Facilitators are often hidden behind programme manuals, forgotten variables in evaluation, unsung because to invest in them and the resources they need would be too costly, and neglected because (I am guessing) many of them, given the chance without fear of repercussions, might just sing in a way that even the canary would be envious of.
Voices like the prisons Interventions Facilitator are valid and need to be heard, certainly if we want to encourage a generation of committed and enthusiastic practitioners into prison and probation practice. This is surely pressing in the wake of the long-awaited Domestic Abuse Act 2021 which commits to addressing the behaviour of domestic abuse perpetrators in increasingly higher numbers and the backlog of referrals resulting from the covid-19 pandemic. But we must now be prepared to ask and hear from more critical voices about the difficulties facilitators also experience. These voices must no longer be hidden but used to good advantage to ensure interventions and those delivering (and participating in) them receive the very best of care and support.
Dr Nicole Renehan, Durham University firstname.lastname@example.org
(please note that this is spelt incorrectly and currently waiting for IT to give me an ‘e’ in Nicol!)
Personal website/blog: www.nicolerenehan.com
This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the institution she works for.