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How probation officers can stay safe during home visits

Home visits are an important part of an offender’s probation fulfillment; here’s how probation officers can stay safe before, during and after the visit

For probation officers, conducting home visits offers a unique opportunity for a glimpse into the private world of their clients.

As a sentencing option for judges, probation provides an alternative to incarceration, and consequently, the home becomes a focal point for family, social and community adjustment. In fact, a suitable and stable home goes a long way in allowing the offender to concentrate on treatment needs, employment, leisure time activity, and garnering family support. Lack of a stable home furthers the case for chaos and delays a probationer’s progress in completing a court-ordered probation plan.

During a traditional office visit, probationers step into the officers’ domain. During a home visit, however, officers enter the offenders’ world. While officers want to catch offenders doing something right and not something wrong, officer safety becomes the number one consideration.

Preparation and planning prior to conducting a home visit are important keys toward ensuring safety.

Tips for a safe home visit

Before going into the field, officers should map the best routes for visiting clients, maximizing the number seen, yet taking precautions around weather, traffic, neighborhoods, client mental health needs, gang activity and other factors.

Working files and chronological entries should be reviewed, as well as checking for outstanding arrest warrants. With large caseloads being the norm, officers should never rely solely upon their memories for knowledge about their clients; important details are found within files.

A cell phone, business/appointment cards, and vehicle prep are some of the other considerations prior to making home visits. Supervisors and receptionists should know the whereabouts of officers and their home visit schedules.

At the end of the day, a final call to a supervisor that all is well is expected. When two probation officers travel as one team into the field, officer presence is twice as effective, and this buddy system becomes the preferred method.

Other considerations

Attempting to locate absconders can be challenging, and officer safety is paramount, especially when navigating into unfamiliar geography or talking to neighbors.

Cross gender supervision strategies cannot be understated. Over time, officers grow to expect the unexpected, and while it is impossible to predict every possible scenario, falling back on policy reduces risk to officers and any claims about how they have allegedly conducted themselves during a home visit.

Agency policies should be clear about offenders’ rights for filing a complaint or grievance. Likewise, conducting a fact-finding swiftly and investigating allegations like sexual misconduct sends a clear message which may exonerate an accused officer.

Probation officers should pay attention to perceptions about threats or danger. They are likely to face all kinds of challenges: aggressive pets, confrontational family members, observation of weapons and drugs, neglected children, etc.

When the little hairs stand up on the back of an officer’s neck, the best course of action is an immediate exit strategy, and during exigent circumstances, calling 911 may be the best and only option.

Home visits are critical to the overall management of the probation population. Officers making home visits should prepare; never, never, never take shortcuts; should expect the unexpected; be trained and knowledgeable about their clients; and exit without fanfare after the visit has concluded.

Cherrie Greco is a retired correctional administrator and consultant, having provided technical assistance to a number of criminal justice agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, and the states of Colorado, Texas, Florida, Maine, Alabama, Connecticut and Oklahoma on the topics of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Amendment Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act. During her career with the Colorado Department of Corrections, she served as Director of Administration, Warden, Legislative Liaison, and Director of Staff Training. In recent years, Greco served as a Senior Consultant for MGT of America and was the Director of Probation for Oklahoma County. She earned a B.A., Ed. from Northwestern Oklahoma State University and an M.A., Ed. from Lesley University, Cambridge, MA. Ms. Greco resides in Oklahoma. She has been a columnist for CORRECTIONSONE since 2011.