Our Reintegration Counselling program provides one-on-one and group counselling for women who are on Ontario probation and parole, using a client-centred model. Women who are criminalized often struggle to find stable housing, employment, educational opportunities, and access to necessary social, physical, and mental health services. They are in need of supports to help them on their journey to reintegrate into the community. The Reintegration program covers a wide variety of topics, as referred by Probation/Parole Officers. Common topics of referral include, Substance Use & Trauma, Theft & Fraud, and Anger Management.
In conversation with our Reintegration Counsellor, Emily, she was able to provide further insight about the program, what it’s like working with probation officers, the power dynamics the arise, and the need for more programs like this to support women with counselling conditions as part of probation/parole.
"Multi-sectoral partnerships are critical to successful discharge planning. Rather than operating in their own independent “silos”, correctional agencies, community supervision agencies, and community-based service providers should work closely and collaboratively to provide “continuity of care” to releases."
- from the Reintegration in Ontario Report, John Howard Society of Ontario, 2016
Working with Probation Officers
While there can be challenging power dynamics that arise when working with Probation/Parole Officers, Emily notes that these officers actually have a lot of discretion in their enforcements which grants leeway for meeting women’s complex needs.
Probation/Parole Officers are responsible for ensuring that their clients meet the conditions laid out in their probation/parole orders. The counselling conditions in these orders are usually quite broad. This means that the officer may mandate how many counselling sessions a woman needs to complete as well as the topics that must be covered, but that there is no specific curriculum laid out by the Ministry. This is where Reintegration Services differs from other mandated counselling programs such as the Partner Assault Response Program (PAR), which often have strict curriculums to which counsellors must adhere. What this means for the client is that the counsellor can cater sessions to meet her specific needs. For example, a woman referred for Anger Management counselling may also be struggling with anxiety. Without a set curriculum the counsellor can easily cover both.
This is not to minimize the challenges of being mandated into counselling for probation/parole. A looming reality for anyone on probation/parole is that their officer can criminally charge them for breach of probation and put out warrant for their arrest at any time. This dynamic can be very scary for women navigating the criminal justice system where they often already feel like they lack power. This can sometimes impact the counselling relationship. In Emily’s experience, clients who have good relationships with their officers tend to have more trust in the counselling service, while those who do not are often weary of services and struggle to open up.
A Reintegration Counsellor has a different power dynamic compared to other social workers because they have the power to disclose information to probation officers that could result in their clients being charged. Emily mentioned that she keeps her disclosures with Probation/Parole Officers as low risk as possible sharing only minimal information. Probation Officers do not have the right to ask for counselling notes or any other detailed information. The Reintegration Counsellor is a separate entity from probation and their ultimate duty is to provide counselling services. Sometimes it is difficult for clients to see that, and in Emily’s experience they sometimes see her as an extension of their Probation Officer.
Need for Supportive Counselling
There is a major need for more reintegration programs, specifically counselling, because it is becoming part of more women’s probation/parole conditions. Right now wait times for counselling with Emily in Reintegration Services can be up to 8-months long. Women who have any type of mandated counselling need to complete it more quickly to ensure they have no legal consequences.
Not only should there be more reintegration programs, there should be more targeted programs that support people experiencing legal challenges. Having to navigate the criminal justice system can be very isolating and overwhelming. Women looking to reintegrate into society after significant charges and/or a term of imprisonment need appropriate resources that support their current needs and helps to make an easier transition back into the community. Emily has also noticed that other essential resources such as housing, gainful employment and high-level mental health care are difficult to access for most women in her program. Although Emily’s role is supportive counselling, she often finds herself filling in case management gaps for clients due to the high level of need.
"Successful reintegration reduces the chances of recidivism and thus increases public safety. Unfortunately, research indicates that many provincial releasees in Ontario lack access to adequate discharge plans before their release from prison."
- from the Reintegration in Ontario Report, John Howard Society of Ontario, 2016
Impact of COVID
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the service delivery of our programs and services, and affected how our clients complete their reintegration programs. Emily has highlighted some challenges that that her and her clients are facing:
Often times people who are on probation are living in poverty and are unhoused or living in shelters. This makes it difficult for them to attend virtual or over the phone counselling sessions due to either lack of privacy or lack of technology.
Some women push themselves to do virtual counselling in abusive home environments and are not transparent with their counsellor because they are afraid of not meeting their probation/parole conditions.
Virtual counselling also causes challenges with engagement. Some clients need visual aids and applied learning. Many clients also require in-person contact to truly feel connected and engaged. In Emily’s experience, some clients will not complete worksheets or other tools virtually even if it is emailed or read to them, due to the lack of engagement with the tool.
Though there are some negatives associated with conducting counselling over the phone and virtually, there have also been some silver linings. The pandemic has illustrated that counselling can be more accessible and flexible. Having the option to attend counselling over the phone or virtually makes it easier for some women who might have difficulty securing transportation or finding someone to look after their children. Prior to the pandemic clients had to attend reintegration sessions in person, but navigating the pandemic has shown us that we can offer both types of session to our clients. Emily’s hope is that the COVID-19 pandemic can set a precedent for us to offer clients both options (virtual and in-person) moving forward.
Takeaways from our Reintegration Counsellor
Message to Clients: Our reintegration program is not an extension of the probation office. Enforcement and punishment is not our goal. We can find creative ways to cover your mandated topics and address issues that are important to you.
Message Probation Officers: Please do not push too much counselling onto your clients. Emily has noticed that many POs will refer their clients to three or more programs at a time. The assumption that more counselling is always better is not the accurate. Too much counselling can be very overwhelming for clients, especially when they have the added pressure of completing it for probation. Too much counselling can also be distracting and make it more difficult for the client to resonate with the material. Please be flexible, patient and lenient with your clients so long as you can see they are trying their best.
To learn more about other organizations that that center programming around reintegration, please visit:
Operation Spring Board: https://www.springboardservices.ca/adult-justice/
LOFT Community Services: https://www.loftcs.org/
John Howard Society of Toronto: https://johnhoward.on.ca/toronto/reintegration-programs/
Written by: Kendra St. Cyr & Emily Irwin