'There’s no such thing as a typical day': Patience, problem-solving, skilled coordination define role as mental health parole and probation officer

September 17, 2018

There’s no such thing as a typical day.

Like the weather, Alex C. Jones says, his job can change on a moment’s notice.  

“One moment, I might be working with a client on cognitive and behavioral skills,” says Jones, a parole and probation officer with the Department of Community Justice Mental Health Unit (MHU). “Then, literally within 15 minutes, I can have a client who is in crisis in the lobby, or I’m transporting someone from jail to treatment.”

Mental Health Unit parole and probation officers Alex C. Jones (left) and Averyl Growden (right) pose for photo.

The client in crisis is typically someone struggling with a mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or severe anxiety. They might also battle co-occurring substance use disorders, with many turning to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate their mental health. By the time they meet Jones, they’ve also become involved with the criminal justice system.  

“It’s an epidemic of a problem,” Jones says. “Mental illness and drugs.”

Multnomah County’s Mental Health Unit serves many roles — from protecting public safety and reducing the reoccurrence of crime, to diverting those with severe mental illness/disabilities from jails and hospitals and into community-based treatment and services.

The 11-person team supervises roughly 400 people on parole, probation or post-prison supervision throughout Multnomah County. They protect public safety while also creating positive change in the lives of those on supervision.   

“You have to prioritize constantly,” says Jones.

The job’s dynamic nature showed itself just last month. It was a hot, August morning when Jones and his partner, Averyl Growden, were out in the community, visiting with clients.

The pair were eastbound on Southeast Division Street, near Interstate 205, when they saw 15-foot-high flames looming over a field off Southeast 94th Avenue. The field was familiar. They had checked on clients who’d lived there before.

“Many of our clients are also homeless,” Jones says. “There just aren’t enough resources to go around.”   

Entangled in the flames was someone’s property. “You could tell someone had a camp right there,” Jones explains. “There were clothes, plastic, metals, hygiene products, all sorts of things.”

Growden worked to move people away while Jones grabbed a fire extinguisher from their car. Passers-by, also with fire extinguishers, came to help until Portland Fire and Rescue arrived. It’s still unclear how the fire started or whose property burned.  

Alex C. Jones, mental health parole and probation officer, helps put out flames of Southeast Portland fire.
Alex C. Jones, mental health parole and probation officer, helps put out flames of Southeast Portland fire.

“If they hadn’t seen that fire and responded the way that they did, it could have easily spread,” said John McVay, Mental Health Unit Manager. “In their role as a Parole/Probation Officer they work with individuals on supervision to develop skills and provide accountability and sometimes act as first responders.”

The team celebrates successes whenever they can. For every success, there are challenges and frustrations, and sometimes both sit alongside the shock of the devastation of mental illness.

Symptoms of a mental health crisis can manifest in anything from delusions, hallucinations or disorganized speech to severe mood swings. MHU parole and probation officers must figure out what’s happening and how to help.

Both Jones and Growden took the oath as parole and probation officers two years ago. Jones brings more than 15 years of experience with the U.S Air Force and working with youth involved in the justice system. Growden has 12-years’ experience as a licensed counselor. Most of her clients now are women.

“It’s unusual if they haven’t experienced some sort of intense trauma,” she says.  

Meeting basic needs is a constant struggle.   

“When a client relapses, sometimes they lose their housing,” Growden says. “There are many times when you lose your housing that it’s hard not to use [drugs]. I’ve had plenty of women who keep struggling with relapses or their housing situation and then they disappear and can be on a warrant status.”

If there’s a serious public safety risk, then parole and probation officers must act. “But there’s a huge service component to being a mental health PO,” Jones says.

The job’s intricacies require patience, problem-solving and skilled coordination with community partners. The officers work with Project Respond, a mobile mental health crisis response team that provides specialized services. The team works to improve access to appropriate services for people with severe mental illness who are at high risk of involvement in the criminal justice system. They work alongside the County’s Forensic Diversion Program to connect people with treatment and get their lives back on track.

Mental health parole and probation officers also engage in something called cognitive behavioral change, a form of behavioral therapy that aims to change negative patterns of thinking. They conduct motivational interviews — a client-centered form of counseling — that also aims to create behavior change.

Success stories do happen, Jones makes clear. But the range of success depends on the ability to engage with a client.

A recent client, he explains, was on supervision for assault and violating multiple restraining orders.  

“He was facing up to a year in jail. He has a lot of trauma and obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and schizophrenia.”

The man also experienced childhood trauma. “His father had severe mental illness and he witnessed his father’s suicide. He has a lot of trauma — issues with child abuse,” Jones says.

Mental Health Unit (MHU) parole and probation officer Alex C. Jones (left), Manager John McVay and MHU parole and probation officer Averyl Growden pose for photo.

The man kept violating the conditions of his supervision by returning to the home covered by the restraining order.

But recently, when the man got out of jail, Jones connected him to mental health services and housing.  

“I immediately worked with him on some of the issues surrounding his anxiety, and we immediately started working on his skills. I would take walks with him. I would spend time out of the office with him and it’s actually working,” Jones says.  

Since the man’s release from jail, he hasn’t been back to the home.

He’s also been clean and sober for over a month.

“This is the longest he hasn’t been in and out of jail in three years.”

Despite setbacks, and struggles to keep compassion fatigue at bay, the officers dole out as much positive reinforcement as possible.

There’s a correlation to success: “A lot of clients don’t have someone who says, ‘Hey I’m proud of you,’ or, ‘Hey, you did a really good job,’” Jones says. “That’s when you start to see the changes.”