Peer Support Team Ready to Listen

OYA’s parole and probation staff are accustomed to helping others. But what happens when they need their own support?

When a youth on Robb Reed’s caseload passed away in June, conflicting emotions flowed through him: sadness, confusion, shock, guilt.

The news reached him accidentally, about eight hours after it happened, through a text message from an acquaintance.

“I don’t know how you could prepare for it,” says Reed, a juvenile parole and probation officer (JPPO) in Oregon Youth Authority’s Clackamas County office. “It affects a lot of how I’m handling other cases right now.”

Encountering traumatic events on the job is not uncommon for juvenile justice professionals. Past traumas in a youth’s life may continue to rear up. The nature of the youth’s crimes might be difficult to process. Or maybe the youth commits new crimes despite all the work put into getting them on the right track. And that doesn’t even take into account all the day-to-day work that goes into supporting youth and their families.

Combine those on-the-job stresses with difficult issues in your own home life, and sometimes it can seem overwhelming.

A new peer support team at OYA is here to help. Formed by field supervisors Tara Williams and Theresa Haworth, the 14-member team stands ready to assist any employee in Community Services, which encompasses all staff who provide services for youth on parole or probation.

OYA Facility Services has had Employee Support Teams in place for years at the agency’s close-custody facilities. This is the first time a peer team has been available to employees on the community side.

The purpose is to aid in day-to-day stressors and crises, either personal or professional, and critical incidents. It is designed to provide confidential support, help alleviate the effects of stress, increase resilience, and improve coping strategies for staff.

“The job itself is stressful, and our personal lives ebb and flow,” says Reed, who is a member of the new team. “For every individual, they have that point where it’s almost too much and you need a different perspective, or assistance in developing boundaries, or even someone to just listen.

“Through the training (for the support team), I learned a lot about myself and my struggles, and how some of that can be dealt with differently.”

When Traumatic Events Happen
How to Support Yourself
- In the first 24-28 hours, alternate appropriate exercise with relaxation.
- Structure your time and keep busy.
- Talk to people. Reach out. People do care.
- Be aware of numbing the pain with overuse of drugs or alcohol.
- Help your co-workers by sharing feelings and checking in with them.
- Give yourself permission to feel rotten.
- Keep a journal.
- Do things that feel good to you.
- Avoid big life changes.
- Make daily decisions that give you a feeling of control over your life (deciding what you want to eat, for example).
- Get plenty of rest and eat well-balanced, regular meals (even if you don't feel like it).
Source: International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, Inc.

Frances Howells, a JPPO in Lane County, says she wanted to be part of the peer support team because she’s seen the need for it in the past.

“Our officers can be so siloed sometimes,” she says. “We can talk about the good stuff, but we don’t always talk about the difficult stuff. There have been times when people have felt adrift when they needed to be surrounded and supported. It’s really helpful for us to have a more formalized way of recognizing these are difficult situations that need to be dealt with.”

Everything discussed with a Peer Support Team member is confidential unless someone discloses abuse. The team can also connect employees with counseling or other professional services.

The team members were chosen through an application process. They went through multiple training sessions, led by Responder Life, a nonprofit that provides support and programs to first responders and their families.

Team member Daniel Xiong says he appreciated the way the trainers understood the complexities of the types of stresses experienced in juvenile justice and related fields. That’s also why he believes the peer team is important, for when teammates feel they need to talk with someone who “gets it.”

“We’re always working in a high-stress mindset as compared to other people in other lines of work,” says Xiong, an OYA foster care certifier. “We’re not always aware of it because we’re on the go. When something happens, we take care of it. We’re always thinking 20 steps ahead.

“We’re blending that with our home stress as well. If we don’t take care of ourselves, that’s when depression or PTSD can kick in. You can go through (Employee Assistance Program) or other programs with your health provider, but they don’t understand your job, sometimes they make you jump through hoops, and you can fall through the cracks and get even more stressed.”

When Traumatic Events Happen
How to support others
- Listen carefully.
- Spend time with the traumatized person.
- Offer assistance and a listening ear if they have not asked for help.
- Reassure them that they are safe.
- Help them with everyday tasks like cooking or cleaning.
- Give them some privaate time.
- Don't take their anger or other feelings personally.
- Don't tell them that they are "lucky it wasn't worse." Instead, tell them you are sorry the event occurred, and you want to understand and assist them.
Source: International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, Inc.

Tonya Hoover, an office specialist in OYA’s Lane County office, works more tangentially with youth and their families, rather than managing cases. However, she wanted to join the team because she thought she could bring a different, yet important, perspective.

“I see this as more than just when something big happens at work,” she says. “I would like to see it grow into something where someone can call and say, ‘Hey, I’m struggling. Does anybody have experience with this? Could you help?’ It’s important to know that we all need support sometime in our lives. I’m really proud of our agency for seeing the need for this.”

Xiong agrees. He wants everyone to know that the new team is not just another “OYA flavor of the month,” and that they are here for the long haul.

“The team is here to support even the little things, whether it’s work-related, home life-related — we’re here to listen and talk,” he says.

Reed remembers having a hard time making connections while he was dealing with the youth death plus his own family health struggles and support.

On the new team, Reed hopes to remove barriers for others who need to focus on taking care of themselves instead of on figuring out where to go for help. “I want to help people be able to navigate the system for what’s easy, simple, quick, and what they need at the time as opposed to running into roadblocks,” he says. “We’re also giving them a bit of a shoulder to lean on.”

Connect with the Community Services Peer Support Team

If you are an OYA Community Services employee who would like to get assistance, you can reach out to any of the team members directly:

  • Theresa Haworth, Coos/Douglas field supervisor
  • Tonya Hoover, office specialist, Lane field office
  • Frances Howells, JPPO, Lane field office
  • Sara Johnson, transition JPPO, Jackson field office
  • Amy Peña, transition JPPO, Multnomah field office
  • Jeff Pickell, transition JPPO, Coos/Curry/Douglas field offices
  • Robb Reed, Clackamas field office
  • Karri Robinson, Community Resources Unit
  • Deanna Salvo, JPPO, Marion field office
  • Lani Thomas, JPPO, Lane field office
  • Robert Tully, JPPO, Linn field office
  • Paul Vogel, JPPO, Douglas field office
  • Daniel Xiong, foster care, Washington field office
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