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Working with volunteers at the International Office

The International Office is part of the Dutch Probation Service. It works on behalf

of three probation organizations in the Netherlands. The International Office

provides information, advice, and support to detainees serving prison sentences

abroad and their social network. In the regular probation and after-care service,

working with volunteers has made a complete come back. There have always been

volunteers at the International Office. Ever since its foundation in 1975, the

International Office has been working closely with volunteers. Thanks to this

experience, the International Office has a unique position within the probation and

after-care service.

This article first briefly introduces the International Office's working practice and

then discusses the deployment of volunteers and the dilemmas this entails.

Arrested abroad and then what?

Every year, the International Office counsels more than 2100 detainees in foreign

detention. Most of them are detained in Europe, especially in Belgium, Germany,

Spain, France, and the United Kingdom. When a Dutch citizen is arrested abroad,

the local authorities first inform the embassy. Through the embassies, the Ministry

of Foreign Affairs provides consular assistance. The embassies provide the

detainees with an information package. This package contains an information

brochure on the International Office and the application form with which

counselling can be requested. That application form is necessary, as, unlike the

probation and after-care service in the Netherlands, there is no judicial framework.

Counselling is provided voluntarily.

The International Office employs thirteen regional coordinators. They are

experienced probation officers who each coordinate a part of the world. With the

help of the volunteer probation officers, they maintain contact, and support

detainees abroad. In addition to this, the regional coordinator supports the social

network of detainees through, among other things, office services and information

days for the home front.

The mission of the International Office includes humanitarian motives (attention

to the interests and needs of detainees) and rehabilitation motives (re‐duction of

recidivism by the promotion of social inclusion) (see over-


Visit of a volunteer probation officer

The International Office has a worldwide network of 300 volunteer probation

officers. These are Dutch nationals living abroad. They visit the detainees every

six to eight weeks and report back to the regional coordinator and the embassies.

The regional coordinators of the International Office manage, coach, and train

the volunteer probation officers.

During their visits, the volunteer probation officers encourage debate on the

areas of life, that are justice and detention, finance, housing, social relations,

education and work, and health. The volunteer probation officers list how the

detainee operates in these areas of life, provide information and advice, and

encourage reflection on behavior and choices made.

Professionalization of volunteers

Volunteer organizations are increasingly focusing on the professionalization of

volunteers. Volunteers are given more tasks and responsibilities that require

specific competencies and skills. They often follow an appointment procedure,

sign a cooperation contract, and are obliged to abide by a volunteer policy. The

range of courses offered by volunteer organizations is also expanding.

Professionalization offers volunteers self-development; volunteers feel

motivated and challenged to deepen their knowledge and skills. On the other

hand, it also excludes volunteers who are not willing or able to do so. Moreover,

the organization runs the risk of losing its individuality because volunteers have

something different to offer than professionals.

The International Office recognizes these developments. The complex work

practice and target group require professionalization. However, the

'individuality' of volunteers referred to sometimes clashes with the trend for the

professionalization of volunteers. At the International Office, we see this

individuality in the preferred attitude of many volunteer probation officers, best

described as 'being present': being there, connecting and attuning to the other,

the client perspective first, taking care of the relationship. It is from this attitude

that the volunteer probation officers build a bond with the detainee. This attitude

means that they connect detainees to the International Office by motivating

them to apply for counselling and creating support for activities and

interventions on the part of the International Office.

The International Office, at the same time, pursues goals that extend beyond the

relationship and the 'bond' with the detainee. These goals are around

encouraging self-reflection and promoting self-determination.

To work on this, volunteer probation officers, for example, are trained in the

principles of motivational interviewing, with which they are given tools to give

substance and direction to a conversation. They are also trained in the life area

method, that helps them to apply in the interview the aforementioned life areas

over a long period, as foreign detentions often last several years.

These methods encourage self-reflection and promote self-determination by

investigating the meaning of choices made and their consequences.

Applying such methods requires a different attitude from volunteer probation

officers. It is necessary to keep a certain distance from the detainee and the

situation in which the detainee finds him- or herself. The aforementioned goes

against the said preferred attitude of the volunteer probation officers that is based

on closeness, on the contrary.2

It is a complicating factor that detainees often focus on the present; they live in the

here and now and are surviving in captivity. Detainees are preoccupied mainly with

judicial procedures, detention conditions, and liaising with the social network.

They appeal to the volunteer probation officers to pay attention to the 'here and

now'. At the same time, the methods call for a broader view, i.e. the present, the

past, and the future.

It is not at all easy for a probation officer, to tailor to the detainee and his or her

needs, and, at the same time, keep one's distance and apply methods and


Search for balance

The International Office does see that volunteer probation officers have qualities

that meet the needs of detainees. Applying methods and techniques is difficult.

Volunteers are not professionals. It is a constant search to see to what extent the

professionalization of volunteer probation officers is possible without

compromising their 'individuality'. Solutions are sought in both recruitment and

selection of volunteer probation officers as in training activities. By appointing

volunteers with specific qualities and skills, a network is built of volunteers who

are up to this complexity. Methods and techniques are taught through training

activities. We adapt these activities to the possibilities of volunteer probation


The International Office seeks the right balance between the preservation of the

individuality of the volunteer probation officers, the needs of the detainees, and the

department's social mission. It is not easy, practice is stubborn, but it is a

fascinating challenge.

Michelle Pape & Marco Brok

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1 Comment

Iosif Csatlos - Dima
Iosif Csatlos - Dima
Apr 03

Great job! Congrats!

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