On the Front Line: The Probation Officer

Tina Wood is wracking her brain for an opioid addiction success story.

The Hennepin County probation officer is sure there must be some, but what’s going through 

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her brain are all the people who ended up in prison, who overdosed, whose parents have called her terrified that their child would die.

“We’re just seeing the destruction,” says Wood, who’s worked in probation for 18 years. “We’re seeing a lot of people sitting in jail. We’re trying to keep them alive. If treatment isn’t working, that’s our next best bet. But they’re going to get out.”

Wood tells the story of a man on probation who was found passed out in his car on the side of a city street, motor still running, a needle in his arm. He’d overdosed before. He ended up in prison.

His mother called Wood, yelling and irate. His sister called to thank her.

“We provide a service nobody wants,” says Wood, the co-chief steward of Local 552. “We are trying to be your change agent, but at the same time, we have to hold people accountable. The little successes we have, we hold onto. I know at the end of the day, I’ve done the right thing. You can be mad at me that I put your son in jail. I’m not going to let him die.”

Her clients on probation may start out with painkillers that are legitimately prescribed for injuries or chronic pain. Then they start using someone else’s prescription. They find they can’t manage their physical pain, numb their emotional pain or achieve the same feeling of euphoria. They start buying on the streets.

In her 18 years doing probation, Wood says she’s always seen heroin and opioid addiction, but not like this. Everything is stronger and more addictive. Fentanyl is so potent, it can kill people on the first use.

“You don’t know what hit is going to kill someone,” she says. “Opiates don’t discriminate on class, color, age, education or wealth. It doesn’t matter. It will destroy whosever life it happens to touch.”

Frantic calls from parents, siblings and significant others have become all too common in this era of opioid addiction.

“Sometimes they’re terrified they don’t know where their kid is. Sometimes they find a syringe or pill that puts them on high alert. I recently had a mom call and say, ‘Please lock my daughter up. If you don’t, I’m afraid she’s going to die.’”

There is a big societal cost. People in the throes of addiction may commit robberies or burglaries to get money for drugs. Social workers, child protection and public health get involved. So do law enforcement, public defenders and prosecutors. Cases clog up the court system.

Probation officers try to address addiction and get people into treatment right away. Then they tackle jobs, mental health and education.

But despite all of these interventions, some people just can’t stop using.  Wood has had clients overdose and die, and others end up back in jail or even in prison.

“That’s part of the emotional challenge of working in this field,” she says. “We do a good job of leaning on each other.  We’ve all had situations like that.  We know how hard it is to keep going on with your work when you’ve lost someone, when you’ve seen the potential and seen what that person's life could have looked like.”

Wood thinks growing awareness of opiate addiction is starting to curtail doctors’ prescribing of opioids. But that alone isn’t enough.

She says we need longer-term treatment for this level of addiction and to build a wrap-around support system that includes substance abuse treatment, mental health care, employment opportunities and affordable housing for offenders.

“These are convictions based solely on drug abuse,” she says. “The system, I think we have a long ways to go to figure out how best to handle these cases, but I think we’re doing the best we can with what we have available.”

She says the people who do make it are incredible.

So are the probation officers and other workers who help them.

Our series "On the Front Line" examines some of the many ways AFSCME Council 5 members are helping to fight Minnesota's opioid crisis.

Read the full series:

The Drug Treatment Counselors

Helping Moms and Babies

The First Line of Defense

Calling 911