Austrian NEUSTART celebrates 60th anniversary

This year NEUSTART celebrates its 60th birthday. NEUSTART is the Austrian non-profit organisation that provides probation, victim-offender-mediation, electronic monitoring and other services of social work in close cooperation with the Ministry of Justice. Time to take a dive into the history of the organisation with Bernd Glaeser, Leiter ZB Sozialarbeit NEUSTART.

Uprising of the ‘fatherless juveniles’

“The Austrian instrument of probation (Schutzaufsicht – „protective control“) itself was founded in Vienna in 1917. The basic idea, influenced by the psychoanalytic movement (e.g. August Aichhorn), was to build up a personal trustful relationship between (juvenile) delinquents and social workers in order to foster a change to a life without delinquency. Due to historical reasons in Austria this development was rudely interrupted in the 1930’s.

The idea was picked up again after the war, but it was not earlier than 1957 that a small group of idealistic people in Vienna founded the ‘Arbeitsgemeinschaft Bewährungshilfe’. A small working group of dedicated psychologists, lawyers and pedagogues discussing alternatives to juvenile detention. They studied models of probation in England, Switzerland and Germany. Members of this group were working in a juvenile detention (‘education’) centre in Kaiserebersdorf, crowded by fatherless juveniles who could not find their direction and were contained under a rigorous regime. In the beginning of the 1950’s juvenile delinquency was dramatically increasing in Austria. When there was an uprising of inmates in Kaiserebersdorf, this working group pleaded for an alternative way to deal with these juveniles: help instead of punishment. Initiate the turnaround to a positive development by trustful relations and the belief in a change for good. In the 1970’s the education centre of Kaiserebersdorf was closed down due to the establishment of the probation service in Austria.

Volunteers

The history of probation in Austria has been a history of volunteers from the beginning: Since the mentioned pioneers themselves were idealistic volunteers. The volunteer element has always been a constitutional element of probation in Austria. Later on the professional element became the backbone of probation work, but today still around 30% of the probationers are being supervised by volunteers. The main reason for appointing volunteers is not saving costs, it is to keep up the link between probation work and the community. On one hand our volunteers come directly out of the community and will talk about the stories of change they experience in their social environment. On the other hand they are linked to the community and thus have access to resources that can be important bricks to build up a new life for the probationer.

Volunteers are not always professional social workers, but they are closely embedded into the professional system of NEUSTART. A standardised recruiting and selection process ensures that volunteers will bring the required personality, stability and approach for this challenging function with them. Comprehensive theoretical and practical in-house-training and qualification will teach the skills. The integration into a team of volunteers instructed by an experienced professional probation officer will provide the backing to navigate safely through their duties as volunteer probation officers despite of challenging situations and frustrating experiences. These teams of volunteers including the professional team supervisor have proven to be one of the crucial success factors of volunteer probation.

What makes the difference to a supervision between volunteers and professionals? They all underlie the same standards of quality, but the volunteers supervise different probationers. Difficult cases like sexual offenders or offenders with psychiatric problems will not be supervised by volunteers. Each probation starts with an interview led by a professional probation officer. After a thorough case analysis and social diagnosis, the officer has to assess whether the probationer can be supervised by a volunteer. The appointment with the definitive probation officer will not be made before this decision has been made. Actually NEUSTART employs more than 400 professional social workers and 1000 volunteers.

State run organisation vs. NGO

From the beginning the Austrian probation service was run by private bodies in tight coordination with the Ministry of Justice – this is where the funding comes from. In the late 1970’s probation should become state run, but it was postponed in the last second. Not earlier than 1994 it was finally decided, that NEUSTART will stay a private body mainly funded by the Ministry of Justice. The task of the organisation is to reporting to the Ministry of Justice as well.

The organisation’s first field of work was social work with juvenile probationers. With the professionalisation of the organisation the working fields began to expand. A short summary:

  • 1957 probation for juvenile offenders;
  • 1960’s Probation for all offenders – juveniles, young adults and adults;
  • 1970’s supervised housing programs;
  • 1970’s aftercare help for released inmates without probation;
  • 1980’s supervised workshops and vocational training;
  • 1980’s Victim-Offender-Mediation (VOM) for juvenile offenders;
  • 1990’s VOM for juveniles, young adults and adults;
  • 1990’s drug prevention programs;
  • 1990’s court assistance for young offenders (form of pre-sentence reports);
  • 2000’s diversional unpaid work;
  • 2000’s unpaid work for fine defeaters;
  • 2000’s victim support;
  • 2000’s social work in schools;
  • 2010’s electronic house arrest/home detention;
  • 2010’s Social Net Conferencing.

In the beginning of 2000, a mayor organisational reform was realised, the name of the organisation was changed to NEUSTART, as by then our services covered much more than only probation service. Today NEUSTART works with more than 40.000 clients per year: offenders, victims and people at risk to become delinquent. From our experience we see that offering a broad portfolio of services produces synergies: For example, we learn things from victims that we can use for our work with offenders and vice versa.

The development of our philosophy can be illustrated by the claims we use connected to our name:

  • Until the 2000’s: Help instead of punishment;
  • 2000’s: Our help creates safety;
  • 2010’s: Life without delinquency – we help;
  • 2017: A change for good.

Supervision as a proactive dialogue

The self-concept of supervision has undergone substantial developments. A professional trustful relationship as core element of probation has stayed through the years. In the early years the relationship itself had to bear more expectations to foster a change. The concept of Austrian probation was based on psychoanalytic theories, later complemented by client-centred, systemic, and cognitive perspectives and methods. The “what-works-discussion” of the 1990s left its traces’. According to the risk, need and responsivity (RNR) principles several methods and tools have been implemented.

NEUSTART introduced its approach linked to the RNR principles, calling it “Steuernde Sozialarbeit”, basically meaning “steering social work”. NEUSTART developed its own diagnostic tool, the so called “Resources and Risk Inventory” (RRI). The RRI corresponds with the RNR principles. The results of the RRI should be the foundation for the social workers’ planning of interventions. Besides risks, also needs and resources become visible. The RRI recommends an appropriate contact frequency for the case according to criminogenic risks and needs. The RRI has been designed dynamically, it should guide the process of care and by its clear structure it is possible to illustrate the effectivity of the interventions. The goal is to reduce risks and strengthen resources. The outcome of the RRI not only shows the risks and resources of the case. The RRI results recommend goals and topics for the case work, which the social worker can build the agenda for the case on.

Our experience shows, that a key element of preventing recidivism is, the offender being able to act differently in high risk situations. For some years now we are using a structured tool with its roots in cognitive psychology which focuses on delinquency, insight, acknowledgement of risk to create motivation for change of attitude and action in critical situations.

The emphasis of social work with delinquents now lies more on a pro-active dialogue between probation officer and probationer focussing on topics that are directly connected to delinquency.

Within 60 years of social work in the field of criminal justice NEUSTART was able to develop quite a good expertise. This would not have been possible without intensive national and international networking. Policy makers and practitioners have to meet regularly in order to learn from each other’s experiences, receive new impulses, identify new challenges and find solutions for oncoming tasks.

NEUSTART has always tried to integrate new methods and approaches, but still respects well-proven experiences: Discover new ways – preserve old strengths.”

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