Croatia has quite a lot of former soldiers with PTSD. They need a special approach from the Croatian Probation Service.
The war in former Yugoslavia ended almost twenty years ago. ‘But the wounds are still there’, says Jana Špero, head of the Croatian Probation Service. ‘There were a large number of Croatian men in combat in the period 1991-1995. A significant number of them developed a post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This disorder increases the chance that they commit crimes, although, of course, not all veterans with PTSD have committed crimes. We already knew that, because in the last twenty years we have seen that there were quite some men with PTSD in Croatian prisons and detention institutions. The Croatian Probation Service is a relatively young organisation. We started working from regional offices in 2011. In these last four years we have also worked with probationers that suffer from PTSD. We have come to the conclusion that people with PTSD need a different approach than our other clients.’
In many cases probation officers do not know that the person they are dealing with has PTSD. ‘We are now communicating to our staff that they need to be aware that clients can have this disorder. It is not something you can see immediately when you meet somebody for the first time. Violent behaviour, intolerance, a rejection of the social code of conduct, problems or violence within the family can all be related to PTSD. Most soldiers were in their early twenties when the war ended. Probation officers have to be extra alert when dealing with veterans in their early forties. People with PTSD often have other disorders as well, such as depression or anxiety. In many cases one can also find alcohol and drug abuse.’
Over 7,000 Croats were held in prison camps during the war. Jana Špero: ‘This is the hardest category, because they suffered most. Conditions in these camps were terrible. People were killed in front of other people, many have been tortured, there was starvation, etcetera. Injured soldiers from another category that needs special attention. Sometimes the injury is clearly visible. But in many cases the injuries are internal or they are the consequence of wounds that appear to have healed. Probation officers must inquire very carefully about this. It helps if they have some knowledge about the unit of a former soldier and about what that unit did during the war. If the probation officer shows that he or she is really interested in what happened to the veteran, clients are more likely to open up during the motivational interviews.’
One of the main goals probation officers have when dealing with former soldiers suffering from PTSD is to refer them to psychiatric treatment. ‘We try to cooperate with hospitals, medical institutions and social welfare institutions as well as we can. People with PTSD need specialized help. We also refer them to support groups for veterans. There, they can talk about their problems and experiences and about possible ways of dealing with these problems. Treatment of alcohol and drug abuse is a priority as well. We make an individual treatment programme for each offender that we help and/or supervise. The offender signs this as well. The ultimate goal of the treatment is to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD and to improve the psychosocial functioning of the person suffering from it.’
Some offenders with PTSD are very nice to work with, but other cases are very difficult for the probation officer. ‘Recently I got feedback from one of our regional offices. They assist a client who was one of the best soldiers during the war. He fought in a special army unit. In 1995, when he came back to his village, something went wrong and out of the blue he murdered three police officers, former colleagues of his. He was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment and was conditionally released after eighteen years. In these eighteen years the war ended, Croatia became an EU member state and Croatian society changed a lot. He now lives in the same small village as before. The local community has a very negative attitude towards him. He himself feels terrible about what he has done. Apart from PTSD he has other disorders as well. You can imagine he has huge problems adjusting to his new life. His probation officer has spoken with him many times already. Sometimes he needs to call her late at night or during the weekend, to talk about his problems.’
Another example shared with Jana Špero concerns an offender who came to the probation service to do a community sentence. ‘He was living in very poor circumstances in a rural area. He had not asked for help because he had no idea help was possible. The probation officer contacted the Ministry of Defense and dealt with the paperwork. A health insurance and a pension was applied for and this man is living in much better conditions now. In another case, a man with PTSD was sentenced to protected supervision because of violent behaviour. The probation officer managed to enroll him into an alcohol abuse treatment programme. He successfully completed that programme and hasn’t committed any crimes since. So, he is not under supervision anymore. But he still calls his former probation officer regularly, just to say that he is doing fine.’
The Croatian Probation Service helps and supervises some 3,000 offenders at this moment. Jana Špero: ‘Our information system does not register offenders with PTSD as a special category. I really don’t know how many of our clients actually suffer from PTSD. Maybe it is a good idea to start registering PTSD in the future. We do have the impression that the number of clients that suffer from PTSD is increasing. We need to formulate an answer to that. Our probation officers have learned about war-related problems in their education, from colleagues that worked for the Ministry of Defense before and from experiences within their own families and local communities. I expect the Croatian Probation Service to grow in the near future. I hope that, in a few years time, we can achieve that one probation officer in each of our regional offices will be specialized in PTSD. In that way we can professionalize our organisation and improve our services to former soldiers with PTSD.’