Thomas Hill Watches Over 134 People. Most Use Drugs. Many Don't Have Jobs and Can't Read. He's Supposed to Keep Them All Out of Trouble.
Lolita Brown is feeding her ten-month-old son some juice through a bottle, filing the part, for a moment, of a classic Madonna. But the image is shattered when Lolita takes the bottle from the baby's mouth and takes a long pull from the bottle herself. She is a little embarrassed to be caught drinking the juice when Thomas Hill, her probation officer, comes back into the room and sits behind his big, brown desk, facing her.
"Ms. Brown this is your second visit," he says, shuffling some papers around. "I was concerned, as you know, that you missed your last appointment, not so much because you missed it, you see, but because you didn't call."
"Yeah, I'm sorry about that," Lolita Brown says.
Hill finds the form he's looking for and starts to fill it out.
"Are you living in the same place—D Street?"
"Why didn't you come?"
"It was a real nasty day."
"I want to stress the fact that if you can't report to me, you gotta call, even if it's two or three days later. You have got to call. You must comply with the terms of probation. This is very important."
"Yeah, okay, we'll get this straightened out."
As Hill jots notes in her file, Lolita squints to read his handwriting. Her file shows that she is 37 and single. She was busted in her home six months ago for possessing eleven small bags of cocaine. She pleaded guilty to possession to avoid being charged with drug distribution. Because it was Lolita's first criminal offense, the judge suspended her one-year sentence and put her back on the sidewalk to work off two years of probation.
The judge also requested that she seek "medical, psychological, or psychiatric" treatment, and take a urine test each week to prove that she wasn't continuing to use drugs.
But one judge's word isn't gospel. That's Reality Number One of the criminal-justice system. Lolita Brown isn't getting any treatment. Probation officer Hill also knows that if he sends her down for urine tests today, it'll be a month before he sees the results. The lab's too slow, and even if the results came back positive, there'd be no point in his saying, "Ms. Brown, I have evidence that you were using drugs a month ago," because Lolita's smart enough to counter with "Oh, that was last month. I'm not using them now." Besides, the testing facility can take only a few of Hill's clients each day, and he has other people he needs to check up on more than he does Brown. So he sticks to his paperwork and is thankful, at least, that she has shown up at all.
Based on her background, employment history, and lack of a criminal record, Brown appeared to be of minimal risk to the public safety. And she seemed fairly stable. So Hill assumed she would need only minimal supervision—he asked that she come and see him only every two months. But that was before she started missing appointments. Now he has to play tough; he tells her she'll have to come in every two weeks.
"As I recall, last time we talked, we talked about jobs," he says, lighting his pipe.
"That's not going too good because I've got this child," Lolita responds.
"I know you've got a baby, Ms. Brown, but you've got to find a day-care center somewhere so you can get a job. One of the provisions of your probation is that you find employment just as soon as possible."
"I'd like to get more sewing work that I can do in my own home. I've been sewing since I was nine years old," she says.
"I'd think you could get a job with that kind of skill. Once you start working, your whole life could turn around."
"Well, I'll wait until my baby's two and then put her in a center."
"You're not listening to what I'm saying, Ms. Brown. That's another year from now, and you don't have a steady source of income."
"I hate to go back to negative things, but we know what brought you here—possession of cocaine—and it appeared at that time that you were selling cocaine, too. I'd hate to see you get pushed back into a corner so that you'd have to do that again."
"I've had jobs," Lolita says. "I had a desk job once, and I gained fifteen pounds for every year I was there."
"I'll tell you what you do: Call around and see if you can find some government-supported day-care center. I'll give you the phone numbers. Because we gotta get some of these problems solved, Ms. Brown. This does not look good. All right?"
"I feel good. I'm not too worried about it. Something will turn up."
"I certainly hope so, Ms. Brown. For your benefit and your child's."
"I'll see you later then."
"Okay. Two weeks from today."
When she's safely down the hall, Hill says, "I bet you money that she's dealing drugs right now. She doesn't have a job. She doesn't want to work anywhere. If she's selling cocaine, she's probably doing fairly well, so it must seem absurd to her that I'm saying, 'Go get a $200-a-week desk job,'" he says, jamming her folder into his file of active cases.
One of every 50 DC residents is on probation. That's 12,612 adults and juveniles on probation, more than three times as many as there were ten years ago. It's not that the crime rate has increased dramatically. It's just that the jails are overcrowded, so more and more people are being given long probation sentences instead of short prison terms. The probation system now handles not only first time offenders, as it was designed to handle, but also those who have broken the law for the third o fourth time, particularly drug abusers. The DC police crackdown on PCP abusers alone—3,030 arrests in 1984 compared with 310 in 1982—has placed an enormous strain on the system.
"There's nothing left to cut back," says Alan M. Schuman, director of DC Superior Court's Social Services Division. Schuman has fewer probation officers than he did in 1971, but three times the caseload. "We're still seeing the worst cases the most. But it's the fringe people we're seeing less. There aren't any places we can cut anymore."
Hardest pressed are the 114 probation officers in the adult division: 37 researchers who write some 900 pre-sentence reports monthly, and 77 others, like Thomas Hill, each responsible for counseling and keeping track of 130 to 140 people on probation.
By law, a probationer is required to (1) obey all laws, ordinances, and regulations; (2) keep all appointments with his probation officer; (3) notify his probation officer of any change of address within 48 hours and get permission if he plans to leave the metropolitan area for more than two weeks; and (4) abstain from the use of hallucinatory or other illegal drugs.
If he doesn't abide by those terms, his probation can be revoked and he can be sent back to court for resentencing. But once again, thanks to jail overcrowding it's not easy to get someone's probation revoked. People who know the system realize that they can go months without seeing their probation officer and not be sent to jail. A bench warrant may be issued for their arrest, but it would simply be logged into a computer and probably wouldn't be discovered unless they were rearrested. And even if they did run into trouble with the law again, a judge would probably go easy on them if they had stayed out of trouble for several years, even if they had violated the terms of their probation.
"Ultimately, I guess it's more important for them to stay out of trouble than report," Hill says, "which makes me mad. I've had people disappear on me and then get a break in court because they happened to behave themselves for a few good years. I think that sends out the wrong message."
Hill's function as a probation officer is twofold, which is why, to his client at least, he gives the confusing appearance of coming from two places at once. He is to safeguard society against the potential recidivist, and he is to help his clients—mostly people who've pleaded guilty to reduced charges—get their lives back together. Each part is bound to the other, and a probation officer may spend years finding his own personal balance. It's a constant struggle to work with clients who aren't motivated to change, get the paperwork done on time, and still stay compassionate.
"It's sometimes hard to see where we make a difference," says Hill. "We probe. We pry. We confront. But we're not miracle workers."
About one out of every four people on probation in the District is a felon, and in 1984 one-third of the felony probationers didn't bother to report to their probation officers at all, a 42 percent increase from the previous year.
Still, you can't really assess a probation officer's effectiveness by the rearrest statistics of his clients. Hill says, "What's going on out there in the street involves a whole 'nother set of factors, and changing someone's behavior is about as tough to do as it is to measure. You might think you see a change, but you never know. You'll hear a lot of people say they're changing when they're actually out there doing the same old thing. It's discouraging. Some days I just fold up and go home. If I didn't do that every once in a while, I'd go crazy. I'd be the one needing a good probation officer."
Hill operates out of an old courthouse called "Building B" at 409 E Street, Northwest, a structure replete with architectural detail from the 1930's—such as Art Deco clocks, stylized, hand-operated elevators, and heavy doors that once led to judges' chambers. But some of the clocks no longer have hands. The once-grand doors are taped full of handlettered flyers. And a team of ten probation officers are squeezed into courtrooms that once seemed palatial. Partitions the color of green grapes set the probation officers apart from each other, but their conversations—and they seem always to be talking—mix in the air above the room, creating the sensation of a constant, slightly agitated mumble.
Hill's corner cubicle is decorated with Muhammad Ali posters, two large watercolors painted by a talented client, and several clipped newspaper articles. One of the headlines reads: "Blacks Must Now Fight the Enemy Within." In the outer hallway, there's a poster that says, "Don't compromise yourself, it's all you've got."
On this Thursday, Hill has a full roster. He's scheduled to see fourteen regulars, and as many unexpected drop-ins may peer around his green partition. It's not unusual for several clients to show up at once. They sit in the mismatched chairs out in the hallway, like bashful kids waiting to see the school principal, fraying the corners of their hall passes.
In comes a young man Hill has never met, wearing a knit cap, a pair of painter's pants, a T-shirt, and a vinyl jacket. His name is James, and he is on "direct" probation, which means that in order to save time, the judge has put him directly on probation, without the benefit of a pre-sentencing report. So before Hill can try to help him deal with his problems, he must first find out what the problems are.
"First, we look at why you're here, James" Hill says. "You're here because you're on probation. It says here that you did six days in jail for PCP possession. Is that correct?"
"Are you a PCP user?"
"I haven't used since I got busted."
"That's not an answer to my question. Yes or no. Are you a PCP user? Were you?"
"I was, sort of."
"Have you used other drugs?"
"Well, I have used other drugs."
"Cocaine, yes, I've used some of that. But I'm not addicted to anything"
"You're not addicted to anything?"
"Well, I'd just come up here form Virginia Beach, and I'd never seen any drugs," James says. "I used them here, but I haven't let them go any further."
"Seems to me you've gone about as far as you can go." What's left?"
"Oh, shooting up. That's left. See, I view cocaine as a very serious drug. And PCP is one of the most damaging drugs anyone has ever known."
"But I gave it up."
"Oh, come on, you gave it up because you got caught."
"This guy offered me PCP. I was there. It wasn't necessarily what I wanted to do."
"Oh, I see. We're going to have to watch this, James. Seems to me you've got to start assuming responsibility for what you do. You can't blame the crowd you run around with."
That's Hill's standard argument, and the typical beginning of a relationship. For Hill, the work ethic is a cure-all tonic. He's bullish on it. It sometimes takes years for his clients to begin to look for a job. Hill does his best to speed the process along.
"There are too many gaps in your employment history," Hill says angrily an hour later to a 26-year-old man who pleaded guilty to two separate marijuana-distribution charges. "Other than the work you did for the neighborhood advisory commission, what have you done? You've been unemployed for almost a year."
"I was going to go over to the post office today," the man says, "and I applied for a custodian's job at Bolling Air Force Base. I also went by the Washington Post."
"That's all you've done since I last saw you? You should cover that many places in a day, man."
"It's hard to get around."
"Well, you've got to have a plan. Get around with someone else. Walk! Job's not going to come to you, you know. The judge released you because you said you had work. Now the judge may ask me what I think, and I may have to say you're not putting forth diligent effort. You got to try a little harder. You've got your third or fourth court date in seven months coming up."
Hill tears a yellow sheet for his legal pad. "I'm expecting you to write down where you looked for work, who you spoke to, and whatever outcome there was. When I see you in two weeks, this sheet should be full."
When the man leaves the room, Hill, the cynic again, shakes his head and says, "I'm almost certain he's selling drugs. He's not making a lot of money, but he's selling something."
Of the 134 adults in Hill's current file, two have died by drug overdose in the past year. Almost half are unemployed: fifteen unemployed due to illness, 30 unemployed and compensated, 25 unemployed and practically penniless. The average age is 29.5. At least one-third of the, Hill estimates, can't read. Twenty of Hill's 134 clients are women, and they come in three varieties—welfare-fraud cases, drug-possession cases, and prostitutes. With the women comes a whole different set of variables and problems, child care being the biggest.
Most of Hill's clients report to him for less than two years, but in some cases, where long-term consultation is desire, a judge might require a repeat offender to see Hill for as long as five years.
Hill says 90 percent of his clients either use drugs recreationally or have verifiable drug problems. Fifty-one of the 134 are convicted felons, but very few were found guilty of "assultive" crimes. If they have committed violent crimes, usually it's a side effect of their aimless, impoverished lives, rather than a reflection of a violent personality.
For thirteen years now, Hill has been supervising errant grown-ups, most of whom, he says, have "the mental capabilities of a thirteen- or fourteen-year-olds." He's seen the pendulum swing quite a bit form emphasis on helping the people driven to crime by poverty to protecting the rest of society. And he's seen his attitudes harden. He's less tolerant of his clients' excuses, more cynical of their chances for rehabilitation.
"Probation is being used today for people who are not necessarily suitable, people who are more into drugs than we know," he says. "A long of my clients were busted for selling drugs on the corner two blocks from their house. Then they get out on probation and go back to selling drugs in the very same place. It's remarkable. It's incredible. But I can't go chasing after all of them. So I just do the best I can do."
When Hill goes out in the field for an afternoon, he must fill out a form, accounting for every hour. Each visit with a probationer is described in a file. Each evaluation report from every correctional agency is updated periodically and filed. All of it has a purpose, but it cuts into the time Hill has to work with his clients and their families.
"It's the administrative stuff that really kills you," he laments. "It's like we don't have time to listen like we used to. The emphasis has turned to just keeping up. You can always postpone a client other words, but God help you if you get behind in the paperwork. God help you."
The workload is such that Hill can't do justice to either half of his double objective. He doesn't have time to cruise the streets where drugs are being sold or many of the other things he needs to do to keep tabs on his clients.
"We overwork them; there's no question about that," concedes Nan Huhn, a DC Superior Court judge. "We expect them to be able to do things that they're not able to do. They can't move in with defendants. They might be able to see them once a month, but sometimes that's just not enough. But there's no way they can do more. It's a Catch-22."
And so when Hill analyzes his clients, when he files reports on people like Lolita Brown, the tendency is to say they are adjusting. To do otherwise would mean more interviews, more field work he doesn't have time for.
Hill says he can almost always see the trouble coming with a client, but it's a long process to get a probation revoked. And the half-day he'd have to spend in court isn't always worth the effort. In that time, Hill may have lost contact with half a dozen people who needed to see him. When he's not in, they file their own report form and leave without speaking to anyone.
The basic tool of casework is the interview, which is why so much is lost if probationer and probation officer don't touch base. It is during the interview that impressions are made, that terms are set, referrals suggested. This is when counseling—when there's time for it—takes place.
"They see you as polices at first," says Hill. "They know you are the one who will take them back to court, and possibly to jail, But I tell them that I'm here to help, that I'm not going to lock them up. They're the ones who're going to put themselves in jail if they don't meet the terms of their probation. I tell them that straight out."
In comes a man named Howard in a neatly pressed maroon shirt that matches his maroon shoes. He's taken a few courses at a community college. Hill likes him. He hasn't been too much of a problem, and he's been attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings as instructed. Unfortunately, there's still room for rehabilitation: Howard has just been busted for PCP again.
"So Howard, you are out on bond."
"Yes, the judge gave me bond."
"And what was it you told me yesterday? You said something to me over the phone that shocked me."
"My mother died."
"That's right. I'm sorry." Hill had known the woman relatively well because Howard's stepfather was once on probation.
"So now I gotta get my act together," Howard says. "I gotta get a job."
"Yeah, but you got something hanging over you. You got two charges of possession with intention to distribute PCP."
"I know. So I gotta get cracking and get me a job so I'll look good in court."
"Does it take all this to get you to go to work?"
"I don't want my probation revoked."
"No, and your mom's not here anymore to help you out."
Hill figures he'll go to bat for Howard this round and ask the judge to let Howard's probation roll on. "His mother was a real nice person," Hill says later. "She tried so hard. Maybe her death will turn him around."
Hill likes to get his clients' families involved. "It helps to bring people form the outside into the relationship. If a mother calls, I'll give her my home phone number, anything to make her a participant.
"But some of my clients have no parents, no girlfriends, no nothing," Hill says. "That's sad commentary, and it's often the case with the person addicted to drugs. Nobody's around to care, and even they don't like themselves very much. Prostitutes are that way. You can talk to them forever and get nowhere."
For his next case—a 21-year-old repeat offender named Burton, on probation for destroying a store display and shoplifting—Hill plays a more sympathetic role, that of a father or guidance counselor.
"What's been going for you, Burton?" Hill says. "I have not been pleased with you, as you know." For months now, Hill has been encouraging Burton to find a job.
"I brought you this," Burton says, handing Hill an advertisement for a new auto-mechanics school.
Hill reads it, scratches his forehead and waits a moment before saying anything. For the first time Burton appears to be making an effort to find work and, Hill doesn't want to discourage him. But he doesn't like the sound of this school. He begins, "I don't know too much about this institution, but a lot of these schools, man, are rip-offs. Schools like these would not exist if were not for young black people out there trying to make it."
"I took the admission tests and failed it," Burton says. "But the old man told me that I might be able to qualify for the loan anyhow. He wanted to see my mother's W2."
"Yeah, well, that's it. He's the salesman. He gets the commission off his sale to you. I don't want to discourage you, but please don't sign anything before you come in and talk to me about it. Don't let this guy pressure you."
"See, we both know that you can't read, and we know that you're not going to learn in a traditional school-type setting, so my advice to you is to get into some kind of reading class and get a job that involves something you can already do."
"See, that's what happens when you can't read, Burton. It leaves you vulnerable. It lets people come in and take advantage of you."
Thomas Hill was the first in his family of nine to finish high school. He grew up public housing in Northeast DC.
"Crime then wasn't what it is today. We stole, you know, and a lot of my friends got arrested. But we never got into big trouble. I was influenced a great deal by my more studious friends, so I started studying," he says.
He worked as a community youth counselor for three years before entering DC Teachers' College. He figured he could work in DC's juvenile detention center at night and study during the day. But during a semester break in 1968, his draft notice arrived and he ended up in Vietnam, where he served as a quartermaster in support and supply systems.
Two years later he returned home and his job at the detention center was waiting for him. He majored in urban studies at Federal City College (now the University of the District of Columbia) and would return later to get a master's degree in counseling.
In 1972 Hill became a probation officer. His timing was good because DC Superior Court had just begun reorganizing and more emphasis was being placed on the probation department. Hill could not only get involved in his community, but he could do it in a field that was growing.
But a job can change you, and Hill, like a lot of urban blacks in the probation field, has aged in his position. He concedes that the has become less compassionate, more hard-nosed in dealing with people who can't seem to get their lives in order.
"I'm not as liberal as I was," Hill says. "My mother gets on me, in fact, for being downright conservative. But I found out that things go deeper that I originally thought. I see people not assuming responsibility for their choices. The vast majority of my clients, in fact, don't see any choices at all. I say you can either pay or get paid. I tell them: 'You've got to put something in the pot to get something out.'
"How are you doing with the AA meetings?" Hill asks George, an alcoholic on probation for molesting a child when he was drunk.
"Oh, I get off too late," says George.
"You've got to go to AA meetings. I told you last time to go twice a week," says Hill, demanding compliance.
"I can't get to AA twice a week. I'm working now. I get wored out."
"Well, I understand that, George. And I'm sorry, but you've got to find some way of going to two AA meetings a week."
"I'll go once a week."
"You're not listening to me, man. I want you to go twice a week. You keep making these excuses."
"I get too tired. Those meetings be killing me. I know what I'm supposed to do to stay out on the street."
"I know you know."
"Will you be violating me even if I keep report to you?"
"That's what it's coming to."
"I can't be jumping up and going to meetings! It's killing me, I told you."
"This judge is giving you a chance to remain in the community, George."
"I been on the street almost a years, and I haven't gotten into trouble."
"But as far as your problem with alcohol is concerned, I've heard nothing but rationalizations and excuses. Everything will be fine, and you'll be right on target when you start going to AA meetings twice a week."
"I said I can't do that."
"I don't need to argue with you," Hill says. "You can go to the judge and say, 'Your honor, I can't comply with the conditions of probation because I'm too tired.' Then you'll see what he says. You're on you own man."
"You want me to do what you want me to do. You want me to kill myself. I be working so many hours a day, trying to make a living like everybody else. You don't understand."
"I understand," says Hill, closing George's file folder. "I understand that your future is in your hands."
A little later a shadow of a man fumbles into Hill's office. His name is Ralph. He has dust in his hair, holes in both shoes, rips on both arms of his jacket. He has welts on both hands.
He is scratching obsessively. "Have a seat, Ralph," Hill tells him. "You've been in jail, haven't you?"
"Yeah, they got me guilty on the paraphernalia," Ralph says, "but they didn't get me on the heroin."
"So now we get another probation-violation hearing."
Ralph has had five heroin-related violations since he was first convicted for a robbery in 1971. He successfully completed his first term of probation, but he's doing less well with his second term.
"Here's the deal," Hill says, sitting up straight. "You gotta get into a program, man. You got a serious drug problem. Look at yourself."
Ralph scratches. These days a lot of probationers badly need drug treatment, but there aren't nearly enough rehabilitation programs to handle them. At one time, DC was sending droves of cocaine and heroin addicts to get treatment at a clinic in Richmond, but that establishment has gone out of business.
"You gained some weight in jail, didn't you?" Hill asks.
"Two weeks in jail your face got fat and everything. You must have had a hard time coming down off of that."
"Yeah, I was in some pain."
"You're scratching and fidgeting like crazy. You're shaking and everything."
"Yeah. I'll get myself into any program I could get myself into. Any outpatient."
"No. Oh, no. We're talking inpatient. I mean you've go to live in the program. This is serious."
Hill stares at the man for a moment then adds, "That upsets you, doesn't it?"
"Huh? Yes. My supervisorŠI'll have to put my job thing on hold."
"For a month. Your undivided attention for at least a month, and it's not going to be easy, even after that."
"I—I want to get along with my life," Ralph says. "So far I've been taking it kinda slow."
"You've been coming every Friday, right? I'm going to send you over to one place, but I can tell you now that I don't think they have space. You can talk to them and get on their list, though. And it's better if you say you're coming in on your own. They don't so much like it if you say my probation officer sent me. Okay?"
"Yes. I'll go over there."
"You should go over there today."
"The court was easy on you this time. So now you've got a chance to straighten yourself out."
"I'll see you."
Ralph goes away, and Hill say, "He can go to jail for a long time, he can overdose, or he can get into a program. I should have told him that. Those are his only alternatives."
But there are success stories. In 1984, 3,853 District residents completed probation successfully, up by 12 percent form the previous year. Another 2,767 had their probations ended prematurely because their probation officers felt they no longer needed regular supervision. These are the people who sustain Hill's hope in the system, who show that with some support and guidance, they can live a crime-free life. "Some of our clients enjoy the relationship," says probation supervisor Garey Browne. "It may be one of the few non-threatening relationships they've had in their lives."
Take Tom, who racked up his share of drug offenses as a young adult and was probated two years ago for drug distribution. He got into serious trouble only once while under Hill's supervision, when he killed a man in self-defense during a fight. Due to technicalities, the case was dropped.
"Did you come in last month?" Hill asks, fumbling through the papers on his desk.
"No, I got a job."
"What? I've been your probation officer for over two years and you finally get a job! Tell me about it; what got into you?"
"I knew this guy who'd been driving a limo, and he told about how fun it was to drive a car."
"Well, bring proof of your employment next time—just a pay stub or something. I want to put it in a frame. What convinced you to take it?"
"My woman did, I guess."
"You know I remember after you were locked up for two months. You just weren't motivated. All I could do was hope that you didn't get into trouble."
"Yeah, I know."
"So, while you're at it, you might want to get help for that reading problem of yours. The older you get, the more you're gonna have to fool people," Hill says.
"Yeah, I'm trying to take care of that, too."
"I can see that this job agrees with you."
"I agree with myself instead of lying around the house all the time."
Hill seems genuinely happy. "That's just great," he says. "I'm tickled to death."
The good feeling is fleeting. Twenty minutes later, Hill finds himself in a conference with an uncooperative, unresponsive client. His cynicism returns. The coffee cup is refilled. His energy wanes. He complains of a headache.
"What time is it?" Hill asks. "My God. It's only three o'clock."
There's always been talk of changing the probation system, of making it more effective, less perfunctory. But now the talk is much more serious, largely because of the severe overcrowding of the DC Jail. The Correctional Facility Study Commission actually proposed an overhaul of the system in January, and the Barry administration supports the idea.
"I clearly see that intensified probation will have its day in the city," says Hallem Williams, special assistant to the city administrator. "The only thing holding us up is deciding where the money will be pulled from."
Schuman says the new system, which could cost an additional $1.4 million, would be modeled in part after an experimental juvenile restitution program in which five probation officers counsel 110 of the city's most troublesome juveniles. Recidivism rates have been cut in half, with officers carrying one-fifth the average caseload. Such a "maximum supervision" program might also involved house arrests of uncooperative probationers, curfews, impromptu urinalysis tests, as many as vie home visits per month, and community-service programs.
It wouldn't be cheap. A model maximum-supervision program in Atlanta coasts about $5.20 per probationer per day, compared with an estimated cost of 75 cents per probationer per day in DC today. But the cost of incarceration—about $26 per inmate per day—makes the expense of an upgraded probation system seem less extravagant.
Still, it could be years before a new system is in place. Which means that the juggling act will continue for department heads like Alan Schuman, who must balance bureaucratic demands and personal needs of his staff. " I'm dealing with a difficult and complicated outside, and I'm trying to protect my inside work. But I can't get my people the thing things need, so I am the brunt of their frustrations."
It's a Friday afternoon, and Thomas Hill is in the field, or "on safari" as he calls it. His first priority today is to deliver two written warnings to probationers he hasn't seen in months. If he doesn't get a response, he'll put out bench warrants for their arrest. Chances are, the warrants won't get mailed to his clients' homes for months. Chances are, the warrants won't have any effect unless the clients are stopped by the police, who then will run computer checks on them. Hill knows all this. But it's all part of the system, and the system has its own way of doing things. Hill knows this, too.
After he delivers all the notices, he sees he still has a good hour of his workday left, so he decides to visit a client he saw the previous Wednesday, a young guy Hill suspects is still selling drugs where he originally got busted.
Hill gets lost on the way and stops one of the young drug hustlers he sees on a corner to ask for directions.
"I've got herb," says the young man when Hill rolls down his car window.
"No, wait a minutes. I just need to know where Sayles Street is," says Hill.
"This is it," says the street dealer, pointing down the block lined with other kids hailing cars and selling drugs.
Hill murmurs, "I just might find my client out here." But he doesn't.
He makes his way to his client's house, knocks, and stoops to get his head beneath the rickety entrance. Inside, the room is cramped and lit only by the light of a television set.
Hill's client, Robert Carlson, is surprised by the visit. He creeps downstairs and sits opposite his mother, who says, she's glad Hill has come. As his mother talks, Robert's eyes remain wide and unblinking.
"I'm worried sick about Robert," his mother tells Hill as they both stare at her son. "He is not acting like the son I raised. I think he needs to be in a program."
"Well, Robert and I discussed that when he came to my office," says Hill. "He wasn't doing too good then. I think I intimidate him or something. He was trembling."
"Well, you saw what it was like out there," Mrs. Carlson says, pointing to the driveway. "With the kids selling everything under the sun. Thing is, Robert's smart. He's not like that scum outside. He's a good boy but he's running with a bad crowd."
"Well, Mrs. Carlson," Hill beings, "we all know that one. Robert and I talked about the importance of assuming responsibility for his own actions. Are you listening, Robert? We're talking about you, you know."
"I'm listening," Robert says, glancing up and then down again quickly.
"He looks like that all the time," his mother says, shaking her head. "I don't know what he's on."
"We talked about the dangers of PCP, because as you know, that's what first put him on probation, and I told him at the time that PCP is a very hard and dangerous drug."
"I know. I think that's it," she says, brushing a cockroach off the file folders Hill has left on the coffee table. "That's why I think he should be placed in a program. I've lost one son to a hit-and-run driver. I can't go through that again."
"I appreciate what your mother's saying, Robert. We want to do what we can to help you. But these inpatient programs won't take you until you're ready to help yourself. Understand?"
"I'll do whatever you tell me."
"Well, we're going to leave it open, and we'll discuss it next time, I'll be checking in on you," Hill says, standing up."
"Thank you," Robert's mother says.
"He's got to try a little harder to get himself straight," Hill says.
"Stay inside the house, Robert, if that's what it takes."
Robert stands but doesn't say anything.
His mother says, "Thank you again."
When Hill gets back to his car, he says, "I got the very strong feeling when I was in there—by the way he acted—that he wasn't used to being around a grown man. Just my physical presence—around these guys who haven't had fathers—can have quite an impact."
The encounter has its own effect on Hill, and as he drives home, he thinks out loud about the people whose lives intersect with his workday. "I can't help but wonder, you know, why people who've grown up in the same area in the same circumstances, can come out with a completely different set of values.
"My family didn't have a car, you know. Back then, there was a stigma attached to relief. And I sometimes look at the people I grew up with and compare them with my clients, and I can't figure out what's caused us to grow up with different attitudes. It's the values.
"At the same time, I hate to hear people say that there aren't any jobs for these people. The vast majority of them just aren't prepared. They need to read. They need an education.
"Actually, one of the best things that can ever happen to some of my clients is the successfully completion of their probation. Sadly enough," he says softly, "it's the only good thing they've ever really done."