From archaeologist or car importer to employee in a TBS clinic

In a room of hotel De Witte Hoeve in Venray, twelve ‘switchers’ are sitting at tables in a classic U-arrangement. They are seven women and five men who until recently worked as beauticians, archaeologists or soldiers and are now training to become sociotherapists in the De Rooyse Wissel TBS clinic, a few kilometers away.

Lecturer Ardwi Klein Entink from the Hogeschool van Arnhem en Nijmegen (HAN) is in front of the group. He asks the students to choose a difficult situation that they experienced during their first days in the TBS clinic and about which they want tips. One of them, a young man in a gray hoodie, shares his coolness issue: “I escorted a male patient to the medical office. He received a syringe in his buttocks from a female nurse and therefore had to pull down his pants. I stood behind him and saw how he started masturbating with those pants on his ankles. What would you do?”

Some whispers in the group. Lecturer Klein Entink, a sympathetic man in a shirt and waistcoat, nods understandingly. “Everyone will experience this kind of special behavior at some point. That you think: geez, what is happening here?”

The group discusses: should their classmate have intervened immediately? Or are you just causing an unwanted scene? When the young man finally says that he reported the incident to a colleague back at the department, he gets a thumbs up from Ardwi Klein Entink. Who then says encouragingly to the group: “Keep asking, huh? If you think: is this possible, did I do the right thing, is this normal? Asking is always good.”

‘Reflection of society’

The shortage of personnel in the eleven TBS clinics in the Netherlands has been a major problem for years. The number of people sentenced to TBS is increasing year on year – there are now a total of about 1,500 TBS patients in the Netherlands, compared to 1,300 in 2019. The number of employees in the clinics is not growing proportionally. The Association of TBS lawyers even makes a link between an increased number of incidents involving (escaped) TBS prisoners and the lack of manpower. The problem is also on the political agenda: at the beginning of February, the House of Representatives debated it with Minister Franc Weerwind (Legal Protection, D66).

Read also: TBS clinic manager in crisis: ‘We welcome it when employees make reports’

Staff shortages are also the order of the day for TBS clinic de Rooyse Wissel. “The pool of trained people is simply empty,” says recruiter Jacqueline Janssen. She has been working for the Rooyse Wissel for two years now and has noticed that recruiting for a world like this is very difficult. “We are here to ensure the safety of society, so we really cannot just hire anyone who seems nice. You need papers and experience, you have to be cut from a certain cloth and together the workforce must be a good reflection of society. In short, there are many challenges.”

De Rooyse Wissel is an organization with over six hundred employees, three hundred of whom have direct contact with the 180 male TBS patients who are ‘inside’ here. There are currently sixty different vacancies open and the Rooyse Wissel continues to grow. Three years ago, the recruitment department therefore came up with an idea: couldn’t we do something with lateral entrants?

Career Switchers Project

This is how the career switchers project came about, in which people from completely different sectors with at least a mbo 4 education can register for a paid training program to become a sociotherapist, the people who supervise the TBS’s on the ward on a daily basis. And that went like a train.

“That was a gift,” says Monique Struijk of the HR department. “So much growth and so much demand: we had not anticipated that either.” The first class of ten switchers started in June 2022. In December, class two started with twelve people and there are already fifteen registrations for June.

A common denominator is that when switchers tell their environment about this process, people often respond with: ah, really something for you

Freya van Krieken practice supervisor

How does the TBS clinic explain this sudden enthusiasm? Jacqueline Janssen: “There are quite a few people who say: I’ve always had a heart for healthcare, but I’ve taken a different turn in my life so I don’t have the papers. We cater to that group.” Janssen notes that the term ‘career switcher’ is very popular. “That ‘switching’ stands for guts, for daring, for wanting to change. While ‘lateral entrant’ does not have any of those connotations.”

Another factor is that the world of TBS has a certain ‘exciting’ attraction for some people, says practice supervisor Freya van der Krieken: ‘People are curious about what goes on behind those closed doors. The switchers are people who want to look beyond the headlines and are curious about the story behind the person.” The background of the group is diverse, says Van der Krieken. “But a common denominator is that when they tell their environment about this process, people often respond with: ah, really something for you.”

Car importer

In the meantime it is time for coffee in the hotel hall in Venray. Jacky (37) also walks out of the classroom, a tall, friendly-looking guy with tattoos, a dark beard and blue eyes. Not long ago, he ran a business that imports American cars and trained at a kickboxing gym at night; now he has been training as a sociotherapist for about three weeks. This means that you are the patient’s personal supervisor on the ward and help with the day-to-day affairs: from cooking to assessing whether someone can go to therapy that day. Sociotherapists form the largest group of employees employed by de Rooyse Wissel.

“I find people’s behavior interesting, even the wrong side, so to speak. I grew up in an old-fashioned working-class neighborhood. One of those where everyone is sitting comfortably in the front garden during the World Cup, but where – the downside – there is also a lot of crime. Those guys often don’t know any better. I want to show them how things can be done differently.”

The set-up of the training of the Rooyse Wissel was “perfect” for Jacky. He previously applied to the youth prison and the Pompe Foundation, which also treat forensic detainees, but failed each time because he did not have the right education. “So I’m very happy that that opportunity is here. Although it does take some getting used to being in school again. I wouldn’t have thought of that when I was 37.”

Dual track: four years with salary

The participants in the switchers project have signed up for a dual training program for four years, in which they work three days a week in the clinic as a sociotherapist and go to school one day. After a selection procedure including assessment, the clinic decides which switcher is best suited to which department. During the first weeks, the starter is ‘stuck’ against a personal supervisor, as HR employee Monique Struijk calls it, and there is also a practical supervisor especially for this group of switchers. “We pay a lot of attention to that guidance. It is a different world than when you work at the bakery on the corner.”

The four-year training program also includes the promise to continue working at the Rooyse Wissel for at least three years after graduation. A seven-year commitment. Although that contract is not set in stone, according to recruiter Jacqueline Janssen: “If someone had estimated it very differently, we can look at a solution.”

On the other hand, the Rooyse Wissel pays for everything for the participants: training and travel expenses. After completing the programme, they will have a higher professional education diploma in social work from HAN University of Applied Sciences and will receive a monthly salary of between 2,450 and 2,850 euros, excluding irregular hours allowance and end-of-year bonus, even during their studies.

For switcher Paula (47), that salary was an important factor. “I have a mortgage, a car, I want the best for my children. I had been planning to make a switch in my head for about four or five years, but just didn’t dare. These working conditions made it possible.”

You could call it a transition: before Paula worked as an archaeologist at an engineering firm, and in recent years as a project manager. “I had not been in my place there for a few years: I wanted to do something with people and be more socially relevant.” She had never thought about working in a TBS clinic before. It happened to her because she came across a stall of the Rooyse Wissel on the open day of the HAN University of Applied Sciences. “After a conversation I thought: maybe it’s something for me after all. I am interested in mental illness and like a challenge.”

The best part is when you have small breakthroughs with patients

Paula sociotherapist in training

She has now started three weeks in the department for people with ‘mental vulnerability’, as it is called. How do you like it? “I am very tired, but I also find it very interesting,” she says. “The best thing is when you have small breakthroughs with patients. Recently I asked a patient something in the morning, but he immediately cut me off: he was reading the newspaper. He said that very bluntly. In the afternoon I tried again, with success, and also came back to what happened that morning. That I can! And that he had also been helped by practicing this way with conversations. That gives me a lot of energy.”

For Jacky, who was first in American cars, it is still a bit of a search for a good work-life balance. “Those eight hours that you work, you are ‘on’. I still find it difficult to find the ‘off’ button at home afterwards. Especially during the late shifts, I sit on the couch until late processing all those stimuli and impressions.” But in terms of content, he finds the work “super interesting”. “Those guys have of course already seen three hundred aid workers pass by, so their attitude is: what should he do? But some already manage to break through that a bit and start sharing and telling something. That’s nice to see. I now go to work happy and go home happy.”

For the safety of employees who are in direct contact with TBS patients, their surnames are not listed.

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