At the end of last year Cheryl Lamont (56) was appointed as chief executive of the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, making her only the second woman in the history of the organisation to rise to the top post.
Viewing herself as “a public servant”, Cheryl strives to bring the motto of the Probation Board to life - ‘changing lives for safer community’.
Born on her family’s farm in Clough, just outside Ballymena, Cheryl has always wanted to help people and she firmly believes that her childhood and family values set her on the career path she is on today.
“I grew up in a farming family and it was very much the expectation that you worked hard and helped your neighbours,” she explained. “I grew up in an area that was neighbourly and respectful of each other. It was a fairly traditional, church background.”
Despite hopes from her parents that after leaving Ballymena Academy, which she loved, she would go into either teaching or finance, Cheryl chose instead to pursue a degree in Social Work at the then Ulster Polytechnic.
“I really enjoyed Ballymena Academy,” she said. “I wasn’t the most academic but I had a real interest in sport and loved playing and watching.
“Mum and dad had aspirations of me being a teacher or becoming a bank clerk but I had this sense that I wanted to help people in difficulty.”
Cheryl’s first job was with a voluntary organisation, where she worked for two years before taking up a post as a probation officer at Crumlin Road Prison in Belfast.
“I worked in the Committal Wing and it was about seeing people who had just been arrested or just attended court. I was very fortunate to work with a good set of Probation colleagues, as well as prison officers, teachers and medical staff. Everyone was very much working together.”
Cheryl then moved to the Shankill Road office and was based there in 1993 when a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA ripped through the community, killing nine people. “It was a very difficult area in terms of the levels of civil unrest but we had a job to do,” she continued. “I was promoted in 1992 to the job of senior probation officer and I was the manager in the Shankill Road office when the bomb went off. It had a profound effect on the team and it was challenging working in the midst of that.”
Cheryl has always been keen to develop the work of the Probation Service and in 1997 she was honoured to be awarded the Winston Churchill Fellowship, which saw her travel to the United States. “I applied to the fellowship to look at domestic violence programmes,” she explained. “I spent eight weeks in the States and travelled to Chicago, Minnesota, Portland and Boston, spending time on training programmes with US Army personnel centred around domestic violence. I brought that all back and established a programme called ‘Men Overcoming Domestic Violence’, which was a sentencing option for the courts, and was available for about 12 years.”
In 2000, Cheryl was promoted again to senior manager and life was going well until a trip to visit family in Australia took a terrifying turn. “At that stage I was 40 and thought the world was wonderful,” she said. “I was travelling in Australia and New Zealand visiting relatives when I took seriously ill.”
Cheryl was rushed to hospital and had to have major surgery. She was off work for five months and admits that being out of the office environment knocked her self confidence. “Your confidence goes and I felt like I was starting again. Thankfully having good work colleagues helped, as did having a passion for my work and the fact that I wanted to do my very best,”
Cheryl certainly regained her confidence, becoming deputy director of the organisation in 2007 and interim director in 2013, before being appointed as chief executive in November 2016. She is dedicated to changing the lives of not only offenders, but also their families, as well as victims.
“I don’t think one size fits all and there are clearly individuals who need to go to prison but equally there are people for whom community sanctions are much more successful. For many this is the first opportunity they have to address underlying issues such as substance addiction and if we can break that cycle it can keep families together, and have a positive impact for generations to come. It’s not about tough or soft justice, it’s about smart justice.”