Baby steps: Camilla's story

Mike Guilfoyle
Monday, 7 January 2019

I recently returned to re-reading Edward Bunker's visceral and uncompromisingly powerful memoir of his life, in and out of prison, Education of a Felon: A Memoir.

A memory of a supervisory experience came to mind that still holds its attentive grip from my time as a probation officer. I recall meeting Camilla (not her real name) after her most recent court appearance, when I was tasked with preparing a pre-sentence report for a local Magistrates’ Court. 

First steps

Camilla had been found guilty of assaulting a neighbour in an altercation over what she deemed was 'foul and insulting language' directed at her daughter. Her voluble utterances during the interview detailed the start of what was in fact a longstanding dispute with her neighbour.  Although some provocation was in evidence which had found offered some mitigation, Camilla's chagrin at her conviction suggested that this dispute was far from resolved. The court followed my sentencing proposal and a term of supervision was imposed with an added condition for her to attend an anger management group.

I arranged a home visit at the outset of the order as it soon became apparent that childcare arrangements might prove to be problematic and a measure of flexible reporting would be in order. It was deemed unsuitable for her to bring her young daughter to the probation office.

When I arrived at the home address, I was taken aback at her evident emotional distress. She had just received news that her daughter's father was due to be released from a long prison sentence, and was proposing to live at the address on his release on licence. 

I reassured her that this arrangement would only be approved once my probation colleague preparing the parole report deemed it a suitable address. In light of her response and the potential for significant harm to her from such an arrangement, this proposal could not go unchallenged (no considered direct risks to her daughter from her father were highlighted at the time). I then shared my concerns once back at the office with my colleague and the parole report was amended with a zonal restriction attached.

Ensuring safety

At our next planned appointment, her unsettling distress remained unabated. ‘Mike, you do not know what *** is like' and our session was directed towards looking together at the range of available options to ensure her continuing safety. Camilla then asked plaintively if I was planning to attend a case conference arranged via the local Social Services office as she was 'on the register'.  

I rang the social worker at the conclusion of the meeting to explain my role and the importance of having probation at the meeting given my statutory role. An apologetic invitation winged its way later that day. The conference was in fact a preliminary child protection meeting with 'concerned' professionals to work together to ensure her daughter was safe to remain in an environment in which past domestic abuse, alcohol misuse and now a conviction for violence were salient features. 

It was clear when the meeting started that there were some uncomfortable tensions in the room. A 'carelessly insensitive' remark from the conference chair, to the effect that if Camilla did not attend the Family Drug and Alcohol Court her daughter might be taken into care, left a residual feeling of ambiguous ill will for the rest of the meeting. 

I urgently referred Camilla to the partnership alcohol counsellor based at the probation office to prevent the need for this course of action but also to bolster her agency in addressing what I had clearly underestimated in my earlier case work assessments, a growing dependency on alcohol.

The local nursery was able to offer her daughter extra hours to enable Camilla's mounting list of appointments with different agencies. There was also the positive support of a grown-up son whose reappearance on the family scene had made a palpable difference in enabling her to commit to what proved to be a very tumultuous few months. 

Stepping back

At the same time I felt an organisational pressure to curb the number of home visits that I had deemed appropriate as probation officer. Discretion was being insidiously eroded from what I perceived to be the appearance of a macho-managerialist professional culture in probation. 

Camilla reported to the office as per supervisory expectations although I had to countenance some 'creative' explanations for her non-attendance (deeming appointments were more important with her alcohol counsellor).

Subsequent attempts to secure her attendance on the anger management course proved just as challenging, but again with some sensitive and inventive casework manoeuvring this was completed within the timeframe of the order. Her former partner's parole application was unsuccessful.

Cheers Camilla!

At one of our last meetings towards the expiry of her order, this time at her home address, Camilla was sitting on the wall outside with a can of lager discretely tucked out of view and with an air of disarming insouciance. On viewing my arrival she said, 'Mike, this one is for you’ as she pulled the tab off the can'. With this image in mind, the concluding comments in Philip Bean's estimable recent overview Probation and Privatisation seemed most apposite. Bean notes that probation should see one of its central future roles of promoting citizenship where those who offend and their families are people 'in the same spirit'. (Cheers, Camilla!).

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer

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