Whilst reading a dusty copy of a probation officer reminiscence, I came across an appealing phrase, 'in the scrapbook of my mind' from the late author and screenwriter Sewell Stokes. Stokes, who between 1941 and 1945, worked as a Probation Officer at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court and in 1950 published an autobiographical account of his experiences in ‘Court Circular’ which later formed the basis of the 1952 British film ‘I Believe in You'.
This scrapbook reference keenly reminded me of a memorable encounter with Finley (not his real name). This was mainly because it brought into sharp relief some my own emerging misgivings at the shifting organisational priorities that were then impinging on frontline practice in probation, and detracting from what I viewed as 'authentic casework'.
Shortly after I was allocated supervisory responsibility for Finley's community order (imposed for offences of dishonesty), I arranged to visit him at his hostel so that we could action some of the agreed supervisory tasks alongside his key worker. The initial visit proved to be somewhat disappointing as he was called to another meeting to ensure his benefit claim was not suspended. I conversed with staff to get a sense of how he was coping in a stable environment after many months sleeping rough, the loaded phrase 'wandering abroad' from the above text, came to mind, as he often was seen begging at selected high end retail outlets!
Before the next arranged visit to the hostel, Finley reported to the probation office. Our exchanges were, I recall at the outset, awkwardly strained as he was very diffident about discussing his circumstances, or the factors supporting his offending, mooting only that he preferred being on the 'streets. I had noted that his place at the hostel would be in some jeopardy for this very reason. So I brought forward the proposed home visit, such that his next reporting session at the office was deferred. When I arrived at the hostel, there was a degree of consternation expressed from his key worker that Finley had not returned overnight to his room and was in fact believed to be 'in hospital'.
After some frantic phone calls it was confirmed that he had been 'sectioned' after a hospital A&E admission from unspecified injuries resulting from an altercation. In view of this, his reporting schedule would of course now most likely be in abeyance, until such time he was discharged.
But this discharge occurred much sooner than I had anticipated. Realising how vulnerable he was, having spoken to a consultant psychiatrist to share my professional perspective, I again made arrangements to see him at the hostel with support staff in attendance.
Before the meeting commenced, his key worker took me to one side and somewhat coyly informed me that my then manager had contacted the hostel to 'confirm' my attendance. Even though I had informed my colleagues, as was good practice, I would be at the address for the next few hours and thereby away from the office.
This unsettling intervention aside, there followed a sensitive and considered three-way meeting with Finley, who blithely dismissed well-founded concerns at his recent hospitalisation with a quip 'the food is better at the hostel!
My key worker colleague, provided a reassuring anchor point for Finley and it was evident as I left the meeting that his living space offered a foothold to a more settled future. He mouthed sotto voce ' Thanks for your interest, Mike'.
When I returned to the probation office, having been buoyed by the knowledge that Finley, in spite of his recent travails, was at least in a safe environment and re-engaging with staff and his fellow residents.
I felt a simmering exasperation on being informed by managerial instruction, via email, that I was spending 'too much time out of the office on home visits'! Recounting this to some of my probation colleagues, poring over deskbound word processors, elicited a range of bemused side glances. The value of home visiting was being downgraded and probation staff were now required to spend inordinate amounts of time on drafting endlessly iterative, office-bound, computer-based offender assessments, graced with the oxymoronic acronym of 'Oasys’.
Finley did report to the office on subsequent occasions, but such meetings often lacked for me something of the gritty authenticity of working in the community, 'the smell of practice’, whilst churning out detached electronic assessments (whilst accepting the need for accountability in case recording).
Before long these became ever-more valorised as the sine qua non of target-driven probation practice. A more recent cogent analysis of the ambiguous impact on practice of technological changes in the role and culture of the probation worker is ably captured by criminologist Jake Phillips.
I spoke to Finley, shortly after the above incident, as he was leaving the probation office before returning to the hostel. I recall somewhat mischievously asking him if he had heard of 'Oasys'. ‘Oh yes’, he said, ‘that’s when I sit outside **** store with a full can of lager!
Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer