Dodging passing traffic

Mike Guilfoyle
Thursday, 10 February 2022

"I often wondered if, stumbling upon a service user in cardiac arrest, my immediate reaction would be to administer CPR or to update their risk assessment".

An observation from David Emery's scabrously funny and poignant personal account of his experiences as a front line social worker.

When working as a probation officer, I had been invited to attend an initial child protection case conference, which had been convened in response to expressed concerns from Social Services at 'unspecified' allegations of child neglect.

Aiden (not his real name) was under probation supervision for offences of minor dishonesty and drug possession.  Although invited, he did not show up and the conference continued in his absence.

I was a little perturbed at what seemed a degree of collective negativity from some of the attendees aimed at Aiden, on the basis of his being under statutory supervision. "Surely the concerns must be that his offending makes him a risk to his children?", opined the conference chair.

I outlined my involvement, which was slight at the time. His reporting had been erratic (he worked shifts) and the index offences appear to relate to stresses he was experiencing in coping, unaided, with small children (their mother had formed a new relationship). Supportive family-based interventions seemed to be the way ahead to alleviate the domestic situation so it did not deteriorate further.

It was evident that the allegations remained sufficiently vague to prompt the chair to defer any decision-making for another day.

Immediately prior to the follow-up conference, I had attended a launch of a new book: Probation and Social Work on Trial. event. In the plenary session, and incensed by the daily tribulations that probation staff had then to endure, I used the word 'commissars'  to convey the absence of any meaningful supportive organisational leadership and the ubiquity of managerialist nomenclature.

So attending a case conference offered scope, I thought for more creative, 'target-free' casework solutions. Leaving the office, dulled by the target matrix overheads (I was on the lower end of target compliance), I was hopeful that I could 'cold call' on Aiden, to ensure his attendance.

I stopped by his home address.  After several minutes had elapsed, noises from inside suggested that he knew I was there. I shouted up to an open window: "Aiden, it's Mike Guilfoyle here, can we discuss how the case conference might go?".

After another interval of time, Aiden came to the door, sounding despondent and distracted. "Give me any good reason why I should go, as the ******** will not listen to what I have to say".

"Lets talk this one through together", I said.

Aiden lit a cigarette and crossed a busy main road to a traffic island. After a few heart-stopping moments, dodging passing traffic, I joined him. We sat together, sufficiently conspicuous that a passing police car slowed down.

It was an emotionally-draining hour later, when Aiden, cigarette stubs littering the space, agreed to accompany me to the case conference. On arrival, the conference had already commenced. After some seat shuffling, Aiden placed himself as close to the exit door as he could.

The chair invited him to speak to the concerns outlined in the earlier meeting. He remained impassively mute for several minutes, before looking at me and asking, "Can Mike read this note for me?".

Throughout the time we had been perilously close to being crushed by passing traffic, I had hardly noticed that Aiden had been scribbling down on a scrap of paper. I opened the note. Although the writing was hurried, it was clear.

I have always tried to be a good dad to my kids, I lost my own dad when I was nine. Please help me to be a better dad and not send my kids into care".

After an emotionally-charged moment, the mood and tone of the conference altered. A support plan was outlined and a Social Work Assistant (noticeably quiet in the meeting, due in part, I thought, to the status hierarchy such conferences tended to present) allocated to Aiden.

When I next attended a daily staff bulletin briefing, I tentatively asked the manager if helping to ensure that a client's children avoided going into Local Authority care fell within the prescriptive target matrix.

"I cannot find this target on the performance measure", came the reply, "but maybe Social Services have it on theirs".

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer.