Emerging from the past to a positive future

Mike Guilfoyle remembers Joey

Mike Guilfoyle
Monday, 04 April, 2016

I recently read the remarkable story of how a boy called Herbert Niccolls Jr, who was jailed for life for murder in 1930's Depression-hit  America, was rehabilitated. 

The story reminded me of Joey (not his real name), who I supervised in the community when working as a probation officer. Joey’s case notes suggested a young man whose lack of maturity and at times reckless impulsivity - exemplified by his index offence of threatening several bystanders when confronted about stolen property. It signalled a challenging supervisory experience!

The sentencing court had placed Joey on a community order that included a condition, now a requirement, of mental health treatment. He had recurrent episodes of mildly psychotic behaviour which, without effective psychotropic medication, could readily result in unpredictable and volatile actions.

At one of our early meetings, Joey laughed inappropriately throughout the meeting and I gained little sense from him from his mumbled utterances.  This caused me to speak to his mental health social worker (MHSW) as a matter of urgency, whose somewhat cavalier presentation masked a more seasoned casework experience. We arranged to meet together with Joey.  Prior to this appointment I arranged a home visit with him so as to meet with other family members and assess the level of culturally sensitive familial support that might be needed before garnering extra inputs from other agencies.

The home visit went well given the circumstances, with Joey's mother offering some much-valued insights into the progressive deterioration of her son's behaviour. She was anxious that the police would 'raid' her home again, as when Joey was previously wanted for questioning. She wanted to return to her home country to 'recuperate' from the stress caused by recent events. At the subsequent meeting with the MHSW, various strategies and approaches were discussed as to how best we could engage and support Joey. When he appeared at the office for the second part of the meeting, it was apparent that events had overtaken the course of our supervision and he was again 'a wanted person'.

There was a real and palpable sense of him being a fugitive from justice - the police were looking for others as well in relation to a 'gang fight' in which injuries (mercifully not of a serious nature) had been sustained. The fact that Joey had turned up for the meeting was to his credit, and we counselled that with his legal representative present he could surrender himself.  'Will you turn me in?’, he asked.

In fact this option had been silently mooted by body language from my social work colleague, as he was determinedly straight-laced about such actions. At which point, without waiting for any drastic denouement to occur, Joey sprinted out of the probation office into the bustling streets of the West End of London.

With the meeting ending in such disarray, we agreed that I should consider breach action.  Annoyingly, my colleague, in Pooterish fashion, stated that he did not want his good relationship with Joey to be jeopardised, and he would await the outcome of my endeavours! Joey was due to attend an out-patients appointment with his responsible psychiatrist a few days later, but that seemed to have been overlooked in the hubbub.

My next contact with Joey was in a telephone call to inform me that he was being detained under Section (2) of the Mental Health Act 1983 for assessment, and that police action would depend on the outcome of this intervention. I received several distressing phone calls from his family seeking to find out what had happened, a role my social work colleague seemed to circumvent! Before long, I was invited to a pre-discharge meeting at the hospital, and duly attended, as this was an important aspect of supervision.

At the meeting, numerous other professionals had been invited and the room was a veritable inter-disciplinary smorgasbord! Joey was holding forth at the meeting in a way that I barely recognised and some of the more excitable exchanges that took place over the next hour or so clearly brought home the level of mental distress that I had perhaps not fully appreciated, in the more humdrum environment of the probation office.

A particularly interesting community resource had opened that might offer some added input for Joey, in terms of mental health provision mitigating his condition with local intensive support geared towards young adults. This was integrated within the post-discharge care plan. The criminal investigation that had precipitated Joey's flight from the probation office still needed to be resolved, but there was some scope that with the overlay of mental health provision the police might discontinue any planned prosecution, which later proved to be the case.

Some while later when Joey reported to the probation office, his demeanour, whilst broadly unchanged, did offer some tentative glimmerings of lucid thinking and emotionally connected articulations.

With this platform of mental stability in place, it was clearly appropriate to pursue more familiar grounded casework and push harder for Joey. Including enrolling him on a local vocational programme which he had mentioned many times over the last 12 eventful months (the above is a somewhat edited version!). This link up, I believed, would offer a pathway to employability and longer term rehabilitation. This was of course complimented by the ongoing firm attachment that Joey had with his family (his father was deceased) which underpinned the core emotional supports so vital in his transition to young adulthood.

Some commonplace but important words, by Father Flanningan, who campaigned for many years without success to have Herbert Niccolls Jr paroled to Boys Town, resonated so well when I poured over them before drafting this comment piece. 'It costs so little to teach a child to love and so much to teach him to hate'.

When I last met with Joey, he explained that he couldn't spend too much time ‘talking’ as his college placement was about to start.  

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer.