I have just read Jean Trounstine's searing account of the transformative journey of a young man coming to terms with the consequences of his tragic actions.
This reminded me of the experiences of working with Paterson (not his real name) whilst he was under probation supervision. My recollection of our first office- based meeting was less than favourable. According to our receptionist, whose acuity in picking up the changing moods of clients in the waiting area was well regarded, he had been threatening to another probationer and she had safety diffused the situation.
Paterson had a very troubled history of poor parenting, chaotic care system placements and abusive relationships. Ensuring that supervision was pitched such that some of this disturbed behaviour could be contained and explored was a considerable supervisory challenge. The index offence for which he was placed on his order was multiple low value thefts which pointed towards drug/alcohol usage and lack of pathways to a more licit lifestyle.
At the point of sentence, although a full pre-sentence report had been prepared, there remained worrying informational gaps in his background history. This seemed to suggest that the early traumas he had experienced in his upbringing meant highlighting the importance of establishing some regularity and continuity of contact underpinned by a confident, psychological informed and reflective professional relationship.
At one of our meetings, an appointment that I had re-arranged so as to enable him to sign on at the local job centre, was I remember particularly fraught. Due to administrative delay he was informed that his benefit claim had been suspended and he reported to the office in an angry mood. Consequently, it was deemed safer to interview him in the room adjacent the main office so that any remedial action if thought necessary could then be taken to safeguard staff/clients.
There followed a few moments of uncomfortable silence before I sensed that Paterson's distress was more acute than I had anticipated. He explained that he had been 'stabbed' whilst outside the job centre and was clutching his abdomen in obvious pain. He also explained that he had a knife with him and was intent on 'dealing with the situation'.
After his disclosure, I immediately informed the duty manager and colleagues, and emergency services were called to the office. Paterson then proceeded to play down his injury and I began to doubt the veracity of his account. Soon a police response unit arrived at the office and I informed them of my understanding of this alarming train of events and my concerns that Paterson's wounds might well be ' self-inflicted', but that nonetheless medical attention was needed.
Police officers entered the interview room and after a few minutes a slightly different narrative began to emerge. Having confiscated the knife Paterson was concealing, they arrested him, having determined that the wounds were superficial and not in need of emergency aid (a decision which mercifully I was not party to). He was unceremoniously led away from the office to the evident consternation of passers-by who had stopped at the sight of a fleet of police vehicles parked at every angle outside the office.
Some while later, when Paterson (no action was taken on the possession of the knife!) next reported to the office, due precautions had been set in place and the interview was jointly undertaken with a senior probation officer colleague (who held my esteem by her unflinching capacity to handle most client situations with unusual sangfroid!), and there was a real impression that this event represented a 'turning point ' for Paterson.
A new supervisory contract was set in place so that, in my absence, he would report to my colleague and we would confer on a regular basis following supervisory sessions and co -work statutory oversight for the balance of the order. When I returned from a period of leave, I was informed that Paterson was now moving to another part of the country and that transfer arrangements had been made and his final supervisory meeting would be the following day.
I was mild astounded to witness him 'embrace' my colleague in a comradely hug when I was about to extend my fervent wishes for the successful conclusion to his order. She uttered 'Keep the heid' as Paterson left the office and departed without incident!
As yet another agency is set up to oversee Probation - my colleague’s parting words to Paterson took on a whole new meaning!
Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer