Getting caught out

Mike Guilfoyle
Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Reading Daniel Briggs' fine ethnographic study of crack cocaine users in South London 'High Society and Low Life in South London' recently put me in mind of working with Derek (not his real name) as his Probation Officer. I picked up a dauntingly voluminous case file on Derek on the departure from the probation office of a work colleague as I had been allocated supervisory responsibility for the balance of his community sentence.

Perusing the case notes evinced an almost sterterous response, as it ran to hundreds of pages (including reports, court appearance sheets and prosecution bundles). I made a point of contacting a particular drug worker whose name cropped up regularly in the file and arranged a three way meeting at the drug agency that Derek engaged well with, just a bus journey from the probation office.

When I was awaiting for Derek to arrive, I experienced a peculiarly relaxed working ethos in the Drop-In centre - a place that opened its doors to many of those problematic drug users on the probation caseload, as well as other users outside the reach of criminal justice.

The drug worker introduced himself and I sensed an immediate professional connection with someone well versed in the demands and challenges of working with this client group. Derek appeared and our first meeting was at best a strained and discomforting one. But I managed to outline how best we could take forward the balance of supervision, fully aware that Derek viewed probation as 'like the police!'  and ready to 'catch him out' if he missed any appointments.

Reviewing the optimum way to elicit the most positive level of engagement with my partnership colleague so that we could remain clear and focussed and ensure that offering a more personalised and holistic way of working with Derek would most likely enhance his albeit initially tepid commitment to his order.

I committed to holding three-way meetings at the Drug Centre, rather than the probation office, with the rider that Derek report to the probation office at agreed intervals. This course of action might well have been deemed too lax by my current manager, whose approach to compliance I considered unduly rigid and very much freeze-framed around the risk narrative!

Working around this plan of joint action to enable Derek to benefit from his involvement with the Drug Agency whilst keeping within the terms of his probation supervision was little short of creative licence! I appreciated that taking this approach was risky, and as Derek began to engage better, this felt a proper and effective use of professional discretion. A view that was endorsed by my drug worker colleague.

Derek would present at times worryingly close to breaching the terms of his order. He relapsed, but the timely intervention from his worker obviated any need for referral to more specialist services. He disclosed that he had managed to walk away from a potentially violent encounter en route to the agency (in an area sadly blighted at the time by high levels of street crime) when he had refused to listen to the unsolicited attentions of a 'crackhead' he had previously dealt with, and explained that one of the factors that made a difference was the knowledge that he had at least two workers who he felt were committed to his path of recovery.

I was more than gratified to put Derek's copious file away at the expiry of his order and note that he had asked that his drug worker pass on his best wishes when they continued to meet in a voluntary capacity later.

With moves now well advanced to sell off 70 per cent of probation clients to private and third sector providers as a part of the government's Transforming Rehabilitation plans, I recall that Derek once said in one of our meetings, 'Mr Guilfoyle, I thought probation was all about catching people out! But you really wanted me not to fail!'