Imprints of the past affect the present

Mike Guilfoyle
Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Whilst reading the wonderfully uplifting collection of client/social work stories, I remembered one of my early experiences as a field probation officer, which in many ways captured some of the knotty casework challenges that probation officers faced, this time when working with Brando (not his real name).

I prepared a pre-sentence report for the local Magistrates’ Court. Brando’s cumulative offending history - mainly petty acquisitive crimes - was compounded by his ‘inability’ to work and uncertain financial situation. At our initial post-court interview we drafted a supervisory contract aiming to address the pressing issues that seemed most pertinent to his law-breaking.

It soon became apparent that his previously undisclosed familial concerns highlighted a mental fragility and vulnerability which now needed to be factored into our meetings. Although he evinced a confident and engaging persona, I was unnerved when he began to exhibit flamboyant outbursts. In one of our earlier office-based meetings he asked if we were being listened to and proceeded to check in a florid fashion possible sources of hidden surveillance. 'You never know who is on the other side of the wall', he said.

It was clearly important for me to actively listen and attend empathically to his story as well as observing Brando’s non-verbal fidgety movements. But I decided that some further thought had to be given to consulting the partnership forensic practitioner who was a valuable on-site resource for colleagues’ consultations on 'worrisome clients' (which profile constituted a considerable number at the office).

Before I initiated this link I opted to home-visit Brando - at that time home visiting clients was more commonplace. For me home visits were an aspect of effective practice that involved careful and sensitive negotiation in the client’s home and an awareness of the complexities of troubled lives nurtured by the developing professional relationship.

On arrival, Brando was unusually animated and having extended the usual hospitalities, we proceeded with what I anticipated would be a straightforward meeting in which he could more freely voice some of the anxieties that had beset our recent meetings. To assist in this process I suggested that he might consider writing down his concerns as a way of articulating some of the deeply protected emotions that simmered in our contacts. 

In the course of discussing what Brando had written down - various disconnected and remembered thoughts that hinted at an earlier traumatic childhood - he suddenly blurted out, ‘Mike, can you hear that?'. I explained that my hearing whilst not acute had not picked up any sound, apart from the distant buzz of a passing car. 'You need to listen again' he said. I then found myself in the rather undignified posture of crawling on hands and knees around the living room so as to identify the source of this sound that so alarmed Brando. In doing so, I was provided with confirmatory evidence; it seemed that he was being 'harassed' by his neighbour.

I said that I could only hear a hoover being used next door. 'Yes, I thought so - he is doing that deliberately as he knows that you are visiting!'.  After regaining my poise, I attempted to find out how relations were between Brando and his neighbour. Before I could do so, he put his ear to the wall and after much hesitation I decided that the only constructive outcome was for me to leave and to follow up his concerns at our next meeting at the office.

At this meeting, Brando opened up in an expansive manner about how the noise from his neighbour’s house affected him 'profoundly'. 'I know he is trying to drive me out and he knows that my father will not be around to protect me' he said. This valuable communication began to make much more sense when Brando (after much pained negotiation) agreed to see my forensic practitioner colleague. The imprints of his earlier troubled familial history that had surfaced in our recent meetings (albeit in disconnected fragments), pointed towards an unresolved parental loss and this helped to inform my subsequent contacts with him.

The helpful clinical input from my colleague greatly affected my evolving understanding of Brando's need for sustained relational resilience to ensure the probation order could best work for him. The order was concluded without further offending and follow up support was set in motion via the local community mental health team.  Thinking back to that unsettling earlier home visit (comedic antics aside!), I pointedly recall how he had valued our contact, based as it was on a underpinning stable and trusted professional working relationship.

Just before I left his home Brando uttered, 'don't forget to shut the gate Dad - I mean Mike!’.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer

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