Maintaining relationships is the key to change

Mike Guilfoyle
Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Having read the moving eulogy in Danielle Allen's recently published book, Cuz, the life and times of Michael A, based on the life and death of her cousin put me in mind of the time I supervised Anya (not her real name).

This was less due to the violent outcome that closes Allen's book but more I sensed attributable to some of the financial shenanigans that made such a period of probation oversight such a fraught and at times unsettling statutory experience.

I recall reeling somewhat when, after being allocated the task of preparing a pre-sentence report on Anya for passing counterfeit currency, I heard an unholy clatter in the waiting room at the probation office. She had arrived with her two outsized canines and the poky waiting area resembled a donnybrook fairground!

Although a strict no-dogs policy had yet to be instigated at the office - it seemed sensible to request that her pets be left in a safer space. After much ado we settled down to the interview and an hour or so later I had (or so I thought) enough information to inform an assessment as to appropriate sentencing options.

Whilst aware that a proposal for statutory supervision needed to ensure proper consideration for targeted interventions whilst not resulting in any undue up-tariffing, her offending history was at that point not significant (although dishonesty ran through her prior transgressions). The court followed the recommendation (now proposal) and we set about arranging a schedule of appointments and casework tasks that we had negotiated at the outset of her order.

The order got off to an unfavourable start when Anya failed to attend her opening appointment and, in spite of phone calls to her address, no response was forthcoming to explain this.

As the probation office was near enough to her address, I opted to make an earlier than anticipated home visit. On arrival, Anya invited me into her flat and seemed unconcerned by her missed meeting and the potential consequences of possible breach action.

I was left floundering when, whilst awaiting her return from the kitchen, her two dogs became a little too attentive - I was forced to beat a hasty retreat! After a few comic moments, after she called her dogs off, we sat down to review the order.

It soon became apparent that behind the mask of glitzy veneer - she revealed how she had been 'exploited' for gain, and hoodwinked into a newspaper 'scam' and now wanted to 'lie low' until any intrusive and untoward media interest died down.

At that point , I had very little idea what she was referring too - but she began to disclose that a 'failed relationship' with a celebrated TV star had catapulted her into a spiral of destructive behaviour (alluded to at our pre-sentence interview) but which she wanted to break free from.

She said she could not 'be seen going into a probation office' until this 'business' was over. Over the weekend, the news story was as predicted a salacious expose. Anya was I believe somewhat cruelly portrayed as the 'siren' who used and supplied hard drugs and was behind the break-up of a well-known celebrity relationship(s). Although to my relief the media references to probation (often poorly misrepresented in the media), suggested that she was responding well to the firm guidance on offer from the probation service so that she could be led to 'mend her ways'!  A premature assessment, but one which did seemed to trigger a short-lived improved measure of compliance and casework engagement.

The court mandated probation order was for a minimum period of six months. The time passed predictably quickly after the blip at the start - but something of Anya's persona of lively animation seemed to have been lost by her searing media expose. In addition, for the duration of the order her earning potential all but evaporated. This clearly placed her in a vulnerable financial bind, the cost of her dogs alone, was not insubstantial and efforts made to canvass other employment options fell largely flat.

It was in this manner that I received a call from a court based probation colleague, alerting me to the fact that Anya was on the overnight list (that is in custody awaiting her court appearance).  My colleague asked me if I could draft a quick response to supervision, should a community proposal be in the offing (as a plea of guilty was likely). 

The court acting on the information provided (her index offences being multiple low-value thefts from shops) imposed another order (with a rider on custody next time if she did not cooperate). The Bench Chair also opined that 'whilst her offending behaviour needed to abate, she was under financial pressures at the time, and with the assistance of an experienced probation officer she would be helped to behave more honestly in the future'.

Before we resumed our statutory contact for this lengthier order, Anya rang the office to say she was moving to a 'safer address' so supervision would need to be transferred and approved. But she did mischievously declare that, 'my dogs recognise someone decent who cares', and I had passed the 'sniffed out' test, ‘will I have someone like you, Mike?’, she asked.

One expressed concern arising from the 'damning' 2017 annual report from the Inspectorate of Probation was that 'a close, forthcoming and productive relationship between an individual and their probation worker is key. This is where skilled probation staff add most value, by motivating offenders, working continuously with them to bring about change, and at the same time protecting the public from harm’.

I did not see any reference to the 'sniff test' in this document, but did wonder to myself how Anya might now be supervised in the hollowed out, fragmented and low-tier probation service of today?

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