Never stop listening

Mike Guilfoyle
Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Whilst reading Philip Whitehead's scholarly analysis, Transforming probation. Social theories and the criminal justice system, of the 'injudicious' politics of modernisation in probation, I was reminded of my supervisory contacts with Mervyn (not his real name). His statutory engagement with the probation service was pitted with the challenges and dilemmas that mean that numbers of people like him, facing overly bureaucratic management approaches, are increasing.

After many fraught supervisory meetings at the probation office, Mervyn would often sit in sullen silence and simmering resentment at what he perceived was his 'unfair treatment' at the hands of the 'authorities’ (probation being in his eyes one more such malign barrier!). 'Can’t you get it, I shouldn’t be here?' he muttered to me on more than one occasion. I was politely insistent that he had been convicted and needed to be held to account for assaulting his partner. This was set against a past history of familial discord in which the joint care of the couple’s children was the subject of ongoing social services oversight.

Making headway

I sensed that making any measurable headway into Mervyn's fixed attitudinal and behavioural responses would require a skillful but realistic understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence.  Furthermore, to offer him hope and to build on motivational openings, for example, the unfettered access to his children and, if safe, the rekindling of his relationship with his partner.

Working towards this pathway to desistance was at the time made much more problematic by what I (like many of my probation colleagues) thought was the unrelenting organisational pressure to 'shoehorn' all referrals for client/supervisees to attend an offender behaviour programme. 

Mervyn had been assessed for the particular group-based programme then operational for perpetrators of domestic violence (DV). This had taken some considerable negotiation and non-collusive understanding from one of the group facilitators who interviewed him and recognised that the allied familial issues (not uncommon to such a group) of social service intervention added to the complexities of casework and management.

Dismissive observations

Prior to the commencement of the programme, a date had been set independently by social services for a child protection conference to be held at the neighbourhood office close to his temporary address. Anticipating that Mervyn, on the basis of some of his dismissive observations at our most recent supervision session, was unlikely to attend, even though it was stressed that formal decisions relating to access to his children would be prominent at the meeting, I arranged to visit him at his home. 

On arrival, I was dismayed to find no response, but as I was about to depart he appeared from around the corner. It was unclear to me if this an intentional avoidance, and we proceeded to walk for some time around a nearby park and this appeared to signify a welcome but emotionally charged release. 

He began to talk, with a lucidity that I had not heard before, about the conflicting strains of parenting and his frustration at his 'poor relationship and communication skills’. He gave a guttural admission that he was 'failing' in being able to provide financially for his family (a recognised stressor in such offending). 

Impediments to authority

Whilst it would be an exaggeration to state that supervisory contact proved to be an unqualified success, it did provide a more positive receptivity to the action plan outlined at the case conference.  Future contact enabled him to articulate some of the impediments of his approaches to 'authority', and this ambivalence could now be discussed and worked on, whilst working towards diminishing some of the perceived risks to his partner and children.

I was heartened to hear from Mervyn before the expiry of supervision that he had, with all its many noted pitfalls, experienced an empathic and supportive supervisory experience.  It can be an easy emotional option to turn away after sometimes hearing the unbearable aspects of intimate partner violence, but offering a confident and containing professional working environment where such behaviour can be challenged and talked about is so crucial to protecting future victims. 

For me, this was captured in one of his comments which I overheard, a comment that got to the heart of what core probation relationships offered, ‘Mike, oh he never stopped listening even when I had nothing to say!'.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer