Recognising a touch of humanity

Mike Guilfoyle
Monday, 1 October 2018

I recently picked up a 1964 copy of Undertow, by the prominent American educator Helen Parkhurst, a remarkably moving account of the life of a 'juvenile delinquent' called Tony which was reviewed at the time in The Probation Journal.

It put me in mind of Rocco (not his real name) when working as a probation officer. I recall that our very first encounter had all the elements of a Pythonesque comedy sketch. I was reeling from an emotionally draining and very busy stint as the office duty probation officer, and was dealing with a variety of demanding case work queries.

When a 'panicky call' came from the reception desk, 'Mike, can you come down to deal with a client who is kicking off?'. By the time, I arrived at reception, Rocco who had only given his first name, stating aggressively that he 'wanted to see the manager' had disappeared into the building having followed another client who had reported to a colleague. Sensing that matters might quickly deteriorate and the safety of colleagues and clients was paramount, I alerted the senior probation officer (SPO) to this unfolding drama.

Are you looking for me?

A hurried survey of possible hiding places was canvassed to no avail and bemused at just where Rocco might be, I convened a mini case conference in the office duty room. No sooner had this commenced (calling the police as an emergency was the next step,) when an insouciant voice, uttered, 'are you looking for me?' All this time, Rocco had been trapped in the male staff toilet, unable to extricate himself (due to a faulty lock!). After a quick de-escalation of tensions, merged into a mild guffaw, it was apparent that his need for a call of nature had overridden all other considerations. The interview got underway.

The casework information that I was able to glean from my colleagues in another part of the country, hurriedly faxed through, suggested that, 'he was not to be interviewed alone' and ‘posed a clear threat to female staff' and his demeanour seemed to underline this assessment.

His forensic history contained a medley of offences of violence compounded by alcohol misuse, unstable accommodation and an abusive upbringing. The interview room was positioned close to the main office, and due safeguards were established for emergencies, I felt emboldened enough to begin to establish some 'ground rules'. I thought it was likely to be a ‘temporary transfer' of supervision and although uncomfortable at his restless agitations, he poked questions like 'go on then ask me why I done it'.

I made arrangements for his next appointment when I was next on office duty, as I recognised that some continuity was required before formal transfer could be initiated. ‘How did it go?' asked the SPO after Rocco had left the office and this show of empathic support ensured that the next meeting would be bolstered by her being in attendance 'if needed'.

Risks and solutions

In the meantime, I pored over some recent pre-sentence reports to better understand some of the complexities of Rocco’s situation, his presenting risks and practical solutions to some of his immediate concerns. It was clear that his volatility and potential for harm was carefully coordinated and sensitively managed during his supervision within the office.

Although mildly apprehensive at the prospect of his next office visit, I recognised that time limitations imposed on office duty probation officers could pose a double-edged challenge. In particular for someone like Rocco who was desirous of more than a cursory reporting-only expectation on the day of the visit I briefed my colleague.

She was, as always, resolute in her professional belief of reflective supervision, that we must offer all those entering the probation office the 'best possible service’ and after all we are the 'experts' in working alongside 'damaged clients'. Buoyed up by this backdrop of collaborative engagement, I prepared for Rocco's arrival. No sooner had I mused on what I might say at our follow up meeting, when I heard something of what my colleague would latter describe as a 'stramash'!

From reception, Rocco was soliloquising in a very menacing manner in the front office and the area had been cleared of other clients reporting, so as to leave him alone. Before I could assemble my thoughts, my SPO colleague had accompanied him into the interview room and I glanced through the door partition to witness something that I had not anticipated.

A restorative hug

Rocco was in floods of tears and being consoled by my colleague. I intimated that I might join them but sensed that the moment had passed and I would await the outcome. After a tense few minutes, I entered the interview room. My colleague had stymied any potential threatening behaviour simply by a restorative hug, a risk that she played down afterwards. ‘Remember, Rocco, Mike is here to help, assist and advise, you' (words resonant of the traditional probation triad). After his meek departure, we mulled over what we sensed in part was at the root of Rocco's raging distress. 'He was an unloved child' and 'he never remembered his father's affections and craved a hug', she said.

With, for many probation insiders and informed commentators, yet another 'sham' Ministry of Justice Consultation (2018), on the future of the now part-privatised probation service underway and Inspectorate of Probation reports of the growth of 'remote supervision' receiving critical media attention, my thoughts float back to that evocative encounter.

They float back to that one day in a busy and stressed probation office and remind me of how a touch of common humanity leavened by a professional understanding of the signs of a troubled upbringing 'saved' Rocco from being recalled to prison.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer

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