The right level of intervention

Mike Guilfoyle
Thursday, 2 April 2015

I recently read Nigel Fielding's scholarly account of how courts handle cases of physical violence, and was reminded of a particularly challenging professional relationship with Seymour (not his real name) when working as a probation officer. I was allocated supervisory responsibility for his community sentence after the preparation of a detailed pre-sentence report and a thorough psychiatric assessment. The specific mental health condition (now a requirement) was that he attend as an out-patient at a nearby specialist mental health facility over the duration of his order.

The initial interview was memorably recounted by colleagues, due to Seymour’s voluble delivery and eye catching demeanour. I was regaled with a string of fascinatingly disconnected gobbets of 'insight' distilled from his, at times, florid presentation, laced with offerings from a well-grounded spirituality. His index offence involved an assault on a stranger in a public place and his periodic violence kept the focus on protective measures against any further assaultive behaviours very much to the fore in supervision. The proper balance on compliance with anti-psychotic medication and engagement in care planning was ably supported by his long standing partner, and offered what I felt was the right level of intervention in line with perceived risks and casework needs.

One of Seymour's great strengths, and admirable traits, was his almost mesmeric ability to interact positively with almost anyone who he spoke to. This was well captured during a home visit which, due to a practical hold-up, was rearranged and we decamped to a local café with his partner. Sitting al fresco alongside other customers provided him with a ready-made audience and the ensuing banter was amusingly picked up. The meeting concluded on a positive note, although I sensed that a hyper-vigilant awareness might prefigure another in-patient admission. Shortly afterwards he was admitted as a voluntary in-patient (which was then shifted to an assessment admission under the Mental Health Act 1983). I arranged to attend care planning meeting(s) at the unit and shortly thereafter accompany Seymour on temporary discharge, so that some vestige of supervision could be retained. This proved to be another challenging moment, when almost out of the environs of the mental health unit he regaled a party of overseas students in a local hostelry to an impromptu karaoke! I detached myself from this gathering and he later returned to the unit and was formally discharged after further psychiatric assessments.

The progress of supervision was on the basis of the 'soft skills' of emotional engagement, acting as a motivator for positive change, most recently given firmer empirical underpinning in Charlotte Knight's important contribution to understanding emotional management in criminal justice practice.  Heading towards what I perceived as a successful outcome, I was alarmed to discover that an outstanding case of assault (against a stranger in a public place) was to be proceeded with, I had no inkling that this was likely due to Seymour's documented mental health history. But I duly attended the Crown Court hearing as I believed that the presiding judge might be assisted in sentencing. In the event the case was dismissed, the antecedent history and legal difficulties attendant on identification proved decisive. As I left the court with Seymour and his partner, an understandable outburst of relief issued forth. Most regrettably, the alleged victim of the assault was also departing at the same time with an altogether more troubled expression. I nudged Seymour so that he did not appear insensitive to her sense of legitimate justice denied, and there was an uncomfortable moment when the two passed in the street. I wondered when I returned to the probation office whether the 'peace' that Seymour expressed to me he felt, when he walked towards the nearby underground station, would at some future point enable the victim to move on with her life?