A shared belief in the change process

Mike Guilfoyle argues that building trusting relationships with service users in probation takes time, effort, commitment and a shared belief in the change process

By: 
Mike Guilfoyle
Date: 
Friday, 16 May, 2014

Whilst reading the absorbing and brave memoir of Carl Hart which describes his upbringing in one of Miami's toughest neighbourhoods to becoming a leading neuroscientist, keen to debunk many of the insidious myths surrounding drug addiction and the punitive 'war on drugs'. Turned my mind back to working with Stan (not his real name) when he was sentenced to a probation order (Community Sentence) with a residential drug/alcohol requirement.

Our paths had crossed much earlier when I was working as a probation officer at the same office and although his serial offending (mainly acquisitive shop lifting) had evinced signs of diminishing, he found himself enmeshed in an almost intractable set of personal and familial circumstances, that meant that exploring options for in-patient detoxification as a prelude to residential treatment seemed like the only viable treatment outcome.

I can vividly recall on one such occasion, Stan who had been admitted to a much sought after treatment facility close to the probation office had struggled to engage with his programme and was on the point of withdrawing from the centre. I spoke to his keyworker and elicited that he had become very agitated about the fact that he had not been allowed the opportunity to return to his home address to collect certain personal items (on the permitted list at the centre) and no staff were prepared to accompany him on the short bus journey to collect them.

He was informed that should be leave the facility unaccompanied, then he would be in breach of his behavioural contract and the offer of further funded treatment would be terminated. On such simple but meaningful episodes turn the motivational axis for many in the early stages of ambivalent engagement. I agreed to accompany Stan, disguising my annoyance at what I perceived to be the inflexible approach of the centre, and we arranged a time for me to attend the centre so that we could undertake the journey.

The short bus ride was of itself mundane enough and I had no particular thoughts other than the demands of casework awaiting urgent attention at the office. When we entered his flat, he pointed out the plethora of off-licences which it overlooked (this being central London) and with an almost gleeful disclosure which ones offered the best shoplifting openings!  He hesitated before leaving and I sensed that the prospect of returning to the rehabilitation centre now assumed a more forbidding aspect. 'Mike, I don't think I can go back'  and 'Why can't I ever do anything right'  being  two of the many despairing articulations that filled the air.

After a prolonged and uneasy discussion, informed by Stan's understandable ambivalence and overarching fatalism, 'Why do you still think that I can stop offending'  we edged closer to the bus stop and after what seemed like the proverbial ages, we jumped on the bus and returned to the centre. Just before we parted company, Stan acceded to the need to keep focussed on the treatment programme which seemed, at the time, best suited to his challenging substance misuse history. He asked if I could liaise with his family as they had become increasingly concerned for his well being.

When Stan next reported to the probation office, he had successfully completed the detoxification programme but was awaiting final clearance for residential rehabilitation. He was still shaky and feeling ill at ease with himself. It was a sharp reminder indeed of the rocky road to full recovery and offence free living. Working with the uncertainties and complexities of building trusting relationships with service users in probation takes time, effort, commitment and a shared belief in the change process.

Stan used to call me 'Old School Probation Officer'. At the time I shrugged this off, not because it did not resonate, but perhaps because it painfully reminded me of how much more coercively managerialised probation was becoming. The recent report on the need for greater numbers of prison mentors may well offer one way ahead in offender rehabilitation? Or as Stan was want to say 'Mike always made time for me'. I hope it made a lasting difference!