Former probation officer Mike Guilfoyle writes about the importance of offering emotional support to probation service clients.
Stephen Grosz writes engagingly wise reflections of his years working as a therapist, and about the many thousands of hours he spent offering hope and understanding to those troubled by emotional trauma.
Reading his book brought to mind my time when working as a probation officer with Rodney (not his real name), whose troubled pathway to supervision made for a particularly challenging probation experience. Having read the Crown Prosecution Service prosecution papers and seen the notes made on (at the time) a partially completed psychological report; our pre-sentence report interview quickly became a worryingly terse exchange.
Rodney had damaged property belonging to the former partner of a woman he stated he was in a relationship with. Whilst the items damaged were of small value, the context in which the offences occurred left me with some concerns regarding his psychological well-being. He had spent hours scouring the area looking for the victim’s address, and had inflicted the damage in such a way that it appeared he was intent on frightening and intimidating him.
Once the period of supervision commenced (the court having agreed that a term of statutory oversight was fitting), Rodney attended the appointments with a rarely seen diligence. He often arrived at the probation office well in advance of our meetings, and the issue of compliance due to reporting was never in doubt.
But the tone and content of the supervisory meetings soon became emotionally very draining as he began to talk about his painful memories of growing up in a household that seemed largely bereft of attentive care and concern. The inflections in his voice suggested a level of disengagement that was at times very disconcerting. I struggled to hold together what I believed to be the salient developmental issues that informed his lack of remorse and his, at times, disturbed articulations. He would on occasion offer hints that he might harm himself or others, and then backtrack when he had elicited my professional response.
‘Don’t worry Mike, I won't do anything serious!’ was a regular comment. Before one meeting, I had a phone call from a 'concerned friend' to say that Rodney had been seen standing on a rail track narrowly missing passing trains and had only moved away when police were in the vicinity. He would only admit that he was in the area, and that reports of him being 'in danger' were just inaccurate. On another occasion, he explained that during his teenage years, he had taken his father’s car, without permission, and wrecked it, but when they met after this incident, no mention was ever made of his transgression.
I sought out the professional opinions of colleagues on numerous occasions and shared my apprehensions (Rodney was vehemently opposed to any mental health referral). Then his two years under supervision came to an end, although many other alarming insights and potentially harmful episodes arose over this timeframe (which are beyond the scope of this article). He insisted that before the order expired I arrange a three way meeting with my probation manager (someone who I had the highest confidence in as a supportive colleague). At this meeting, to my consternation, Rodney suggested that I had not offered him the level of emotional support he felt he merited and as such felt let down by the experience. My colleague offered his observations, ‘Mike spent two years as your probation officer and has shared today some of the ways that he feels he has sought to help you. I understand that you feel angered at the formal end of this period on probation’.
As Rodney was leaving the probation office he extended his hand and said, ‘I only wished that my father would have listened to me they way that you have'!