What a normal life might be?

Mike Guilfoyle reflects on the challenges when he supervised 'Tomas'

Mike Guilfoyle
Monday, 09 May, 2016

I recently read Paul Renn's authoritative overview which includes a chapter on forensic practice whilst he was employed as a probation officer.  It reminded me of working with Tomas (not his real name) when he was under probation supervision. It was clear at the outset of supervision, that Tomas who presented as painfully reticent and defensive when we met at the probation office, might find supervision a challenge. English was not his mother tongue, and his immigration status was under review.

The index offence, that resulted in the Magistrates’ court placing him under supervision, arose as a result of an altercation in a supermarket, when he perceived that he had been 'insulted' and 'demeaned' by an employee as the two of them exchanged racially loaded epithets.

Tomas sometimes appeared unduly deferential and almost too compliant even though his body language conveyed an altogether more visceral anger. It took some time to make even modest progress in working towards a sharper understanding of the precursors to his offending. However, there was a developing rapport during the supervisory sessions offering a 'secure base' where professional continuity and personal connection could be established. This suggested that, at the very least, supervision might reduce some of the negativity from our earlier meetings. I sought permission from him to contact allied agencies that might assist him and whom I could liaise with.

I arranged to home visit in the early stages of supervision, as his accommodation appeared somewhat unsafe. When I arrived, I was introduced to his friend who seemed to offer Tomas some emotional stability and essential but very basic housing. I was alerted to the fact that aside from his limited means, he relied for the most part on 'hand outs' he stated from ‘others', as immigration officials had visited the address, and he was especially unnerved by officialdom.

What also became clear in our meetings were some tentative hints of the early childhood traumas that had resulted in his leaving home and finding himself travelling across the continent to seek what he termed his 'sanctuary'.  However, this was now very much in question due to the aforementioned unresolved immigration issues. As supervision sessions were time-limited and we often needed to prioritise practical issues which Tomas seemed to respond well to, we framed our meetings by aiming to focus on clarifying his immigration status. Thus ensuring that appropriate therapeutic support could be accessed such that the issues pertinent to his offending were addressed and being alert to the destabilising shifts that insecure accommodation might throw up. He seemed to manage to cope with limited means mainly as noted through his support network.

The midway point in Tomas’ supervision normally would invite a timely review of the issues that informed the core elements within the working alliance between probation officer and probationer/client. On arrival it was immediately apparent that Tomas was in a state of acute anxiety and after much deliberation, and not a bit of cultural misunderstanding, I realised something of what had so troubled him on recent meetings at the office. It transpired that part of the reason he left Albania in such a hurry was due to something which I had not yet encountered before as a probation officer: the Kanun clan-based blood-feud.

The malign legacy of the feud had come to this part of London as one of his compatriots who Tomas had seen and identified as belonging to a family that had 'murdered' his father.  The deeply held cultural beliefs on exacting revenge and settling scores seemed to belong to another era, but here we were discussing ways of dealing with perceived threats to his safety and well-being.

I sent a letter to the local MP and advised Tomas to visit his weekly surgery, in many ways quite a courageous thing to do considering his still undecided immigration status. To my pleasant surprise the MP's response was commendably prompt and seemed to aid his attempts to remain legally entitled to stay.

By coincidence, a while later I passed the MP (who was a well-known government minister at the time) in the street and was able to thank him for his assistance. The balance of supervision was more than a little testing, but the fear of reprisal (regrettably, reconciliation did not appear to be an option) did not at least until the point at which the order expired seem to resurface.

Tomas was reassured that efforts were being made to enable him to remain legally in the country and he had sustained his commitment to his supervision. At the same time, he noted some measure of relief that he could sound off and lighten the weight of some of the emotionally fraught experiences he carried with him. Certainly supervision with Tomas was unpredictably thrown by the sudden flashback from his frightful encounter from his silent past, which now in the visible present influenced the direction of our subsequent meetings. 

As he left the office and in his last words to me, he included the Albanian word ‘faleminderit'  and said 'Thank you, Mr Mike’. I later mused what a normal life would now be like for Tomas?