Understanding offending for material gain

Of some importance in work in the probation setting is the preoccupation with material objects, toys, etc., observed in children with anxious-avoidant patterns of attachment. Social relationships, and particularly the personal contact with the mother were apparently devalued by these children. This kind of detachment from personal relationships can often be mistaken for health. It has been noted in observing children’s progression in the grieving process from the overt distress of the protest and despair stages to the stage of detachment, that some carers misunderstood this as recovery. Many a bereaved parent can testify to the way friends and relations can almost conspire to keep his/her grief hidden and sustain a pretence of recovery with a consequent superficial feeling to any relationships. In disputes over access following divorce, the custodial parent can see the lack of distress in the child as healthy and distress as the result of the badness of the party seeking access.

In the criminal justice field, we are commonly encountering persistent offenders who show no signs of distress, are apparently rational and calculating in their offending, and are preoccupied with material gain so that money or possessions are their principal ‘toys’. This can easily be assumed to constitute health and either that the offending is truly rational and instrumental when it is actually fired by powerful submerged emotions, or that the offender lacks motivation to change when the cold rationality in truth reflects a profound anxiety about the probation officer’s attempts to get closer to him.

In negotiating contracts with offenders for their supervision, it is not uncommon for apparently rational sensible agreements persistently to break down for reasons that the client finds hard to explain. For such offenders, material gain becomes a self evident value, calling for no reflection or questioning on their part. Given the disadvantaged impoverished circumstances in which such offenders often live, a preoccupation with material things would seem understandable, quite apart from any attachment anxieties. Nonetheless, the material gains from their offences can be more of a ‘toy’ than something to put to rational use in alleviating any poverty.


More on Michael

Faced with such powerful material, it is all too easy to be drawn into preoccupation with the story and the feelings associated with it. Although I have chosen a dramatic example, the personal revelations of avoidant clients who characteristically devalue their emotional lives, often have a compelling quality to them, even when the actual events revealed are more commonplace. However, the client’s story, although important in itself, shed light on Michael’s anxious attachment behaviour in his uncertainty about letting the probation officer get close to him, and in his unreliable pattern of reporting. It enables missed appointments to be understood, to have meaning, rather than be dismissed as the client’s ‘badness’ or indolence. Rather than getting stuck in discussions of a bleak and unchangeable past, the story can help the worker adapt more sensitively to the needs the client brings to their relationship, and create a more secure environment in which the client can reflect on his own behaviour and difficulties. It is not coincidental that Michael also used the long interview to show a developed understanding of the reasons for his violent offences.

Anxious-avoidant Attachment Patterns

More common in probation settings is the pattern described as ‘anxious-avoidant’. Many examples could be given. Michael McRony was a 21 year old man, sentenced to a term of imprisonment for offences of grievous bodily harm and affray. It turned out that his father had killed his mother when he was about 8 years old. The parents were going through a divorce at the time. His father of course served a term of imprisonment and contact with him was lost for about 6 years. Michael told his probation officer that he was unaffected by the death of his mother. His offences followed the breakdown of a relationship with a girlfriend, and one assault was committed against a man who had assaulted his mother some 15 years previously.

Michael’s contact with his probation officer was marked by an intense ambivalence. On release from prison, early contact was erratic. He missed his first appointment and then came to the office with his sister, apparently frightened to come on his own. He was late for the next appointment, thereby ensuring that no substantial discussion could take place. The following appointment revealed some of his wish to be heard as well as his avoidance. The officer recorded discussion of his isolation, and of his jealousy of a fellow offender who had a house and family to return to. She then wrote, “i was left feeling he was someone very alone. This is a good opportunity to begin discussing Michael’s past history, but he did not wish to pursue this.” The next one was the penultimate one of his licence. It was a long and intensive and revealing interview in which Michael talked of his painful family history. The final formal appointment he cancelled in favour of a job interview and two subsequent offers of appointments after the end of his statutory supervision produced telephone calls initially to alter the arrangement and ultimately to decline the appointments with a message of thanks to the probation officer for her help.

As with ‘insecure-avoidant’ children, Michael’s first responses were to avoid the caring and comforting attentions of the probation officer and to deny painful emotions. When he did discuss his family history, the officer recorded; “The account was given in a cold detached way to which it was quite horrifying to listen.” He also recalled an incident when he broke his leg, some time after the death of his mother. His grandmother rushed to the scene of the accident and ‘nearly killed’ herself doing so. Michael’s memory of this was of feeling furious with his grandmother. On his father’s release from prison, Michael went to live with him, and I would speculate that this was because he could be sure that the relationship would have to remain superficial. The officer records, “I asked Michael if he had actually talked to his father about what had happened (the killing of Michael’s mother), and he said that it wasn’t possible and gave me an example of how this was impossible. He said that one day his father had asked him to look up in the newspaper to see what was in television. It was a movie, “Murder made easy – how to kill your wife”, and Michael just could not read that out to his father. His father looked at the newspaper, got up and left the room.”

Anxious-resistant Attachment Patterns

Now let me come to Bowlby’s specific patterns of anxious attachment. The relevance of these for probation work is I think, best illustrated by case examples. It may be that ‘anxious-resistant’ patterns are more characteristic of psychiatric patients than of offenders, and certainly the client that comes most readily to mind was involved with the psychiatric services as well as with the probation service. Mrs Sukova had shoplifted and was placed on probation. Very soon, the supervising officer found herself drawn into an intense relationship with her. In between appointments, Mrs Sukova would be greatly distressed, often phoning the office in tears. Frequently those phone calls would come from public call boxes, with Mrs Sukova, distressed and tearful, apparently stranded away from home. For a while the officer would chase off to ‘rescue’ Mrs Sukova, until it became clear that the helplessness was more apparent than real. The officer’s holidays were particularly difficult. On one occasion a bemused taxi driver delivered Mrs Sukova to the office when she was still dressed in her nighties and slippers. The interviews however were uncomfortable experiences, with frequent arguments, the officer finding herself telling Mrs Sukova off for her behaviour, and facing some angry evasiveness if she tried to focus the interview on some of the problems Mrs Sukova presented.

The Setting

Attachment theory suggests that the concern of the caregiver is not to do beneficial things to the child so much as to create a secure environment, a secure ‘setting’. This is what Winnicott termed “the facilitating environment”. [1] It is a setting that is responsive to the needs of the client, and one where the client’s attachment needs are sufficiently well met for him to give up the anxious and stereotyped behaviour patterns that preclude the discovery of new and more successful behaviour.

It is all too easy to be drawn into trying to change the client by our own efforts and so overlook the needs reflected in the client’s insecure and ambivalent attachment patterns, and the worker’s own involvement in those patterns. It is also easy to exaggerate the import of the worker’s positive interventions for successful change. I suspect that many ‘successful interventions’ arise as a response to the client’s development rather than being simply an initiative from the worker.

This emphasis on the setting is one of the strengths of attachment theory for the social work task. It takes us out of the narrow confines of the counselling role, and emphasises the importance of attending to the physical and material ‘setting’ of the client. In this way, such work as welfare rights advice, employment preparation or help with accommodation can be integrated with work on emotions or relationships. Furthermore, this aspect of attachment theory may suggest why it has been so hard to demonstrate the relative effectiveness of different models of intervention by social workers. It will be remembered that those children who moved from insecure to secure attachment patterns, appear to have done so as a result of an improvement in the caregiver’s responses to the child along the four dimensions mentioned. Whatever the model of intervention therefore, effectiveness would depend more crucially on the existence of the characteristics of secure caregiving.

[1] Winnicott 1982 esp pg 223


Secondly, the caregiver’s task is crucially responsive. This seems to me to be of vital importance in the probation setting, and raises many complexities because of the nature of the task imposed by the legal framework and political context. Some aspects however are simple to state and apparently not controversial. For example, I would have thought that all probation officers would place a high value on ‘sensitivity to the client’s signals’. This should direct our attention to what it is that makes a good listener and how we reveal that sensitivity to our clients.

The complexities arise in a context where greater emphasis is placed on offering explicit ‘packages’ to the Courts, as where the probation officer tries to define a contract with the client as a basis for individual supervision. It is all too easy for these approaches to be a ‘doing to’ the client with disappointing results. Attachment theory’s emphasis on responsiveness suggests why the process of negotiation with the client is usually of greater importance than the particular model of work which results from that negotiation.  It is in the process of negotiation that the probation officer can respond to the client’s signals in sensitive ways.

Attachment and Dependency

It is now time to draw out from the theory those aspects that seem to have particular significance for the probation officer.

First of all, this work identifies attachment behaviour as distinct from dependency. Dependency has acquired a bad name over the years. It has been associated with long term, aimless relationships to which clients cling anxiously. In attempts to prevent ‘over-dependency’, shorter orders have been favoured, and clearer definitions of task have been sought. In hostel settings, we have heard of the need for residents to be preparing to leave from the moment of arrival. The worry is that clients may be passive victims of the needs of the probation officer, involved in a relationship whose unspoken purpose is to reassure the officer of his or her own value and helpfulness.

The notion of attachment however draws attention to behaviour that is desirable for healthy development. The fears of creating over-dependency can be compared with the anxiety about ‘spoiling’, which many parents feel when struggling with a clinging child. Progress is made by meeting the needs expressed through anxious attachment behaviour, not by parental withdrawal, firmer discipline, nor by restriction of opportunities for the expression of attachment needs. For example, it was found that babies whose mothers picked them up in response to crying, tended to cry less often at one year than those babies where the mothers had not ‘spoiled’ them.[1] If probation officers offer themselves as caregivers, they commonly encounter the attachment patterns of the clients, as in the case of Mr Spencer, and many of these patterns will be anxious, clinging and ‘dependent’. Anxious attachment cannot be alleviated by the withdrawal of the worker. Indeed this would lead to more urgent clinging behaviour, or deterioration to despair and emotional detachment. What is required is more sensitive responsiveness, accessibility and so on, in accordance with the positive caregiving attributes identified above.

[1] Ainsworth M D S., Blehar, M C., Waters, E., and Wall S (1978) Patterns of Attachment: a Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, N.J: Erlbaum