Attachment theory and the work of the probation officer


Most probation officers will be aware of John Bowlby’s work on the effects of maternal deprivation on the subsequent emotional deprivation of children. This work has established itself in the common sense understanding of child development in this country. It provoked major changes in the policy of hospitals towards the care of children. Bowlby’s work however, came under increasing attack from several directions. In particular, it became identified with therapeutic models of social work, which were rejected by ever larger numbers of probation officers.

Bowlby however moved on to the development of attachment theory. His magnum opus, “Attachment and Loss”, was completed in 1980. [1]  It has prompted important follow-up studies. Unlike many psycho-dynamic theories, attachment theory has been subjected to careful testing, and can be supported by more than the subjective and clinical evidence of practitioners. Although based on some fundamentally simple ideas, it is a complex theory, drawing on neurological, ethological and psychological evidence. It seems to me to be of prof0ound importance to social work and probation practice.

In this paper, therefore, I shall first give a brief summary of attachment theory. Then as an important bridge between the theory and the experience of the probation officer, I shall suggest that the probation officer can be seen as a temporary ‘caregiver’, who therefore encounters in his clients, similar patterns of attachment behaviour as the parental caregiver does with his/her child. I shall then try to draw out and illustrate those aspects of the theory that shed light on the probation officer’s task. First of all, there is a distinction between attachment and dependency; then the importance of responsiveness and the ‘secure setting’. Next I shall illustrate the patterns of anxious attachment in probation work, with especial attention to ‘anxious-avoidant’ patterns. Moving on to implications of more recent research, I shall discuss the importance of forgiveness in the probation setting and the implications of attachment theory for the probation officer’s work with the social history of the offender. The paper will end with the discussion of some problematic aspects of the application of attachment theory to the probation setting.

[1] Bowlby J (1984) Attachment. Pelican; (1985a) Separation. Pelican; (1985b) Loss. Pelican


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