At this point, let me give an illustration of the caregiving task of the probation officer, in a case containing features that are not uncommon in probation practice. The agency has had dealings with Mr Spencer over some years as a result of petty offending. He was the subject of a probation order about four years ago. The supervising officer had persistent difficulties in establishing any regular contact, and at one stage the order was returned to Court because of Mr Spencer’s failure to keep appointments. In conversation, he was very evasive over matters of personal relationships and preoccupied with his financial confusions, and conflicts with housing authorities, fuel Boards etc. Indeed, fighting with the authorities became the focus for his life as he became actively involved in a local organisation protesting at the problems of housing design on his estate. After the end of the probation order, Mr Spencer’s marriage ran into difficulties to the extent that divorce proceedings were begun. Probation officers became involved again when the Court asked for welfare reports, because the couple could not agree on the arrangements for their child.
On this occasion, two probation officers undertook the report and soon became embroiled in furious arguments. Both parties complained that the officers were prejudiced against them, and as manager, I received a lengthy complaint from Mr Spencer. Nonetheless, a court order was made and complied with, and Mr and Mrs Spencer attended regular meetings with the officers for a time. Mr Spencer’s circumstances deteriorated after the breakdown of a relationship into which he had fled after his separation from Mrs Spencer, and he was reduced to living in a series of lodgings. All this time, he called to see the welfare officers with a persistence that stretched their patience to breaking point. He would come with the latest example of chaos in his personal circumstances, maybe concerning his finances, his lodgings or his arrangements for access to his child. His predicament would be presented anxiously and urgently, prompting the workers to search for newer and more effective suggestions as to how he might make progress. None of these would be adequate for Mr Spencer and indeed he often hardly seemed to notice them. He would leave the sessions with the workers feeling exasperated and inadequate. The procedure would be repeated with some frequency, sometimes twice in one day, and Mr Spencer’s persistence was matched only by the officers’ search for new suggestions they could make which would be more effective in resolving the problems posed.
I think this is one case where the probation officers’ caregiving had enabled Mr Spencer to progress from the hopelessness of the earlier probation order, to a situation where he could bring his attachment pattern to the attention of the workers, because he now had some hope that the needs his behaviour reflected might begin to be met. This progress was difficult for the officers to see, and although they knew Mr Spencer did not attend because of the efficacy of their advice, they had not asked themselves why he did present himself so persistently. Once the pattern of behaviour became clearer to them, the officers were able to think more purposefully about how to pursue their work, and to be less preoccupied with finding new suggestions to deal with whatever practical issue Mr Spencer was raising. For example, they could consider whether the practical issues were not really insoluble to Mr Spencer, but were important to him to give him a reason for seeking help.