Social work and community

My first post when I qualified as a probation officer was in the ‘suburbs’ of Sheffield – not suburbs of the leafy middle class kind, but council estates stretching SE from the centre of Sheffield to an area that in due course became a sort of ‘new town’. The office became identified in people’s mind with the name of the most notorious estate that we served – ‘The Manor’. The office was quite new and was one of a couple that were built to decentralise the service which had before this all been located in the centre of the city. There was an ideal involved – that we would have more success if we were working in the communities where offenders lived, and that we should seek to become ‘involved’ in the community.

There were to be a number of attempts to work out this ideal in practice in the 1970s, but the office I joined was proud of its work to become ‘community involved’, and papers were written and ambitious plans set out for the development of this idea. It was perhaps not the right moment for me to be joining such an outfit since, as I have already said, I was sceptical of the fashionable radicalism of the day and more interested in what can be termed ‘clinical’ approaches to probation work. I came to think that our much vaunted community involvement turned out to be nothing more than a couple of groups (for women and an angling group for young lads) and a bit of rhetoric.

One piece of the rhetoric has stayed in my mind and encapsulated some of my scepticism. On describing the community involvement approach one example my boss was fond of using concerned what he saw as significant changes in the attitude of people to the probation office itself. He would say in the early days of the office that pedestrians would often cross the road rather than pass the front door of the office, and that this behaviour had gradually changed as the office had as he saw it, been accepted as part of the local community. He also cited how health visitors had started to come to the office to see probation officers about their mutual clients. These examples seemed to me to be so far away from being remarkable that I was almost embarrassed that they should be used as evidence of success in community involvement. Indeed they almost seemed to underline a kind of isolationism, a sort of institutionalisation that to me characterised many parts of the probation service.


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Helping professionals thus need to have in their armoury, the ability to tolerate feelings of failure and pointlessness, and to find the clients’ search for a different life. It is not uncommon for troubled people persistently to test their workers’ capacity to survive the intensity of their depression, fear, greed, sexual rapacity etc. A response from the worker that only sees the despair can lead to the ending of a professional relationship and confirm the client’s secret belief that they are truly beyond hope. A response from the worker only sees the hope in a client’s troubled behaviour can lead the client just to feel that the true depth of the awfulness within them has not been understood, intensifying their need to express and show that awfulness. ‘Professional survival’ in the way I am discussing it here involves the worker showing the client that they are in touch with both the despair and the hope.

Sadly, professional survival is easily undervalued in the way services are structured. Re-allocation to new workers after re-offending without a shared sense between workers and client of the continuities to be carried through into the new working relationship is all too common. When offenders are sent to prison, work between the client and their previous worker easily breaks down, just as work done in prison easily is lost on release. Re-offending, relapse, recurrence of depressive episodes – all these can prompt a response that work plan A has not worked, and so work plan B with a new worker, new service, must be attempted. This is in many ways common sense – a crisis should prompt a review of what has gone wrong and what needs to change. But if it in the process, that which was valuable in plan A is not understood, and that which offers the potential to learn and be different is overlooked, ‘treatment’ / offender supervision can just become one damn thing after another, none of which ‘work’.

I will not here also discuss the failures of workers to ‘survive’ in the sense that they lose all hopefulness in their work and just go cynically through the motions until they are saved by retirement or a change of role. There is a whole literature on burn out of course

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So what kind of hope may be involved here? Crime fiction often likes the idea that an offender re-offends in the hope that they may be caught and stopped from continuing their destructive spree. There can be some truth in this for some people. For some desperate folk, the hope to be caught and imprisoned can be more simply explained – they need an asylum. For them,life in the community is frightening, lonely, and associated with cold and hunger, whilst life in prison provides warmth, food, company and a secure sense of identity. At its heart, though, the hope I am talking about is the hope that offending will make something different, will change a hopeless situation. It can be hope that someone will recognise a terrible internal world that the offender is unable to communicate in any other way. For some , to desist from offending (recover from addiction, depression etc) raises a deep seated fear that they will, once ‘better’, be ignored, left in lonely isolation, with no purpose in their life. It is the equivalent of children who feel they have to misbehave to be noticed. Such hope then may be disordered or selfish but it is an energy that can open the door to future change.

If offending is therefore just treated as a failure of work with that offender, and the work broken off and left to others, this can reflect a failure of the worker to ‘survive’, to retain the hope and sensitivity that can recognise that part of what has happened that shows an energy in the offender for things to be different. If the worker can survive and be in touch with this energy, new opportunities for a better future can open up.


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One of the odd paradoxes of work with people in trouble is that re-offending is in some cases an act of hopefulness, a truth that is well disguised behind the overwhelming sense of failure and blame that characterise the most common reaction to the offending.

Now I realise that this idea of offending as an action of ‘hope’ may invite a snort of disbelief. Indeed, the preoccupation with guilt and blame in the face of offending can lead people to be offended by such an idea, as if designating an offender as ‘hopeful’ is somehow to mitigate the reality of the destructiveness of their behaviour and of its impact on the victim(s). The politics surrounding criminal justice is plagued by this fear that to try and explain is to try and excuse. Explanation is dismissed as the province of liberals who wish to see offenders as victims.

However, when I say that offending can be an action of hope, I am not saying anything that mitigates responsibility for offending nor anything that has any bearing on the appropriateness or otherwise of punishment. I am however saying something of importance to those who work with offenders with the objective of moving them away from further offending.

You may also think that to describe offending as ‘hopeful’ makes no sense because of the despair and misery people often feel about their offending. We are all too inclined to think that behaviour is motivated by one feeling or another – by love or by hate, by selfishness or by altruism. This may be a convenient shorthand for everyday purposes, but it is inadequate to meet the challenge of troubled behaviours and emotions. There is in fact very little that we do that is not fuelled by a complex cocktail of often contradictory but co-existing emotion. Altruism can often be both generous and selfish – gifts often involve real kindness and also the hope to be seen as kind. So offending can be both an act of despair and an act of hope simultaneously.


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‘Survival’ is also threatened in other ways. Most obviously and commonly in probation work, client re-offending can easily ‘kill off’ a professional relationship (just as break downs of abstinence can ‘kill off’ a relationship with addicts). I do not suggest that in such circumstances professional survival is always possible. Reality may intervene such that the offender can no longer maintain a working relationship with their previous worker. However, all too often professional relationships break down because of institutional rigidities, or a loss of hope by the worker or often by a combination of the two.

Institutional rigidities are all too common and they can have their roots in hidden emotional transactions that feed them. Just as Isabel Menzies noted how rigid specialisation of nursing tasks served to protect nurses from exposure to the painful realities of patient experience, so the way work with offenders is structured can serve to protect workers from the emotional pain of their clients’ failures and destructiveness. So all too often, re-offending is seen as a failure requiring a new intervention strategy by a new worker.


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All the above is on its own a misleading account of professional survival in that it does not highlight the charged emotional context in which helping professionals operate. There is a world of difference between seeking help for a technical problem – a benefits mix up, a legal question (although even in these there is a significant emotional context that if understood can enable help to be effectively provided) – and seeking help with a personal trouble, though clients will often seek to disguise the latter behind the former. Sometimes, I would find workers colluding with their clients in a kind of pretence that some relatively technical problem was being tackled and would dismiss suggestions that something else was going on as unnecessary complication. Readers will recall the pattern of anxious attachment discussed earlier which was characterised by a lack of emotional expression and a preoccupation with material objects. Workers who bought into this defensive structure would rarely sustain relationships of any depth and significance with their clients. These relationships all too often ended in a mutual sense of pointlessness.

‘Professional survival’ as I am defining it, involved therefore some kind of emotional engagement, a taking part in the ‘argument’ that is a meaningful relationship. Even when the worker is in touch with the need for this, ‘survival’ is sometimes extremely difficult. For some clients, their very existence can seem to depend on maintaining superficiality in relation ships, on keeping everyone including themselves, away from inner turmoil, need and intimacy. There are few of us that have not found ourselves using a similar defence mechanism in the face of emotional distress. If you doubt this, just consider how universal is the pressure parents feel to hide their depression from their children.

‘Professional’ survival’ does not however mean throwing yourself into the ’emotional maelstrom’ that is the clients’ inner world. The turmoil the client is avoiding may be objectively frightening – murderous impulses, fantasies of sexual violence, psychotic episodes etc. In many such cases, the danger to professional survival may be failure to survive a feeling of pointlessness about the working relationship and to agree with the client that there is no point in continuing. The work may feel boring, it may feel a waste of time, but one of the most demanding requirements on workers is to wait, to hang on until a shift occurs that allows the worker to enter a more meaningful argument with the client. The difficulty of this ‘waiting’ can be considerable – the worker may well be feeling that their contact with the client is genuinely pointless and going nowhere whilst other cases are clamouring for attention. The worker’s problem is to remain active in their listening – in other words ‘waiting’ in this context if not a passive state. The workers must remain alive to what the client is communicating in words, in mood, in body language, in behaviour and constantly demonstrating to the client that they are paying attention and thinking actively about their experience and problems. Where breakdowns of the clients defensive framework are revealed – a moment of sadness, or self doubt for example – the worker must resist the urge to leap into the opening like an angler’s strike. To do that may be to risk losing the client altogether.


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It may seem too obvious to say but we must not forget that if we are working with people in trouble to the extent that some sort of public intervention – medical or behavioural – is required, we are facing problems that involve extreme distress and fear. This can be taken as a given, however the client presents themselves. Indeed, those showing least overt distress or fear can often be the most frightened, too frightened to allow themselves to be in touch with the fear.

The survival of the professional relationship cannot therefore be taken for granted. In fact, if you examine the work of helping services from this perspective it is significant how often professional relationships do not survive, how few end with a shared sense of completion. There are many common forms that this failure to survive takes.

In voluntary helping services, failures to survive are often all too overt – the client drops out of the helping process. This is however not as simple as it may seem. In one of the family therapy cases with which I did work, the family ended treatment with one of the parents saying that, having discussed the sessions together, they had agreed they felt so awful they had decided they had to talk issues through themselves! It is unfortunately not always possible to know what the outcome of helping work is, but it is not unusual for positive endings to take place in this way. People can come to a realisation that they are looking for the impossible from a helping service and that an alternative way forward is possible. Such occurrences are therefore not always properly understood as a failure of survival in the helping process.

Client drop out often does reflect a failure of survival however. One of the salutary experiences of moving from the probation service, where clients were mostly obliged to report to me, to the voluntary sector was to recognise that clients would only remain in the work with me if what I had to offer were good enough. ‘Survival’ therefore required the kind of active listening that convinced clients that they were understood, and that our work offered some promise of positive change. It highlighted how easily we would blame probation clients for failure to attend appointments when the quality of what we were offering was not up to scratch.