Youth and Authority 11

Now one question that arises from this is whether these issues about the way we organise our agencies are simply our own business, and I think one of the questions for a day such as this is to explore that question. Are there ways in which we can open up the practice of our own agencies to the criticism and comment of each other? Can we create opportunities whereby this can be used constructively or do we have to defend ourselves against feared attacks or criticisms?

You will remember that my second point about social work was that having started from the point of view of individuals, we were particularly concerned with their relationships with their environment, and therefore in part with the organisations they encounter. I have suggested that when people bring their problems to our agencies they have a powerful effect on us and I have so far expressed this in terms of stress, but I also think that it is possible to be more specific about this, and to suggest that the nature of the effects clients have on us are related to the nature of the problems that they experience. There was a famous study of the nursing profession by Isabel Menzies that showed how the structure and working practices of nurses in a hospital setting were profoundly affected by the intense anxieties involved in caring for the seriously ill, in facing their possible death and in having the most intimate bodily contact with patients.

Again I am sure similar processes can be found at work within our own agencies. To choose one example from the probation setting, one of the most difficult client groups with which we have to deal are offenders who can be seen as professional criminals, the characteristic relationship we form with these individuals is superficial and businesslike, and largely impersonal. They rarely reveal much about themselves as people and tend to be hostile to the very idea of the Probation Service since we stand for aspects of human experience which they see as weak. Their inability to confess to human weakness and vulnerability in themselves, 1can easily be reflected in the way in which probation officers too can speak of them as if they had no weakness and these ‘manly’ superficial and businesslike relationships all too easily continue.

1A characteristic made fun of in films and TV shows more recently – The Sopranos for instance.

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