Probation officers were sometimes faced with the need to write a social background report alongside the provision of a psychiatric report by a psychiatrist. My first experience of this has stayed vividly in my mind. Having met and made an initial assessment of the client I arranged to take the young man to the psychiatrist who was to do the psychiatric report. It is worth mentioning this, because it subsequently became clear that this practice was not always adopted. I claim no credit for it – I was simply doing what my manager advised was necessary. It immediately established me as a colleague with the psychiatrist who could share perceptions about the client – as opposed to a process where probation officer and psychiatrist never met but simply communicated by letter (or presumably e mail these days). The physical presentation of the psychiatrist was extraordinary. Before seeing the client, he invited me to discuss what I had learned about him so far and whilst talking to me, merged himself into a very messy ripe pear – I use the term ‘merge’ advisedly- it did not seem like eating! For all his eccentricity, this meeting established him in my mind as someone with a real interest in understanding the client and as someone who treated me not as an overgrown student (which I probably was) but as a professional colleague with my own territory of expertise.
Later experience with and observation of relationships with psychiatrists has underpinned the value of this early experience. So much can go wrong when the probation officer or social worker does not own where their expertise lies and therefore fail to approach psychiatric assessments with a critical eye. If this is only achieved by keeping the psychiatrist at a distance, opportunities for a constructive argument that can tease out the best management strategy for a case are missed.