Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice

JAMES BAMFORD (Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire CRC)

JAMES BAMFORD (Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire CRC)

James Bamford (Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire CRC)

AWARD WINNER 2014-15: James, now a Senior Probation Officer at BGSW CRC, is granted an Award for all-round excellence in his work as a Probation Officer in Wiltshire, and was nominated in particular for helping to transform, and secure the long term future of, a hostel threatened with closure. According to his nomination, his achievements “go well above and beyond what could be expected of any individual in the context of their normal working day”.

James BamfordJames Bamford, who has already won multiple awards, is an inspiring example of outstanding work “which goes well above and beyond what could be expected of any individual in the context of their normal working day, says John Wiseman, Chief Executive of Wiltshire Probation Trust.

His awards include a 2010 ‘Chief’s Award’ and a 2013 Wiltshire Probation Trust Staff Award, both for ‘Significant work in helping to Protect the Public.’ Colleagues and others, including local police, frequently cite James as ‘the go-to man’ when dealing with some of the most chaotic, complex, and potentially life-threatening cases in the system.

Starting as a Trainee Probation Officer in 2005, he qualified in 2007 – and five years later was instrumental in turning a £270,000 funding shortfall almost certain to lead to the closure of a local hostel into a renewed, reconfigured and considerably strengthened service that makes a real difference to often extraordinarily difficult lives and to the wider public.

Like many Butler Trust award recipients – including, for example, David Miners this year – James found himself confronting an increasingly complex landscape in which multiple agencies are trying to grapple, in a sometimes fragmented system, with potentially very dangerous offenders. This can involve trying to glue together more effective solutions across many components, not infrequently based on new approaches that often include fast-evolving good practice.

The Butler Trust’s Director, Simon Shepherd, is fond of citing how, in his own experience both working in prisons and the wider criminal justice sector, he is consistently impressed by the how staff confront problems with a determination to work around the many obstacles they confront in their work. James’s work is a classic example.

Facing a funding shortfall that looked likely to derail The Bridge hostel service, which handled a particularly difficult client list, James brought “drive and enthusiasm, professional expertise and experience to make local organisations aware of the risk of losing the service,” says Simon Cope, in Offender Management for the Wiltshire Probation Trust. James also encouraged partners to pool resources, and then went on to put together a comprehensive partnership solution that, says Simon, “not only bridged the funding gap but has enhanced the overall service.”

James did all this, it should be noted, while simultaneously maintaining service delivery and keeping up staff morale within probation and at the hostel. Meanwhile he had to draft emergency plans for the hostel’s closure. James’s work involves his multiple roles as a Probation Officer, including acting as a Team Practice Advisor, as a Personality Disorder Specialist, a Vocational Qualification Assessor and an Accommodation Lead for the Swindon probation office.

Having identified the levels of concern and fear many staff feel when dealing with offenders with violent histories, many of whom have a personality disorder, James has also gone on to take a lead role in training all 154 staff. He places a particular emphasis on the importance of psychologically informed approaches towards risk management and in engaging service users, while also acknowledging the importance of screening high risk cases.

The results have improved the health and well-being of staff tasked with working with this group who have the highest attrition rates and cause the most anxiety for staff. For all the complex inter-disciplinary teamwork he helped drive forward, James returns to a single case, encapsulated in a thank you card he carries with him from JA, one of his early cases, which reminds him of “the importance of working holistically with individuals.”

JA arrived at the Probation Service homeless and with significant alcohol problems after a domestic violence incident involving his wife of 35 years. In exploring his history, James discovered that he was “a proud ex-Army and Police Officer” who had witnessed the killing of an Army colleague and friend by the IRA in the 1970s. James helped JA access treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), helped him into Alcoholics Anonymous, and aided him through emergency housing, a spell at The Bridge Hostel, and then on into his own accommodation.

James helped reconnect JA with his wife and grandchildren, and says that JA is now visiting “Universities across England and Wales with a Consultant giving talks about the impact of PTSD.” James sees his approach, designed to more deeply understand past behaviour and the likelihood of future behaviour, as about helping Probation staff “predict the unpredictable.” Numerous colleagues cite several examples of this ‘go-to man’ doing exactly that – some including court cases and follow-up work he has done to rapidly protect vulnerable children and others in the community.


[James Bamford gives his account of the work for which he won his Award]

“Thank you for properly listening and treating me like a person, not just an offence,” is one of the lines from a Service User card that I always carry with me. I believe that the Butler Trust recognised my passionate commitment to developing a range of new projects, interventions and skilled casework that focused upon holistic assessment of individual’s risk and needs. In particular, I was recognised for developing and delivering projects in the areas of desistance, mental health, personality disorders and training as well as re designing the resettlement and risk practice at a local hostel. My award also recognised highly effective casework with complex, very high risk individuals. The outcomes of the projects and my associated casework evidence reduced risk, improved public protection, increased service user engagement and developed the skills of staff.

I believe that a particular theme can be drawn within my good practice around the importance of finding time and resources to build quality, holistic assessments about the risk and needs for individual Service Users. If I use a personal analogy, my daughter has been seeing her GP and hospital specialists for a number of years for a difficult to define and significant health problem. As a concerned parent, at no point has the GP explained the potential root causes of her problem in detail, but instead practitioners have focused all their energy upon trial and error with medication to treat her current visible symptoms. However, the patient can be left feeling confused or frustrated around understanding how their problem developed and sceptical about adhering to the medical treatment solution, particularly if it doesn’t solve the problem immediately.

I would assess that holistic assessment has become even more important in a post sentence era where under resourced NPS staff feel pressurised by Magistrates Court targets of 90% of reports being completed on the day rather than adjournment for a more comprehensive interview. This system pressure organically stimulates by necessity a ‘treat the visible symptoms’ assessment approach and “we’ll explore the root causes later.” Therefore, the loss of trust that could be built through the shared learning journey pre-sentence is even more vital to try to reclaim post sentence when the journeyed Service User eventually ends up with their allocated probation officer.

I believe a drive to rapidly treat the visible causal decision chains that have triggered an offence is the equivalent of placing a plaster on a broken arm. For example, a practitioner may re visit alcohol education interventions with a repeat drink drive offender in the hope that this time around, the individual will finally become contemplative about addressing this problematic behaviour. This may well successfully address the offending behaviour if the individual is ready to change through maturation, new motivational goals and an excellent working relationship with their probation officer. However, a commitment to holistic assessments, building a comprehensive case formulation, which is difficult for practitioners with high caseloads and time pressures might actually unearth a very hidden root cause underpinning the offending behaviour.

I recently explained this view to a new staff member in supervision who was anxious that she had not started the victim empathy pack with a newly sentenced Service User. I highlighted the legitimacy and need to spend time building trust through talking about the person and not just the offence to gain a better assessment. I found the reflective response from the staff member very rewarding when she gave the analogy, “its like going to the Pharmacy and getting paracetamol for repeat headaches, but you haven’t told the chemist your life story and your new job involves insufficient breaks from staring at a computer.” I would assert that probation could utilise more psychological informed approaches to help explore and fully understand individuals risk and needs, but also to help individuals understand how they have shaped attitudes and beliefs that have led to problematic behaviour.

I would cite my work with JA as a good example of working holistically with an individual. JA came to the probation service with significant excess alcohol problems and homeless following a domestic violence offence against his wife of 35 years. JA’s initial, brief court assessment identified that he had excessive alcohol problems exacerbated when he was unable to exert power and control over his partner. JA was assessed via a brief court assessment and with his sarcastic and dismissive behaviour pre sentence, the assessor did not have time to build trust and an in depth case formulation. However, in fully exploring JA’s life post sentence, it was identified that he was a proud ex Army and Police Officer, who had witnessed the killing of an Army colleague and friend by the IRA in the 1970s. In discussing his history, JA explained how he had been progressively self medicating with excess alcohol use throughout his adult life rather than seeking any help. In exploring his attitudes further, this was not a man focused on exerting power and control over his partner, but instead desperately frustrated, upset and scared about his behaviour. In liasing with SSAFA, we enabled the Army to assess and start treating JA for PTSD, we helped him into AA, got him emergency accommodation, then a short placement at a Hostel, eventually securing his own accommodation and rebuilding contact with his wife and grandchildren. JA now visits Universities across England and Wales with a Consultant giving talks about the impact of PTSD. His thank you card reminds me of the importance and rewards of active listening and how taking time to fully get to know an individual is vital to understand behavioural motivation and affect attitudinal change.

JA’s volatile and aggressive behaviour was highly unpredictable to a new case worker lacking knowledge of his underlying PTSD condition. I am similarly working on a new project around Understanding Autism in which we are working with local Social Care professionals to screen and assess all Service Users on probation exhibiting traits of Autism. The purpose of this project is again to up skill staff so they can identify, predict potential behaviours and this will improve their confidence and ability to gain successful outcomes for this individual group of Service Users.

In my work as a Probation Personality Disorder Specialist, a similar theme arose within training around professional’s feeling deskilled with presentations of odd and highly volatile behaviour, feeling fear of the unpredictable nature of this cohort of offenders. In delivering training to all staff (154 staff trained) and helping to screen all high risk cases, I have helped embed a project that is significantly improving the health and well being of staff and Service Users as behavioural patterns can be anticipated and predicted. But, most importantly, the project is starting to create better interventions and outcomes for compliance and rehabilitation.

I would cite my casework with PM, an individual diagnosed with Paranoid Personality Disorder, who never lasted more than two weeks on prison licence, but has now been released for over 16 months. I would highlight that tailoring an individual, well thought out risk management plan explaining and responding to predictable Paranoid PD traits helped this individual address many complex risk and needs, such as being highly transparent and explaining what he needed to achieve for Social Services and Probation to support him having access to his children. The risk management plan for PM often required educative and persuasive work with partner agencies within MAPPA meetings, around Personality Disorder, to encourage agencies such as Police and Social Services to accept an holistic needs based approach to help manage risk rather than responding with an overly restrictive, unresponsive and inflexible risk management approach that had never worked in the past. As stated earlier, I would reinforce the need to uphold a strong focus within probation to more effectively build case formulations to truly identify patterns within past behaviour and a coherent evidence led prediction about future behavioural patterns. I would argue that effective case formulation not only with personality disordered individuals, but with all individuals can help Probation staff to ‘predict the unpredictable.’

I also recognise my Butler Trust award focused upon my public protection casework, which again evidences a commitment towards valuing the individual. I learned a very important lesson from a former manager Tom Weedon, who was passionate about retaining important social work training ideals, such as promoting value based desistance theory, looking to always pursue people’s strengths rather than focusing too much on analysing and accepting weaknesses in previous behaviour. This approach has helped me to confidently supervise Very High Risk and Critical Public Protection Cases, building effective working relationships with individuals presenting as highly aggressive and intimating to staff. I am reminded of a situation in which, I took a high profile, Very High Risk Service User to the dentist, but this was only agreed by the medical practice as long as security and myself accompanied him. In looking through the eyes of this Service User, the anxious, overly authoritarian attention of the security guard, the nervous response of the receptionist and the lack of discussion from the dentist made me realise the messages being reinforced to this individual that his role in this world was to live up to the stereotype of an aggressive, dangerous, violent offender.

The importance of holistic assessment can also be applied to analysis of systems. In my current work with Bridge Services hostel, we are uniquely managing a hostel that provides accommodation for both NPS and CRC Service Users. I recognise that individual NPS and CRC Service Users may have a number of very similar needs, but they will also have some widely different risks and needs. In the past, Bridge was only accessible for High risk of harm offenders returning from Approved Premises. In my work as accommodation lead for probation with a local hostel in Swindon, I was able to identify a range problems with High risk cases resettling effectively back into their local community from prison. I worked to re develop the day to day referral and allocation process, ensuring that High risk of harm offenders were being returned to Swindon in a safe and timely manner after testing within an Approved Premises. I also developed a process increasing short term bed space placements for low and medium risk priority service users. This has now been expanded with CRC and NPS cases both having access to this hostel. The resources to re integrate offenders, particularly violent and sexual offenders was very limited. Therefore, I encouraged Swindon Housing to be fully involved in assessment and allocation meetings, ensuring we could develop a steady flow between Approved Premises and independent accommodation with this hostel being the key stepping stone. Unfortunately, this hostel was then faced with a £240,000 funding shortfall and as a probation practitioner, I was asked to become more and more involved in developing restructuring plans that would prevent the hostel from closure, evidencing to all providers and partner agencies how vital this accommodation resource was for public protection, resettlement and rehabilitation.

I believe a final overarching theme of my good practice has been a passionate desire to share my learning and this led to me holding a number of training and development roles whilst undertaking the casework and projects detailed above. In my previous multi roles as Probation Officer / Team Practice Advisor, VQ Assessor, Training Facilitator and now as a Senior Probation Officer, I have been driven by a commitment to learn about people, understand their behaviour, no matter how serious, and identify solutions that improve a person’s well being and desire to make positive change.

On reflection, if you asked my family or friends, they would potentially criticise that I continue outside of work to spend time analysing people’s reactions, hypothesising about the origins of a behavioural response, acting out behavioural scenarios and listing how individuals will respond next. This is not always particularly helpful behaviour outside of work, but adopting a reflective, holistic assessment approach as a probation officer is critical if you want to identify the real causes of behaviour not just the symptoms.

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