Regular readers will recall my taking to task the BBC 1 four-part probation drama 'Public Enemies' for bearing little relation to reality. In addition to painting the extremely unlikely scenario whereby a life sentence prisoner is released back into the community where the index offence had been committed, it also strayed into the equally unlikely world of a sexual relationship developing between officer and client.
I guess it was bound to happen, but exceptions always prove the rule and here we have a case of a female probation officer indeed having an inappropriate relationship with a released life licence client. This highly unprofessional breach of trust only came to light because the client 'went on the run' after being informed by the officer that he was to be recalled to prison having been arrested for Driving over the Prescribed Limit. I guess it was this act that resulted in the offence of Wilful Misconduct in Public Office.
Setting aside the unforgivable crossing of professional boundaries, I notice that it's reported that a supporting letter from a colleague is quoted as saying 'how easily this might happen'. Now I suspect (and hope) that this refers to the act of informing the client, rather than sleeping with him. Having reflected carefully, I'm fairly sure I and many other officers might have done something very similar by informing clients either of an application for recall or of it's imminent granting, and possibly prior to the warrant being issued. In all cases the aim is not to tip the client off so that he 'does a runner', but rather to try and maintain trust with them by explaining the reasoning and support a voluntary surrender to custody. In this case the plan went awry because the guy 'wanted to say goodbye to a number of people' first.
It may sound naive, but I've never really thought that by doing such a thing I could be accused of Wilful Misconduct in Public Office. I've always thought it risky, but then much in this job is. The thing about recalling a client is that you still have to work with them afterwards and quite quickly prepare a plan for the Parole Board that sets out reasoned arguments regarding the behaviour that resulted in recall and how it can be constructively addressed. It will be appreciated that ideally this can only be achieved with the clients full cooperation, a process made almost impossible if they feel betrayed by you. Clearly a difficult balancing act, but one that's continually at the core of our work.
If I'm honest I know full well that this won't be the first time a probation officer will have slept with a client. Nevertheless it's very rare and hugely disappointing for us all and although not a criminal offence, warrants instant dismissal. I note that in passing a suspended prison sentence with Unpaid Work and a six month Curfew, Judge Richard Foster told Luton Crown Court that "cases like this were more common among police or prison officers and to his knowledge no other probation officer had been charged with this offence."