A qualitative examination of attachment-based concepts in probation supervision

AuthorMaria Ansbro
Date01 June 2019
Published date01 June 2019
Subject MatterArticles
PRB833458 181..200
The Journal of Community and Criminal Justice
Probation Journal
A qualitative
2019, Vol. 66(2) 181–200
ª The Author(s) 2019
examination of
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0264550519833458
concepts in probation
Maria Ansbro
Buckinghamshire New University, UK
Attachment theory is familiar to probation workers, with its broad messages that early
care can leave a lasting legacy, and that patterns of relating can be repeated
throughout the lifespan. Up close, however, attachment theory is complex, and
research findings sometimes vague or contested. This empirical research examined
the use of four key attachment-based concepts in generic probation practice over a
period of six months. The concept of the probation officer as a potential secure base
was a useful one, as was the idea that service users’ early attachment history could
help to understand relationships and offending. Other concepts (the reflective function
and attachment style) were less useful.
attachment theory, secure base, mentalization, reflective function, attachment style,
The catalyst for this research was an article I published 10 years ago in this journal
on the possible utility of attachment theory in everyday probation practice (Ansbro,
2008). It pulled together ideas from existing research and proposed that probation
Corresponding Author:
Maria Ansbro, Senior Lecturer, Social Work Team, Bucks New University, Queen Alexandra Road, High
Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, HP11 2JZ, UK.
Email: maria.ansbro@bucks.ac.uk

Probation Journal 66(2)
officers (POs)1 can potentially offer a reparative taste of a secure base, and that
early attachment experiences can offer important insights into later development,
counter-balancing over-simplistic or punitive attributions of behaviour. Attachment
histories and insecure styles of attachment were recommended as a way of
understanding service users who struggled to understand and control their own
extreme states of mind, and to access others’ mental states. Recommendations for
practice were not set exercises, but an endorsement of ‘time spent establishing a
well-pitched dialogue, and starting to put words to offenders’ thoughts and state of
mind’ (Ansbro, 2008: 239). The article seemed to be read by a pleasing number of
people (many academic publications sink immediately without trace). However, the
suspicion nagged that applications for attachment theory in a probation setting
were being celebrated in a rather speculative way, and perhaps with an insuffi-
ciently critical eye. This research was an attempt to make amends and put those
ideas to the test.
Firstly, a word on the application of any theory into practice. Historically, an
extensive range of theory has been recommended for probation and social work.
Indeed, the very diversity can be perplexing, leading Trevithick (2008: 1219) to
. . . one of the problems with a broad range of abstract theories drawn from diverse
sources is that they can be difficult to organise into a coherent framework and difficult
to relate to practice . . . The result is a formidable knowledge mountain.
It is also possible to argue that theory as a practice tool only truly exists during
training, on the pages of academic journals or in a few specialist projects, and
research has repeatedly found that probation practitioners make little or no refer-
ence to theory when discussing their work (e.g. Robinson et al., 2014). The claim
has also been levelled at social work (Thyer, 2001; Munro, 2002), and the riposte
is usually that it is present, but is not explicitly labelled with text-book terminology –
in much the same way that Curnock and Hardicker (1979) wrote about ‘practice
wisdom’. This research chose as its starting point the assumption that theory does
find its way into practice – after all, the participants volunteered to give up consid-
erable amounts of their time to discuss exactly that.
Attachment theory has always regularly featured in the practice literature, but
probably does not currently feature as high up the billing order as cognitive
behaviourism, motivational interviewing or desistance theory. However, latterly, it
has been particularly prominent in the literature on personality disorder, and official
guidance for practitioners published by the Ministry of Justice and the NHS (2015
[2011]) recommends it as the most useful theoretical framework to understand
disorders of personality. Particularly noticeable is the way that the Offender Per-
sonality Disorder Pathway (NOMS and NHS England, 2015), a collaboration
established in 2011 between health and criminal justice, has fed a burgeoning
literature which features attachment theory, some psychodynamic principles, and
an emphasis on reflective practice to explicate the complexities of work undertaken
with personality disordered service users. Fellowes (2014: 193) notes that the

initiative has brought about a ‘quiet revolution’ in the way psychological thinking
has helped to manage this often difficult group, described by Forbes and Reilly
(2011: 168) as ‘frequently hostile and challenging in their responses to authority’.
However, at the risk of sounding churlish, it could be argued that there is a
downside to some of this literature. Fellowes, Forbes and Reilly were all writing from
a probation perspective, but that is not typical – most publications are by psychol-
ogists, and they conclude, for instance, that probation staff know worryingly little
about personality disorder (Shaw et al., 2011), but either can get a bit better at it
after some training from psychologists (Shaw et al., 2017; Knauer et al., 2017;
Radcliffe et al., 2018), or alternatively do not get better at it after training from
psychologists (Minoudis et al., 2013), or that offenders and carers are sceptical that
probation staff could ever properly use psychological formulations (Brown and
Vo¨llm, 2016). In fact, psychologists in this area seem to expend more effort eval-
uating probation staff than evaluating the effectiveness of their own case formula-
tions. This all serves to compound an impression of a second-class probation
workforce dependent on the experts – the psychologists. Granted, clinical psy-
chologists have for some years qualified at doctoral level, and granted the Trans-
forming Rehabilitation changes have done nothing to enhance POs’ sense of status
and skill. However, any suggestion that the training, role and perspective of POs
might be different from that of psychologists is quite absent, with not a hint that
awareness of social models of illness as well as medical ones, of psychosocial and
ecological perspectives, and of sociological critiques of expert knowledge could
add something distinct.
In contrast, this research started with the assumption that POs are knowledgeable
about the job they do and sought to put them in the driving seat. Rather than judging
whether they were using the theory well enough, it asked them to judge whether the
theory served them or not. A further research aim was to achieve as much specificity
about attachment theory as was practical; attachment theory has evolved into a
vast, vibrant, and frequently contested body of work, and so at the planning stage
four attachment-based concepts were delineated for examination. Although there is
a degree of inter-connectedness between these themes, they each have a promi-
nence in their own right.
The four attachment-based themes
The first theme was that the supervisory relationship between PO and service user
has the potential to develop attachment-type, secure base properties. The carer-
infant relationship is theorised as the primary and most significant attachment
relationship (Bowlby, 1999 [1969], 1973, 1980), but the concept is extended to
other relationships throughout the lifespan (Hazan and Shaver, 1987). In adult-
hood, attachments are conceptualised partly as real attachments to real people,
and partly internalised and representational (Main et al, 1985). Professional rela-
tionships as well as personal ones are posited as potentially containing attachment
qualities. The psychotherapist as secure base is a familiar notion (e.g. Bowlby,
1988; Berry and Danquah, 2016), and Adshead (1998, 2004) has suggested that

Probation Journal 66(2)
staff of high security forensic hospitals, along with the institution itself, can act as
secure bases for patients. It is often assumed that relationships such as the super-
visory one between service user and PO can grow attachment qualities, thereby
providing a reparative taste of a secure base (Renn, 2004; Ansbro, 2008; Forbes
and Reilly, 2011; Plechowicz, 2012). However, how was the concept being
understood in practice, and was it a useful piece of the probation toolkit?
The second attachment-based theme was the making of connections between
early attachment experiences and later functioning. Bowlby (1973) drew on cog-
nitive ideas to conceptualise the internal working model, shaped and reinforced in
our minds by repeated experiences with our primary caregiver. Our internal
working model, it is proposed, contains mental templates of ourselves (e.g. our
worthiness of attention and love) and others (e.g. their reliability and availability)
and forms our estimation of self-agency and strategies for understanding and
responding to the world. On an empirical level, there is extensive research on the
developmental impact of early attachments. Some big...

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