article written by: Jane Mulcahy, PhD, Research Fellow on the Greentown Project, Research Evidence into Policy Programmes and Practice (REPPP) at the University of Limerick.

In this three-part article series, I make the case for greater nervous system awareness by Probation Officers when working with people on Probation. In part 1, I focused on risk management and the consequences of a trauma-blind approach to intervention. In part 2, I provided an overview of attachment, interpersonal neurobiology, polyvagal theory and state-dependent functioning.

In this final article, I argue that the rehabilitative efforts of Probation services should be reoriented towards “healing-centred engagement”, in which physiological safety, relational repair, wellbeing, strengths-promotion (moving beyond asking “what happened to you?” to “what’s right with you?”[1]) and cultural sensitivity are core values consciously advanced by professionals.

If Dr Harry Burns, former Chief Medical Officer in Scotland and prominent figure in the ACE-Aware Nation movement[2] is correct that “creating health is more complex than we think”,[3] the same can be said of crime prevention through building safe, just, connected, caring communities.

My PhD advocated for a heart-centred, biopsychosocial approach to understanding human behaviour, highlighting the importance of empowering trauma survivors with criminal convictions to feel a sense of authentic connection to themselves. [4]

People on Probation may display a wide range of trauma manifestations including emotional distress, physical aggression, verbal abuse, language processing difficulties, self-harm and dissociative shutdown (where they may appear vacant and unmotivated to relinquish damaging behaviours).

Probation Officers are potential change agents who should strive to help individuals feel sufficiently safe in their bodies that they can uncover their true selves underneath all their (mal)adaptive coping strategies such as addiction, dangerous risk-taking, offending behaviour and violence.[5]  Probation Officers must support their clients to believe that they are both capable of creating a better future, and fundamentally deserving of one, irrespective of past crimes.

To do this, Probation Officers should focus less on risk assessment tools and surveillance, and instead lean into their reservoirs of compassion and patience, committing to personal practice that attends to the buffering nature of relationships, particularly during times of stress and overwhelm.[6]

To respond more effectively to the enduring impact of childhood trauma, Dr Bruce Perry (who wrote a best-selling book on trauma with Oprah Winfrey[7]) stated that “relationships are the key to all this, but not artificial relationships”.[8] Dr Steve Porges describes interpersonal connection as part of our “biological imperative”,[9] while Fritzi Horstman from the Compassion Prison Project believes that healing occurs in community.[10]

As discussed in part 1, risk management has led to reduced emphasis on relationship-based practice and overreliance on manualised groupwork programmes incorporating Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), such as the Irish Probation Service designed Choice and Challenge programme.[11] CBT interventions championed by the RNR aim to transform antisocial thoughts and attitudes, shift distorted cognitions, and challenge minimisations by instilling in people on Probation that their thinking shapes their feelings and actions.


Click on the image to read more


However, these approaches entirely miss the point that behaviours including excessive drinking, problem drug use and even violence provide highly activated people with a temporary “somatic calm” in the absence of other healthier coping strategies.[12] Depending on the chaos and toxicity of a probationer’s home and community environment, they might need to consume large quantities of drugs and/or engage in violence just to stay alive.

The ultimate goals of Probation are to reduce offending behaviour and contribute to safer communities. To achieve this, Probation Officers need to strive daily to cultivate real relationships with probationers, ensuring that efforts to repair the relationship ensue whenever a relational rupture occurs.

Probation Officers must guard against becoming pulled into harmful traumatic re-enactment[13] scenarios where a client unconsciously gives them aggressive cues to illicit a belligerent or punitive response, thereby confirming his/her worst suspicions that all power is corrupt and abusive, often activating an abandonment/rejection wound.

Lofland coined the term “normal-smiths” for people who consistently let people with convictions know that it is within their own power to change. Normal-smiths do not require proof of the innate goodness of the probationer, rather they corroborate their essential normality “giving evidence of their good character so that others can see and believe that change has taken place.” [14]

In developing the Sanctuary model, Dr Sandy Bloom states that a key part of working with her psychiatric patients was to “normalize, normalize, normalize”.[15] Patients were ordinary people who had had abnormal, destructive things happen to them, developing adaptive, though ultimately harmful coping strategies that needed to be replaced with healthier ways of managing stressors.

Dr Karen Treisman says “You don’t have to be a therapist to be therapeutic”.[16] If Probation Services invest in training, and support staff to be more neurodevelopmentally aware and trauma-responsive through clinical supervision, Probation Officers will realise the power of attachment over the life course. They may feel more equipped to try to provide clients with a “secure base”[17] – a “holding environment”[18] and “safe containment”[19] – to explore their woundedness and resulting behavioural patterns.

Assisting probationers to appreciate the origins of their self-defeating behaviour and enabling them to put harrowing experiences into words may promote trauma recovery,[20] especially where their Probation Officer is an “empathetic” [21] or “enlightened”[22] witness who validates their struggles. Being seen, heard, felt and known is healing.[23] The act of listening is a co-regulatory practice which soothes nervous system dysregulation, allowing people to connect and access the cortex.[24]

Probation Officers require training on secondary trauma[25] to recognise their own triggers, the necessity of self-regulation and the energetic force of positively reinforcing pro-social behaviour.  Staff should take care in how they story people,[26] avoiding the use of shaming, blaming language regarding normal, predictable trauma-related behaviours. Probation staff should follow Perry’s “regulate, relate, reason”[27] sequence of engagement with people on their caseloads, helping them begin to feel differently about themselves and to be realistic about the complexities of the desistance process. Perry and colleagues state:

[p]romoting relational health by increasing the quality, number, and density of supportive, nurturing and trauma-informed people is the most effective and enduring form of intervention. Connection to family, community, and culture facilitate healthy development, including healing from traumatic experiences, minimizing substance abuse, and developing new skills.[28]

>> read Part 1 | The importance of nervous system awareness when working with people on Probation

>> read Part 2 | Beyond Rehabilitation: The Power of Nervous System Awareness in Probation



[1] S. Ginwright, “The Future of Healing: Shifting From Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement“, available at

[2] ACE-Aware Nation Immersive Afternoon – Response from Sir Harry Burns, Former Chief Medical Officer, 2018, available at

[3] H. Burns, Kilbrandon’s Vision Healthier Lives: Better Futures, the 10th Kilbrandon Lecture (Edinburgh: The Scottish Government, 2012) 7.

[4] J. Mulcahy, Connected Corrections and Corrected Connections: post-release supervision of long sentence male prisoners (UCC, PhD, 2019) available at

[5] C. Ludy-Dobson & B. Perry, “The Role of Healthy Relational Interactions in Buffering the Impact of Childhood Trauma” in Working with Children to Heal Interpersonal Trauma: The Power of Play, E. Gil ed. (New York: The Guilford Press, 2010) 26-43, 39.

[6] B. Nugent, “Evaluation of Connecture Programme” (2023) available at

[7] O. Winfrey, & B. Perry, What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing (London: Pan McMillan, 2021)

[8] Neurosequential Network, “11. Sport in Healing & Resilience-building: Neurosequential Network Series on Stress and Trauma” (2020) available at

[9] A. Anthony, “Stephen Porges: ‘Survivors are blamed because they don’t fight’” The Guardian (02/06/19) available at

[10] Ace-Aware Scotland, From corrections to connections – Fritzi Horstman – Compassionate Prisons Conference 2022 (2022) available at

[11] N. Clarke, “Overview of a Group Work Programme: The Choices and the Challenges” (2017) Volume 14, Irish Probation Journal 151-163.

[12] B. van der Kolk, “Developmental Trauma Disorder: Toward a Rational Diagnosis For Children with Complex Trauma Histories” (2005) 35(5) Psychiatric Annals 401-408.

[13] S. Bloom, Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies, revised ed. (New York, Routledge, 2013), 121.

[14] J. Lofland, Deviance and Identity (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1969) cited in S. Farrall, “The Long-Term Impacts of Probation Supervision”, in European Treatment, Transition Management, and Re-Integration of High-Risk Offenders, Results of the Final Conference at Rostock-Warnemuende, 3-5 September 2014, and Final Evaluation Report of the Justice-Cooperation Network (JCN)-Project “European treatment and transition management of high-risk offenders”, F. Dünkel et al eds., (Godesberg: Forum Verlag, 2016) 45-83, 55.

[15] Bloom, note 13 above, 181.

[16] See

[17] J. Bowlby, A secure Base (London: Routledge, 1988).

[18] D. Winnicott, “The theory of the parent-child relationship” (1960) 41 Int. J. Psychoanal 585-595.

[19] W. Bion, Learning from Experience (London: Karnac, 1962) 90.

[20] B. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin, 2014) 244-245.

[21] G. Maté, Foreword to P. Levine In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2010) xii.

[22] A. Miller, The Truth will set you Free: Overcoming Emotional Blindness and Finding Your True Adult Self (New York: Basic Books, 2001) x.

[23] J. Earle, “Road to Resilience The Long Arm of Childhood Trauma” 24 April 2019, available at

[24] S. Porges cited in J Mulcahy, ‘The human condition: we are all on a quest for safety’ (2020) 2, available at

[25] S. Lambert, “Vicarious Trauma: The impact of working with survivors of Trauma”, Toward a Trauma-Responsive Criminal Justice System: Why, How and What Next? (Dublin: ACJRD, 2019) 30-36 available at,_How_and_What_Next.pdf

[26] K. Treisman, “Becoming a more culturally, adversity and trauma-informed, infused, and responsive organisation” (London: Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, 2019) 16 & 19 available at

[27] See

[28] Perry, B., Griffin, G., Davis, G., Perry, J. & Perry, R., “The Impact of Neglect, Trauma, and Maltreatment on Neurodevelopment” in The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Forensic Neuroscience (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018) 815-835, 818.

‹ Previous Next ›