If we refuse to believe in the rehabilitation of tenants with criminal pasts and bad reputations are we all just wasting our time, asks Inside Housing’s anonymous columnist
Tainted by his reputation as a fusty Victorian imperialist, Rudyard Kipling is not a fashionable author today. Yet his moral fables, the Just So Stories, came to mind recently when I observed a case conference at which social workers were deciding whether a child should be returned to his mother.
‘Can the leopard change its spots?’ was the dilemma Kipling posed and it is a question housing officers need to consider every bit as much as social workers.
In the case I watched, a woman charged with murder after the death of her baby daughter, was applying to have another child returned to her care. Her first baby’s death remained unexplained. The case never went to court, for lack of evidence, but the investigation centred on whether she and her partner had left drugs about the house and the little girl had taken them. There was even an allegation that they might have fed them to her, to keep her quiet.
It is a horrendous story, which kept the tabloids braying for weeks.
This was some years ago. In the meantime the young women had made a huge effort to clear herself of drugs, found a new and more supportive partner and shown that she was willing to change her ways.
This wasn’t good enough for the professionals, though. For them, her history was the most important factor in the case. If she had done it once, she could do it again, was the general view. To be fair, the woman had lapsed a couple of times during her detox, but there was no suggestion she was currently a danger to herself or, more importantly, her child.
I pass no judgement on this case, but it did make me wonder about redemption. Is rehabilitation possible for people who have once transgressed? Are they followed down the years by their crimes and alleged misdemeanours?
Increasingly we are dealing with anti-social behaviour and one consequence is that most local authorities have a virtual electronic ‘black book’ of our most notorious miscreants. These are the tenants we would rather not house and sometimes only the law compels us.
Filthy houses, loud parties, blatant criminal behaviour, scammers, the list goes on and on. Of course, we can evict some of these people, but others slip through our grasp and somehow cling on to their tenancies.
If we do get rid of them, are there any circumstances in which we would have them back? Other than when we have a statutory duty, of course. Are they capable of being reformed and how can we decide whether they have changed?
Some years ago, I met former Glaswegian hard man Jimmy Boyle, who earned his reputation by making his victims pay their dues in ways that cannot be described in Inside Housing or other respectable journals.
Jimmy was sent, as some may recall, to the so-called ‘special unit’ at the Bar-L – Glasgow’s Barlinnie Prison. In this case the name ‘special unit’ wasn’t a euphemism for some cunningly cruel prison punishment. It described instead a humane and, for a while, very successful attempt to reform violent and dangerous prisoners, by bringing out their creative side. Jimmy as it transpired, was an excellent sculptor.
By the time I met him, he had set-up his own studio and was being commissioned to create works of art for more money than he had ever earned in his former profession. Later he began a wine business and moved to the French Riviera.
Had he really changed? He had a presence, a charisma of the kind successful politicians exude. He was still very focused and while I didn’t feel in the least bit threatened by him, I sensed his very forceful personality.
The reaction of friends and colleagues to my meeting was instructive. Most were horrified and for them, Jimmy would always be the hard man, not the thoughtful artist he had apparently become.
Jimmy was making too much money to think of applying for council housing. But plenty of ex-criminals do. Not to mention youngsters who have messed up in their teenage tenancies, junkies, psychotics, sex offenders and people with obsessive hoarding disorders.
The law tells us we must house some of these people. Where we do have a choice though, how do we exercise it? If someone is tainted in our files with a bad reputation, or comes with a string of bad references from many other social landlords, how do we deal with them? If your social work colleagues intervene and tell you that despite her reputation as a rent-averse, trouble-making addict Ms X is actually on the mend, do you believe them?
I am not saying this is an easy call. There are extra risks in taking on someone who has misbehaved in the past and we could be stirring trouble for the responsible tenants we house them near. But it bothers me that bad reputations are so hard to shake off. I sympathise with the view that it is up to the sinners to clear their names. But can they? Like housing estates whose notoriety goes before them, and where regeneration barely dents their reputations, do we condemn our tenants once and for all time?
If our leopards can’t change their spots, are social workers and tenancy support officers wasting their time? Why are we spending millions rehabilitating people, if we refuse to accept they can change?
Inside Housing’s anonymous columnist is a senior housing officer