Sally's life was tormented by a gang of young vandals who terrorised her street. When they were not pulling branches from trees, they picked the flowers from residents' gardens. The police never arrived soon enough to catch them and when Sally gently remonstrated with one, he threatened her with retribution from his dad. She felt powerless. Was there anything she could do? The answers were hardly encouraging.

The fight-back approach was advocated by Clare Forbes Turner of Stocksfield, Northumberland. 'Get your own 'gang',' she advised. 'That is, consult your neighbours, engage the active help of as many of them as possible. Utilise the strong males as well as the strong females and form a solid phalanx when the gang next calls. Post a look-out, on a rota basis, and assert solidarity as the best armour against thuggish tyranny. Arm yourself with notebooks and mobile phones and call the police when next they call. Show them that you are united and refuse to be intimidated by ignorant and brutal youth minorities.'

Quite apart from the fact that this sounds like a totally unacceptable vigilante group, the approach would involve everyone in the street taking weeks off work to man the terraces.

T P Garrard of Guiseley, West Yorkshire, passed on advice from a local police officer he called out when he had attempted to stop kids trying local doors and windows. 'Never approach the kids on your own because if you catch them they will automatically claim that they have been assaulted and we will have to investigate you. Make sure that you have an adult witness with you'.'

Barbara Millns of Newcastle wrote from depressing experience. 'My job involves working in run- down inner-city areas and in an attempt to practice what you preach and not retreat to the middle-class ghetto every night, we rescued a house in an inner city part of Gateshead that was located adjacent to an open space together with play facilities for local kids.

'A disruptive element of the community took great pleasure in breaking glass all over the play area and tearing down trees. We took a stand and the direct consequence was systematic wanton vandalism of our property and vehicles. My husband even had a knife pulled on him by one youngster we apprehended, whom he then marched to the police station. The outcome of this was a private summons for assault by the parents of the boy concerned - which came to nothing.

'In the end we went to see the assistant commissioner in the local force, who advised us that even though they knew who was vandalising our property, there was nothing they could do. He suggested we move, and with great regret that is what we did.'

You could try fighting back with electronic weapons - like A D J Slight, of Stoke on Trent. When a gang started a dispute in his garden, he went indoors, brought out a camera and started to take photographs 'or appeared to, as there was no film in the camera. Within seconds they dispersed.'

I found what is probably the only real answer at a local level. The problem is that it would involve an enormous amount of commitment, time and money. Both Detective Chief Inspector Jackie Malton, from the youth and community section at Hammersmith police station, and David Lee, seconded from Marks & Spencer to an Ealing community safety partnership scheme, agreed that boredom was the real problem.

'Believe it or not, here the youth clubs are shut during the summer holidays,' said Mr Lee. 'Sally should set up a residents' group or a neighbourhood watch group to tackle the situation. Neighbourhood watch links into the police and the local authority.'

She should then campaign for some kind of scheme to be devised in her area that involves the social services, the private sector, the police, the local authority, housing departments, schools, education departments and so on. She should start influencing people to tackle common problems together - she may find there are already groups around that can play a part in providing facilities for young people where currently none exist.

'I know it's asking a lot,' Mr Lee said, 'but I don't accept you can't do anything about vandalism and petty crime. In some areas it has been tackled and it can work.'

Does our son smoke dope?

Dear Virginia,

When tidying my 16-year-old son's room the other day I was horrified to find a lighter and cigarette papers under his bed. Neither my husband nor I smoke, and when I tackled my son he said he would stop. I trust him.

But when I told a friend, she said I was living in cloud- cuckoo-land and not only did everyone at our son's school smoke, they also smoked dope. She told me what it smelled like, and said I might find small burn-holes in his T-shirts. I always thought they were moth- holes. She said not to worry, it was better than drink, but my husband and I have never taken drugs in our lives and have no idea how we should tackle this. Can anyone else's experiences help?

Yours sincerely,