TANIA was living in a bed and breakfast in South Shields when she realised she was pregnant. The father had gone home to Marseilles and Tania went to find him. When she got there, she discovered that he was already married with two children. She returned alone, but decided to keep the baby.

The decision, however, was not hers alone. Tania, 27, had a prison record, her mother had thrown her out, and her three other children had been adopted. She had tried to look after them, but gave up when the youngest was two months old. 'I just couldn't cope,' she says. 'I never got violent but I did get angry. I've got a temper; sometimes I just flip. But I never battered any baby.'

When she got pregnant for the fourth time, the social services were on the alert. A case conference was called between her GP, her social worker, and the local child-care and education officers. Tania attended and negotiated with the authorities for custody of her baby.

'I really wanted to keep this baby so I asked them for a chance. I was still a child when I had the others, but now I feel like a mother,' she explains. The social services agreed on condition that she spent a trial period at Newhaven, a Salvation Army home in Cleveland for women whose babies are at risk. 'Newhaven was my idea,' says Tania. 'It was either that or they'd take the baby off me.'

Newhaven trains women for motherhood. The women tend to be young, alone, and have left home or been thrown out by their parents. There are teenagers straight from children's homes, themselves the victims of abuse. There are women with a record of child abuse, battery or neglect, whose previous children are in care. At Newhaven, under the influence of Salvation Army staff, closely supervised by social workers, the mother is given time to prove that she is capable of looking after her baby. Should she fail to convince them that the child is not at risk, the social services will apply for custody.

Newhaven was first run by the Salvation Army as a hostel for working girls, then as a home for girls in care who were finishing their education. Seven years ago the SA held a meeting with Cleveland social services to find out what sort of establishment was most needed. Captain Paget, the officer in charge, trim and neat in a skirt and cardigan, describes Newhaven's present function as 'a family training and assessment centre for unsupported mothers'. It is the only one of its kind in the country.

The first SA mother-and-baby homes were set up in conjunction with the Social Purity and Hygiene Movement in the Twenties. Unmarried women were committed to these institutions, usually by their parents, once their pregnancy became obvious. They were subjected to a severe and symbolic regime of scrubbing and laundering, physical cleansing and religious confession. At Newhaven, there is no mention of illegitimacy, but the house's location and function are not advertised because of the stigma attached to child-batterers.

Women live there for up to a year after their baby is born. Their days are structured (up and dressed by 8.30am, baby in bed by 7pm, lights out at 11pm) with meetings with the social services and classes in cookery, parenting and money management. There are 11 staff and 20-30 mothers; the women are continually assessed, and the staff make extensive reports on their progress, which are often used in custody cases.

It sounds like a formula for high tension. 'There is a bit of resentment, but you manage to break that down within a fortnight,' says Captain Paget. 'They do find it difficult to live here, but that is part of the training. We're very honest about what the place is when they come here. They know what they're here for. We don't want to see the child taken into care. The aim is to get the mother and baby to leave together.'

The large, orderly sitting rooms have velveteen sofas and garish carpets. Melanie stares at the television and does not return our greeting. Her baby is asleep upstairs, and her two-year-old daughter runs about on all fours, barking and roaring. Melanie tensely ignores her. She is waiting to hear the outcome of a conference about custody of the two children, and Captain Paget hurries off to make a telephone call for her.

Karen, 15, came from a children's home and had her baby in April. Her mother sends her money, and she has filled her bedroom with cuddly toys and baby clothes, mobiles and pictures. She sat her GCSEs this summer and when she has finished school, she will move into a council flat with her boyfriend.

There are notices on walls and doors to the effect that living areas must be kept clean, and that Christ loves you. But not a Sally Army red-ribboned bonnet in sight. 'There are prayers once a day if people want to attend,' explains Captain Paget. 'We are the Salvation Army so spiritual guidance is on offer. The spiritual side of a person is something we believe in.'

'They show religious videos and put up posters saying 'Visitors Welcome',' says Tania. 'It means visitors can stay longer than usual. Of course the girls go so their boyfriends can stay longer. But prayer meetings are optional. They don't try to convert you.'

While religion is optional, the staff are keen to tackle moral issues. 'Quite a lot of the people we get in have suffered from poor parenting,' says Captain Paget. 'We are trying to break a pattern of abuse in a very short time. We go through the consequences of their behaviour, whether it's shoplifting or promiscuity. We encourage them to look at how their behaviour affects them and their children, for example, heavy drinking, or prostitution.'

Cleveland social services has put a lot of resources into child care since the Butler-Sloss report in 1988 on the authority's action on child abuse. Few decisions are now taken without the consensus of a number of agencies, including, in this instance, the Salvation Army. But Bob Pitt, a councillor, has no qualms about the religious nature of the SA. His principal concern is how to find funding for Newhaven and other crisis centres for women and families, and if that means people in bonnets rattling tins in pubs, so be it. 'We are trying to develop specialist centres like Newhaven across the county,' he says, 'and if the Salvation Army can come up with a funding package, it will be very welcome.'

Bob Storey, a social worker closely involved with the Newhaven families, professes 'a great respect' for the Salvation Army's work. Out of 20-30 families a year, only two or three mothers fail to convince the social services that they can be trusted with their children.

Women who are allowed to leave Newhaven with their baby are sometimes sent back for a second term, when the child gets older and more demanding, or if they have another baby and cannot cope with two. Only twice in five years have staff had to intervene physically to stop a mother hurting her baby.

Dominique, Tania's pretty red-haired baby, was born in January. During our talk, Tania has gone out several times to check on her, asleep in her pram. She plans to go and live with her mother again once she is allowed out. 'The girls are very tense here. Sometimes I just want to get away. I feel like I've been trapped. I couldn't do this all the time, it would crack me up.

'Sometimes they treat you like a child,' she says, without a trace of anger, 'but they do understand. They're not against you. They make you think about your baby. Because it can get whisked off you just like that.'