Real lives: Guess who's coming to dinner

Would you take a 14-year-old burglar into your home? One couple did just that - with impressive results. By ROLAND HOWARD Detention centres didn't work for 14-year-old Jon. Putting him in a burglar's paradise, strangely, did
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It was the 80th minute of the European Cup semi-finals between Manchester United and Juventus. The score was 2-2 and thousands of fathers and sons sat on the edge of their seats, glued to the TV in the corner. Mike, 36, threw a packet of crisps over to 14-year-old Jon on the sofa. Jon, white-trainered, in his immaculate Spurs tracksuit, sat munching, self-consciousness masquerading as cool behind his angular features and two slabs of centre-parted hair. Man Utd's third goal went in and, like most of the nation's football fans, they leapt out of their seats, cheering. Then came a stranger moment. Mike and Jon realised that they were on the same side; their awkwardness had fallen away. Both cite the euphoria following the goal as a realisation of togetherness, of familiarity.

For Mike and Jon are no ordinary father and son. They had met only a week earlier, are not related and come from different ends of the social spectrum. Jon could have expected to miss the semi-finals, locked in a remand cell in a young offender's institution. He is charged with burglaries, criminal damage, theft and breaching bail. Mike, a commodities wholesaler, is one of the pioneer foster fathers in an experimental remand fostering scheme run by church-based charity, Care. Jon is the third young offender on the new Government-backed scheme which seeks to break the cycle of crime at the same time as acting as a last ditch attempt to keep young offenders out of jail. It uses role-model parents and an intensive course of weekday activities (run by Care workers) to turn them around while on remand.

Jon's final arrest was for repeatedly breaching bail. Living with his mother and three younger siblings, he was out of control to the extent that his mother no longer put up an argument. "My curfew was 7pm and I was out all night doing pills and smoking draw. The police picked me up next morning and I spent a day and a night in a cell," recalls an embarrassed Jon. The courts in Jon's home town realised that warnings weren't working and a different approach was needed. "I was out of control. I wasn't listening to anything they said, but I was shocked when they sent me away."

Fortunately for Jon they decided against jail. Instead he was sent to stay with Mike and Amanda, Mike's wife, and their three young daughters in a plush pounds 200,000 burglar-alarmed house in the leafy suburbs of Reading.

"We were given three hours notice," Amanda laughs, "but we had the room ready and there was nothing in Jon's records to put us off having him with us." Mike and Amanda felt well prepared. Their parenting and communications skills had been scrutinised by the social services and Care had trained them in dealing with situations that fostering young offenders might present. In essence they were to be open, non-judgemental, to set clear boundaries and to carry on as a family, virtually as normal. The changes were minor but prudent: to keep money, car keys and mobile phones put away. Jon was more apprehensive. "It was a shock to be going somewhere where I didn't know nobody but it had to be better than being inside," he recalls.

It was early evening when he arrived at the house, just 50 miles from home: a six-bedroom, gravel-drived burglar's paradise. "I was nervous because I didn't know them and didn't know how to fit in," Jon says. Amanda was impressed that he didn't hide in his bedroom. "Although he was quiet, he came down and sat in the lounge with us," she says. The "house rules" (no swearing, drugs or alcohol, smoking to be done in the garage and promptness for dinner) were explained. Over dinner, Jon, the "out of control" young offender, fretted over mealtime etiquette. "I didn't know what to do, and I felt stupid when I forgot their names," he recalls. Mike got out a video to break the ice. That evening, Mike wanted to establish that they weren't judging Jon's past. "I told him that he was a blank sheet and he could fill it up with good things."

Eight weeks later and Jon has done that. The house rules are intact. In turns cocky and shy like any other 14-year-old, the family clearly warms to him. Kate, the seven-year-old daughter, says, "He's been naughty at his house and that's why he's here, but he's been good here." Esther, five, has taken to sitting on his lap while watching TV with the family. His worst fault is not getting out of bed. "I nearly threw a bucket of water over him the other day, but what can I expect? He's a teenage boy," Amanda says.

Jon is clear that there has been a dramatic change in his behaviour. At home with his mum and younger brothers and sister, Jon did whatever he wanted, when he wanted. "I didn't go to school or come home for meals. My mum was used to it - there was nothing she could do." He is keen on the daytime activities and enjoys the sports, education and the visits that the Care Remand Fostering team supplies. Jon has learnt more maths and English in eight weeks than in the rest of the year.

He has also opened up to Mike and Amanda. "He knows that we care about him, and I think that has helped him talk to us," Amanda says. They are careful not to pry or to judge Jon personally, while making it clear that they disapprove of some of his past deeds. "We're not excusing his responsibility for his actions but at the same time we want to treat him with respect," says Amanda. Mike adds, "We've talked about his attitude to authority; the police don't always help these situations but he can understand why his attitude can get an aggressive response. Jon has made an effort to see it from their perspective." Mike believes that seeing a male role model is good for Jon. "He seems to take notice of how I operate and of how we deal with conflict as a family by talking things through," he says.

So what has caused the change? Jon believes that a different environment - without his peers, and where rules mean something - is the main factor. "It's because of the different place that you're in. It's harder to even think about breaking the rules down here. It's calmer," he says. Having weekdays divided into education (academic and sessions on challenging offending behaviour), work experience (in a car mechanics) and sport also appears to have helped. Tim Clewer, Care's project manager says, "We believe that giving young people structure can have a substantial effect. It helps young people to engage positively in things and to gain self esteem. However, Jon struggled to stay out of trouble on his weekend trips home to see his mother, and Tim has concerns for Jon when he returns to his peers. "He is transformed when he is with us but it will be difficult for him when he returns home. It is difficult for 14-year-olds to have the maturity and depth of character to re-evaluate and radically change when they're with their friends."

Next week Jon will be sentenced. Mike and Amanda have written a letter to the judge, explaining how well Jon has behaved during his stay with them. It is likely that he will be sent home. The family is going to be sorry to see Jon go and he says that he will miss them too. For the time being, the structure and order of Mike and Amanda's family and Care's activities have rubbed off. But has it been a short-term solution to Jon's troubles? Amanda feels that 14 is a difficult age for an offender to reform.

"It's hard for kids to discover their identity at that age but it's also difficult for them to think long term," she says. Yet Jon believes that the project has helped him, and he says that he will try to stay out of trouble. "I hope it will change me but it will be hard. One of the things I'm going to try is to have a better relationship with my mum. I'm going to be there for meals."

As I prepare to leave, Amanda fusses over Jon, preparing him for a visit to the doctor. Then Mike discovers that, during the interview, England have been playing live on television. "What have we been doing, wasting our time talking to him?" he says, pointing in my direction. As Jon grins in friendly agreement, it is clear that the remand fostering experience has brought out a different side to him. He resembles a cheeky teenager at ease with himself, not a house burglar, shoplifter or serial vandal. He has found, whether he would admit it or not, some childhood innocence.

HOW TO FOSTER

8 The only criterion for fostering is a happy family. Age, religion, race and wealth are irrelevant. You do not need to be a parent.

8 Potential foster parents go through the same vetting process as for employment in the social services.

8 The scheme currently runs in Reading only, but new centres are being set up in Bristol, Colchester and Birmingham.

8 If you are interested in Care Remand Fostering, contact Tim Clewer (tel: 0141 332 7212).

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