A crowd of china animals and thank-you presents is testament to the feelings of most of the 30 young offenders who spent their remand period at the home of Jean and Alan Gravestock.

Jean, 53, and Alan, 54, felt they had a lot of love to spare since their own three children had grown up and left home. They answered an advertisement in their local paper in 1991 and became the first remand foster carers in Durham on the Stepping Stones Scheme.

They have never turned any young offenders away - although there are one or two they would rather not have a second time. Verbal abuse is common, and one refused to speak, but Jean says the worst are those who break their curfew, leaving you sitting up half the night. 'You get them back and sort them out; then they do the same the next day.' But none has stolen, none has been violent and the worst damage has been a broken video.

Jean and Alan's first charge was a 14-year-old joyrider who was given three months in care. The day after his release, he stole another car and was involved in a crash that left one young girl dead and his other passengers badly injured.

Jean says: 'He was put in care as a two-year-old. He had no stability at home and no family contact. While he was here - nearly six months while he was on remand - he never reoffended.'

She kept in touch with him for the three years he spent in custody and they still exchange phone calls, letters and cards.

Only two of their charges have been girls, both of whom stayed for brief periods and were 'no trouble'. Most have been touchingly grateful for small treats, such as a chocolate Easter egg or a birthday card. Nearly all have been in care and most have had very sad home lives.

When the fostered youngsters start referring to the Gravestock offspring as 'our Sean' and 'our Tracey', Jean and Alan feel they are doing a good job. But they have to tell them gently that this is not their real family.

Alan says: 'They get it in their minds they can stay here permanently, and we have to instil in them that they can't. It's heartbreaking.'

Jean, looking at a dining room coffee table made by one of the young offenders, adds: 'We get people even now who say they wouldn't have them in their house. But I say: 'You don't know what you're missing'.'

(Photograph omitted)

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