You can tell by looking at Steve that he doesn't care much for convention. His jeans slashed at the knee, leather biker jacket and heavy boots all suggest a hard man.

The first surprise is that Steve has been married for 13 years to Karen (not her real name), who looks more conventional. The second is that he and Karen are foster carers for young offenders on remand.

Since they were approved by social services in 1992, Steve and Karen have been eligible to care for youngsters aged 10 to 17 awaiting trial on charges ranging from car theft to murder, for periods ranging from overnight to several months. Steve, a 31-year-old music teacher who works from home, and Karen, 33, a sales administrator, met when they served in the RAF. They live in their own three-bed semi on a Durham council estate. They chose to be remand fosterers because they are fiercely opposed to prisons, were looking to do something constructive with their lives, didn't want children of their own, yet had a spare room for the first time.

Once checked, trained and approved as suitable carers - one year after answering an ad in the local paper - the couple nervously awaited their first charge. 'We didn't know whether he'd walk out, and if he did, whether he'd take our video with him,' says Steve. 'But he was a nice lad, quite quiet and shy. He was on an armed robbery charge, but it was a Laurel-and- Hardy affair, a bodged job from start to finish. We took him out, got on great, and when he left I was really sorry to see him go.'

Their first visitor still writes. From prison. He reoffended. But Steve is philosophical: 'You can't expect to stop someone offending immediately by having them in your house for nine months. But you can help break the cycle.'

Since that first referral, Steve and Karen have had six others. Youngsters arrive from court with a social worker and a carrier bag (that is, if they're lucky: the couple's last visitor had no shoes). The crucial moment is just after the social worker leaves, when ground rules are established. Remand foster carers must report any failure to obey curfew orders, but in Steve and Karen's household, other regulations are kept to a minimum. 'The general rule in our house is: don't smoke upstairs and don't kick the cat,' says Steve.

Instead of short, sharp shock tactics, Steve and Karen aim to give respect to youngsters who are accustomed to abuse. Their reward comes in the form of friendship and affection. None of their charges has ever stolen from them. They told one young car thief that they trusted him to stay in the house while they went out for the evening, and when they got home he had polished every surface and vacuumed every rug. 'I think he felt it was something he could give us back,' says Karen.

The court filters out dangerous offenders, Steve says, and he cannot imagine turning anyone away. 'Once you start discriminating against a certain group, the scheme isn't going to be there for the people who need it.'

Carers are paid an allowance, but money is not the motivating force. Karen says: 'Your life is not your own. You have to be prepared to drop everything and you never have time off. But the rewards are phenomenal and you'll never do a job where you feel such a sense of achievement.'

Steve adds: 'I have quite selfish reasons for doing this job: I get a big kick out of it. You make a difference to someone's life.'

(Photograph omitted)