Teenagers accused of serious crimes are usually remanded to a young offenders' institution or, at worst, an adult prison. But for a lucky few there is an alternative - some people are prepared to take them into their homes. Jo Kearney meets hosts and guestsWe knew we'd have to be on our guard
For several years John and Pat Clarke rented out their spare room to foreign students studying at Cardiff University. But when they moved to a village in South Wales, there was little demand. Below, Pat tells of their experience working with Newport Community Remand Project.

We missed not having people staying. So when we read in the paper about the remand scheme we decided to get involved.

Before our first placement we had to undergo a lot of training and frank discussions in dealing with problem teenagers. Our family, including my sister and her husband, who live nearby, had to be carefully vetted to make sure we were suitable.

We'd never had any trouble with our two teenage sons, so we hadn't previously come across unruly behaviour.

Paul was our first placement and on remand for mugging. He was 14, had been in care for most of his life and had severe behavioural and communication problems. We knew he was a very difficult case and we discussed it as a family beforehand. We agreed to take the risk, knowing we would have to be very much on our guard.

When he arrived it was very awkward as he didn't respond. You felt as if you were putting on a real effort to make him feel comfortable. Our home has always had a relaxed atmosphere where our sons' friends are made welcome.

We tried to change him by example and by the way our sons acted. But he just didn't think about what he was doing. All his life everyone had done everything for him. He was unable to take responsibility for his actions. Everything he touched he'd break, sometimes accidentally, other times on purpose.

He'd wipe his dirty shoes on the wall and would play his music so loud the house would shake. To avoid washing up, he'd hide dirty plates or cutlery.

The worst thing was getting him out of bed in the morning for school. Once when I had this terrible migraine I was on my hands and knees vomiting in the bathroom with the pain. I tried to plead with him to get him up but his language was appalling.

Yet he started crying after my husband had once jokingly threatened to send him back because he wouldn't get out of bed. I went into his room and hugged him and said, "No one wants to throw you out".

Then one evening he came in after taking drugs and accused our sons of being noisy. He must have been hallucinating because they were in bed asleep. We arrived on the scene to find my sons restraining him. We decided then he had to go.

He was with us for five weeks and during that time he improved dramatically and was starting to communicate. The social workers were amazed.

I think he really did want to change, but he had been in institutions for so long he was stuck in a way of thinking. It was a shame he couldn't have stayed longer but we couldn't risk him hurting our sons. By the end they were totally fed up with him. He used to taunt them about the presents he'd received in care - pounds 100 trainers and go-karting trips. Our sons, who don't have things like that, couldn't believe naughty boys were rewarded in that way.

They have always been rewarded for good behaviour and punished when disobedient. We tried to teach Paul this ethos. When he was naughty we confiscated the TV and hi-fi in his bedroom, returning it only when he apologised and behaved.

I feel responsible that he isback in care and may never sort himself out. I think if he'd been with a stable family for longer, he may have stood a chance. He would never have been an angel but he would have changed.

Being involved in the scheme you feel as if you are doing some good and making some sort of contribution to society.

It was so nice to be trusted

The Clarkes' second placement, Joe, on remand for theft charges to feed a drug habit, was a complete contrast. After being charged with a string of thefts, Joe was placed on remand and stayed at home. But the drugs temptation plus threats from other drug users on the estate, to whom he owed money, were too great and would have led to him reoffending.

From the start Joe wanted it to work. He accepted he was in trouble and wanted to change. He fitted in immediately. He helped around the house, enjoyed family life and made an effort to join in. He spent his first week's pocket money on a sketchbook and would sit quietly and draw.

I started smoking cannabis when I was 11. When I was 12, I played truant. For the past four years I was smoking regularly and taking amphetamines. It wasn't unusual to spend pounds 30 to pounds 60 a day on drugs. I'd travel all over the country to steal to fund the habit.

I was offered the chance to go to the Clarkes'. They lived in a village out of the Newport area so I was away from all temptation. I was very nervous going there. But they made me feel welcome.

From the start I loved every minute of it. The Clarkes' sons were like brothers to me. Compared with the teenagers I was used to being with they were so responsible; they didn't even smoke cigarettes, let alone cannabis. They took me fishing and camping - something I hadn't done since I was in the scouts. It was such a contrast from life on my council estate.

I was very appreciative of the chance they were giving me. John offered to pay me to build a wall in the garden. The thing I liked about him was that he trusted me completely and didn't stand there looking over my shoulder."

(After leaving the Clarkes, Joe was given a custodial sentence but he has now kicked his drug habit and is working in a bakery full time.)

They're a bit like animals needing to be tamed

Marian is a 65-year-old widow who lives alone. She is president of her local Women's Institute, plays bridge and is currently doing a counselling course.

Marian is a carer for Northamptonshire Remand Carers Scheme. During the past 18 months, 14 teenagers on remand have stayed for a few weeks at a time in her four-bedroom semi. Their crimes have varied from joyriding to burglaries and theft.

Marian's lodgers can help themselves to food, watch television or, if they wish, stay in bed. So far few seem to have ruffled her existence.

"I think it's important they have space to be themselves. I would prefer them to get up in the morning so that they will sleep at night. I got quite upset when I was awoken at 3am by a lad listening to the radio. It's the only time I have got really cross. But afterwards I realised he was probably feeling uncomfortable in the dark without any noise."

She is careful not to leave valuables lying around. "My camera was stolen. That's the only thing that's gone. But I'm careful not to leave money in my handbag, not so much because of the money but because if anyone was after money they'd probably take the bag and I'd lose important documents as well."

She would prefer they ate meals with her but says a lot find eating difficult. "Some eat like horses; others don't seem to eat at all or not in front of me. For emotionally disturbed teenagers, not eating is a way of taking control.

"As soon as they arrive I take them to the local Tesco to find out what they like eating. I push the trolley and tell them to pick a cereal, bread or soft drinks."

She does try to explain to them that crimes like theft and joyriding do hurt people. "For some boys, money is the central focus. They desperately want to be rich. I try to talk them round it and mostly they don't want anything in particular just the security of having the money.

"Some will talk to me about their lives. Others prefer to stay in their rooms - they don't want to get close for fear of being hurt when they move on.

"I care for them all and am keen to find out what happens to them. In some ways they do become a part of your family, albeit briefly. And I always look forward to the next one's arrival.

"In care, they end up living with a load of like-minded teenagers who will teach them new tricks. Here, they can see how people can live harmoniously with each other, something they may never have experienced.

"If they start work they are normally OK. Many are hungry for independence and want to earn their own living. A lot come from broken homes. Some were thrown out and have been living rough, surviving by scavenging and stealing. They are a bit like wild animals needing to be tamed."

Marian made me think what it's like having your things stolen

David, 16, spent five weeks living with Marian.

I didn't want to live alone with an older woman. But I didn't have much choice - it was that or prison or a young offenders' institute. I'd been caught for eight burglaries.

It felt strange not living with my parents, but Marian was a nice woman and made me feel at home. She left me alone. I just had to come in at a certain time.

I'd sit and chat over a cup of tea with her. She wasn't judgemental but tried to make me understand what it would be like to have my own things stolen. I'd never thought about that. Burglary was an easy way of making money. I dropped out of school at 14 so couldn't get a job.

Living in a village gave me time to think about my life away from the influences of the lads at home. I had regular visits from a social worker. He took me to the job centre to find out about prospects and showed me what was available for kids my age such as pool, swimming and the pictures. I saw a different aspect of life.

I've now got a job at a factory earning my own money so don't need to steal. There's no way I want to go to prison.

(David was given a prison sentence. This was reduced to a week because of his good behaviour on remand and the fact that he had secured a job.)

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