The gospel of Bryn Melyn: Holidays for hooligans or ground-breaking treatment? Brendan McNutt's centre has drawn fire over its controversial methods

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BRYN MELYN has become two dirty words. The house stands in 13 acres of farmland at the foot of a steep hillside in North Wales, and last week it was besieged by reporters and beset by the words of politicians and newspaper editorials. For all that, the interior of this controversial therapy centre is surprisingly serene.

There are many dolphins: a dolphin statue, two Venetian- glass dolphins, photographs of Irish and Israeli dolphins, a painting of a dolphin swimming across the sky. A wise old owl winks from a wall of the principal's office. The principal, Brendan McNutt, is chirpy in open-necked shirt and casual shoes as he repels a Sun reporter from the door. Through a window he notes a knot of reporters and photographers. He shrugs.

Bryn Melyn and Mr McNutt have attracted such scornful headlines as 'Holidays For Hooligans,' 'Ram raider's 80-day Safari,' 'Crook's Tours,' 'A Tearaway's Guide to the Continent, at Taxpayers' Expense.' Last week Cabinet ministers who know next to nothing about Bryn Melyn, apart from what they have read in the newspapers, took turns to denigrate the work of Mr McNutt and his staff. Virginia Bottomley, the Health Secretary, called for new guidelines to ensure that wayward children 'do not feel rewarded'. The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, threatened to 'remedy' the tendency of 'theorists' who 'lose touch with common sense and reality.'

The controversy of Bryn Melyn broke last summer when the Daily Mail ran a story which began: 'Young tearaways are being treated to luxury holidays abroad as part of a rehabilitation scheme. Car thieves, drug abusers and disruptive misfits are travelling round Europe with social workers as individual guides, at a cost to the public of pounds 10,000 a week.'

Outrage was renewed two months later when the Mail revealed that a local rector's daughter had been assaulted by two girls, one of them a recipient of Bryn Melyn's therapy. It was fanned again last month by a Mail story disclosing what a young offender's 'minder' had written home in letters from the Middle East and Africa ('Egypt is horrible'; 'Oh well, dis is Africa'). How did the newspaper learn such details?

According to Mr McNutt, the guide in question had written privately to a friend - though not about the convicted 'ram-raider' in his charge or other confidential aspects of his work - who passed the correspondence to the Daily Mail. 'As a result of the publicity, not only is the guide very bruised, but the young fellow has since behaved in a way he would not have done had he not been exposed to the publicity. I think he is likely to offend again. His programme has been very effectively sabotaged.'

Mr McNutt, 43, is Liverpudlian, the son of a Donegal immigrant. He is married to a Welsh speaker and has four young children. On giving up teaching for social work, he did an MA in social sciences and was influenced by the writings of A S Neill ('He had the highest respect for children of any educator I've come across'), the medieval Slovakian educator Comenius ('He made things simple and interesting for children'), and Baroness Faithfull, the social scientist whose book, The Newest Profession, highlights Florence Nightingale's maxim: 'First you do your patient no harm.'

Mr McNutt, frizzy-haired and slightly built, trained as a psychotherapist and practises a brand of 'transactional analysis' which seeks to reframe and redefine reality for ill-parented teenagers through 'a temporary symbiotic relationship with a re-parenting figure or guide'. Many of his teenage clients, referred to Bryn Melyn by local authorities, have been sexually, physically or emotionally abused as children - sometimes by their fathers and grandfathers and sometimes by paedophile rings. Not all have committed offences.

Although habitually violent teenagers are not accepted for therapy, it was just such a person who prompted Mr McNutt to introduce foreign trips into his therapeutic programmes 18 months ago - at a time, as it happened, when the notorious 'pindown' system of treating young offenders was finally being discredited with the downfall of Tony Latham, the social worker who invented it.

'We had a boy whom we got hoodwinked into accepting in the first place,' Mr McNutt says. 'Social workers don't always tell you everything about a client. He turned out to be very much more violent than we'd been led to believe. Day in, day out, for nine months, he would habitually hit most of the staff and all the other young people here, particularly a girl he was fond of in a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship which we try to discourage. We got to the point where I said to the local authority we were going to have to exclude him because we were having no effect on his behaviour. But I asked them if they would give me a week to consider some kind of creative alternative. I was clutching at straws.'

The principal decided to change the teenager's environment - somewhere from which he could not run away and where he would not understand the 'systems': currency, language, social practices. 'It didn't really matter which foreign country; we wanted him to develop a natural symbiotic relationship where he was dependent on his guide.' Prompted by the teenager's preference for canoeing and mountaineering, Mr McNutt and his staff decided on the French Pyrenees.

'Just before he and his guide were due to set off, he ran away and went missing for three weeks in Liverpool. But the local authority had said yes to the package we'd designed - the last thing they wanted was this kid who'd been kicked out of 14 previous places to be kicked out of a fifteenth and land back on their doorstep. So we persevered. In Perpignan, he ran away in the first week, giving the local gendarmerie the run-around for 24 hours. He returned to his guide because he discovered he couldn't run any further. Six weeks later, I went out there to inspect the programme which is organised in three sessions: getting to know you, confronting you, becoming friends again. I arrived in the middle of the second phase which is highly confrontational, seeking sources of anger, sadness and fear, which are all in his family background.'

Mr McNutt unearthed disturbing facts: the boy had witnessed his mother being stabbed by a boyfriend. She died from a subsequent illness. He was adopted by his grandmother who thrashed him. The father, a sailor, had been off the scene since the boy's birth. 'There was an enormous source of anger, sadness and fear and he just hadn't grieved.'

According to Mr McNutt, this client, now 17, has struck no one since his return from France. He is in steady employment, travelling daily from his bedsit to a Yorkshire old people's home where he looks after Alzheimer patients. He phones Bryn Melyn monthly to report on his progress.

'This kid had 'prison' stamped on his forehead. When he came to us he saw his future in an uncle who'd been in and out of jail many times. His trip abroad cost pounds 1,400 a week, which is a lot. But if he'd been held in a secure unit, it would have cost about pounds 2,000 a week. My argument with Michael Howard is you don't have to lock these people up. You just need to treat them as human beings, find out what their problem is and work on it. There are people about who have the skill and commitment to do it, if allowed to. But I have to say, at this point in time, there will be concerted political efforts against our service because of the pressure put on local politicians by the media.'

The Bryn Melyn therapy centre is a private enterprise. Mr McNutt pays his staff of 26 between pounds 14,000 and pounds 18,000 a year and acknowledges that he himself is making a 'comfortable' living out of it. The main farmhouse, restored after being gutted by a teenage arsonist in 1987 ('He did it through anger with me; we were away at the time'), accommodates the McNutts. Teenage clients stay either in the sturdy out-buildings where they have a dining- room plastered with 'holiday' postcards and other mementoes, or with 'carers' living locally.

The dolphin has become a kind of symbol of Bryn Melyn. Mr McNutt lists among his successes a teenage girl who had been sexually abused at home for eight years and who derived a degree of peace and improved self-image by swimming with dolphins on her programmed foreign trip. Nevertheless, as the Daily Mail and the Sun pointed out last week, there are 'failures,' among them a teenage recidivist from Gloucester, arrested on drugs and drink- drive charges after returning from an 80-day African 'safari'. In the wake of last week's furore, council officials in Liverpool said they would not refer any more young people to Bryn Melyn, and Gloucester county council said it was suspending overseas trips from the centre until it reviewed its arrangements later this month.

Mr McNutt seems undismayed. 'Every child who comes here displays behaviour. There is no behaviour that doesn't have a reason - another simple basic fact that our government seems to be ignorant of.' It is too early, he says, to assess the success rate of his system. He does point out, though that less than 20 per cent of his clients re-offend within three months of completing the course - against 70-80 per cent of those who re-offend on leaving secure accommodation.

'If someone comes to us because they have been stealing cars on a monthly basis, and they haven't stolen a car after being with us for two months, that's an indication that something is changing. Funnily enough Gloucester only sends us car thieves. They acknowledge that it does work. They wouldn't keep sending them if it didn't'

(Photographs omitted)