The difficult child, his mentor and a new life free from crime

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The Independent Online

Five months ago, 11-year-old Bobby's prospects looked bleak. Repeatedly excluded from his primary school for bad behaviour and fighting, he seemed set to follow his five elder brothers into a life of truancy, repeat offending and jail sentences.

Home for Bobby is a run-down housing estate in Basildon, Essex, where crime and drugs are rife. The front door of his family's house has "psycho" scrawled across it in graffiti and Bobby talks of police raids as if they were as common as newspaper deliveries.

"I got picked up by the police for criminal damage last year but I hadn't done it," Bobby says. "I gave them some lip and my mum told me off because she said I shouldn't talk to the police unless I have an appropriate adult with me because I'm underage."

But Bobby is now benefiting from a scheme which aims to pinpoint and help potential troublemakers before they commit their first crime.

The project uses volunteers to act as intensive mentors to vulnerable children, visiting them every week, talking to them about their problems and schoolwork and encouraging their talents in an attempt to help them avoid a life of crime.

But rather than involving the foreign holidays and expensive treats for troubled youngsters which have grabbed newspaper headlines in the past, the Mentors and Peers project (MAP) focuses on cheap activities and hobbies in the child's area which they can continue with after the scheme stops.

The pilot scheme has proved so successful that it is being rolled out across the country by Community Service Volunteers (CSV), the charity which runs the projects.

Although mentoring projects are not a new concept, they have tended to focus on people after they have committed their first offence and been through the courts and jail system.

The MAP scheme targets children who have not yet clashed with the criminal justice system but are seen to be at a high risk of doing so, or have other problems.

Bobby is the first person in his school to take part in the project, which was set up last year.

"I didn't like school because I found it hard to concentrate and I don't like my teacher," he says. "I kept getting into fights and getting excluded.

"One day I had just got really hyper and the classroom assistant asked me whether I would like a mentor. I said yes. I don't want to be in trouble all the time."

With a mixture of streetwise confidence and childlike naivety, he adds: "I don't want to go to prison. I've been to prison loads of times to visit my brothers and the food there is terrible."

Bobby is the youngest of six brothers and three sisters and is an uncle several times over. Neither of his parents works and none of his elder siblings have left school with any qualifications. His anecdotes of family outings tend to focus on trips to police stations and jails rather than picnics and museum visits.

Which is where the MAP scheme comes in. Bobby was "matched" to a volunteer mentor, Anna Siebols, 24, who has a full-time job in the public sector and was one of the first to be trained by the Essex project.

At first glance, an 11-year-old boy from a sink housing estate and a 24-year-old female graduate may seem to have little in common. "The first time we met it was quite awkward," admits Anna. "I come from a completely different background from Bobby. I've got one sister, have a stable family and went to university.

"Compared with him, I had a really privileged childhood."

Of their first meeting, she recalls: "We were complete strangers. But we went for a walk around Basildon and Bobby showed me some of the shops he liked and we started talking from there."

The relationship was forged over a hobby neither of them had tried before - model-making.

"Bobby has trouble concentrating and gets bored easily so I thought it would be good to do something that occupied his mind," Anna says. "I bought a model kit for a Harley Davidson and we went to the library to start making it." By the time Anna left him, Bobby was engrossed. "I took it home and carried on making it from 6pm till 1am," he says proudly.

"I was really pleased because normally I get frustrated with things and then just break them, but this is the first time I finished something."

The pair meet every weekend and Anna takes Bobby swimming or ice-skating, or sometimes they simply go for walks in the park.

Having a mentor has reaped dividends for Bobby. From being regarded as a troublemaker at school, he came top of his class in recent SAT tests.

Through Anna, he has joined Basildon's library and says that he is now in the top reading group at school.

"It's nice having someone to talk to and do things with because my mum is always busy and none of my brothers care," he says.

Mentoring is cost-effective and efficient, according to the latest research.

A study by De Montfort University in Leicester found that 77 per cent of young offenders who had been mentored had not committed another crime six months later.

Research by the University of Luton Vauxhall Centre for the Study of Crime for CSV found that volunteer mentoring projects involving young offenders led to a reduction in offending behaviour, a reduction in problems at school and an improvement in the young people's self-esteem and self-awareness.

The young people highlighted the value of the friendship, trust, guidance and encouragement of the volunteer.

The schemes are not designed to be long-term. Most of the MAP schemes last for an average of six months to a year.

Sue Gwaspari, a regional director at CSV, said: "The whole idea is to make the mentors dispensable rather than indispensable, so that the kids can carry on without them when the mentoring comes to an end."

Bobby and Anna have known each other for four months, and his real test will come in September, when he will move to a secondary school.

"It will be difficult to say goodbye and it is already difficult not to get too involved," Anna said. "Sometimes I just want to scoop him up and take him away from all his problems, but I know I can't do that.

"You have to be realistic, but he is a great kid and I've got as much out of it as he has."

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