True story of Stefan, the 12-year-old boy branded the nation's youngest thug

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It is only the distant view of the sea that suggests Brightling Close is not part of some squalid inner-city estate. But this bleak spot on a hillside above Hastings in East Sussex is dotted with dilapidated housing and hooded youths hanging about on street corners.

It is only the distant view of the sea that suggests Brightling Close is not part of some squalid inner-city estate. But this bleak spot on a hillside above Hastings in East Sussex is dotted with dilapidated housing and hooded youths hanging about on street corners.

In the garden at No 19 there is a jumble of plastic chairs, a disused cooker and a collection of broken furniture. When the door is opened by a young man, an assortment of small children and even smaller dogs spill out.

Inside, the floors are bare, the paint chipped and the television is on. Welcome to the home of Stefan Gilmore. Except that Stefan is not here at the moment - he is 200 miles away in Exeter, serving an 18-month sentence for robbery and attempted robbery.

It was his 11th conviction, involving a total of 23 offences, including vandalism, shoplifting, joyriding and theft over the past two years.

Stefan is 12 years old.

His sentence - rare for a child - was imposed by Judge Anthony Niblett at Lewes Crown Court last week after all previous punishments - supervision and parenting orders, curfews and electronic tagging - had failed. It was, said the judge, both "deeply depressing" and "inevitable" that he would be given a custodial sentence.

This is a boy who was suspended from school eight times, starting at the age of five when he set fire to a toilet roll. Previously, according to his parents, he was an angel.

They told how Stefan had been in police custody more than 50 times for various incidents, including truancy and running away from home. His first formal caution from police, for theft, came two months after his 10th birthday; 10 is the age of criminal responsibility.

Not long after, he became the youngest person to be banned from driving, after stealing his stepfather's car - for the third time - to go to meet his girlfriend.

Last August, aged 11, Stefan set another benchmark when he became the youngest person to be subjected to an antisocial behaviour order, accompanied by a curfew order enforced by electronic tagging; both were later breached, leading to more court appearances. During an interview with the News of the World to mark the occasion, he boasted that he had tried cocaine, speed and ecstasy, had drunk alcopops and been caught by his mother having sex with his girlfriend in an alley.

At 12, the law was finally able to send him away for an offence he committed last spring as a member of a teenage gang called the After Dark Crew.

"He's not as he's been made out to be. Don't believe what's been said about him," shouts his mother, Anne-Marie Gilmore, 34, from the hallway of the three-bedroom council home in the suburb of Ore that she and her husband Lee, 26, share with her remaining seven children.

The whereabouts of Stefan's natural father are unknown. Stefan himself told Lewes Crown Court: "I got beaten by my real dad, that's why I have a stepdad to protect me.'' Mr Gilmore, father to four of the children, says, because of the distance from Exeter, they have not been to see Stefan yet.

He points out that the judge rescinded Stefan's Asbo in order to "give him a chance when he gets out". The couple say they did what they could to stop Stefan running away from the house and believe he was led astray by the older members of the After Dark Crew. "I don't want to talk about when he nicked my car; that's all in the past now" added Mr Gilmore.

Are there no social or community workers looking after the family? He shrugs and waves his hand: "There's nothing round here for the kids, no playgrounds or anything. No wonder they get up to things or hang around and smoke 'puff'.''

He has a point. Hastings is the most deprived place in the South-east and the 39th most deprived district in the country; the ward covering Ore is one of the worst in Hastings.

The situation was caused by the long-term decline of British seaside resorts and the relocation to the town of inner London families during the Sixties and Seventies. Unemployment, at 3.6 per cent, is double that of the rest of East Sussex and a third higher than the national rate of 2.5 per cent.

Hastings has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the South-east and a high level of class-A drug abuse among young people. Hillcrest School, the secondary school closest to Stefan's home, had the worst GCSE results in the county last year.

Over the past few years, the Government has channelled millions of pounds into Hastings, creating the multi-agency Safer Hastings Partnership (SHP) to help reduce the historically high crime levels - which the SHP points out has dropped by 7 percentage points in the past year.

Last October, the town was designated one of 40 Action Areas to combat antisocial behaviour and this week was given the country's 100th Antisocial Behaviour Special Response Court, which fast-tracks cases of graffiti and thuggery.

None of those measures - or the teams of social workers, police, youth custody and education welfare officers - seems to have prevented Stefan's involvement with the After Dark Crew. The gang robbed young people travelling home from school on trains leaving St Leonard's station; mobiles and wallets were stolen by threats and knife-waving. Stefan pleaded guilty; the others were all convicted.

Detective Inspector Neil Honnor, of Hastings police, says it is wrong to suggest that the system has failed Stefan. "I think the opposite is true. Hastings is quite a small place, we all work closely together and it's easier to find out what ones like Stefan are doing and to catch them when they break the law. He lives at home, we know where he is. In a big city, he'd just disappear. We may have got him in time.'' Only time will tell, he says.

But perhaps the last word should go to Stefan, who, barely able to see over the dock at Lewes Crown Court and facing imminent incarceration, pleaded: "Can I see my mum?''