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Detour around a criminal life

The Befriending Scheme, which has operated from Toynbee Hall in East London since 1992, was set up as a crime prevention project funded by the Home Office under its Safer Cities programme.

The borough's multi-agency panel has so far referred more than 50 young people, all of them vulnerable to crime and offending. They are local youngsters aged 11 to 16 who, on several occasions, have been cautioned by the police for a variety of offences including theft, shoplifting, motor vehicle interference, criminal damage, burglary, handling stolen goods and so on.

Each referral - entirely voluntary - acts as a diversion to prosecution, offering a last chance for a youngster to see the error of his or her ways. Most leap at the chance; others don't.

When he or she is officially referred the co-ordinator makes a home-visit to establish the young person's interest. On joining, each one is matched with a fully-trained, adult volunteer. They see each other weekly for about three hours over a period of six months.

What does the scheme offer? First, a safe, non-threatening, comfortable environment at our drop-in centre, off the estates in which they live. Second, the undivided attention of a sensible adult befriender.

But the scheme is not a club - the befriender and young person take time to consider interests they can develop together, although motivating the young person can be a struggle because of low self esteem. After talking over a cup of coffee or a game of pool, they get on with their planned activity. After each meeting, the befriender writes a short report, which is held centrally by the co-ordinator.

Our volunteers have been excellent although there is a high turnover. Some are university students in their last year. Others are youth workers, homeschool support workers, teachers or community workers.

We encourage our young people to develop a sense of responsibility towards themselves and their community, and to develop worthwhile personal aims. All are expected to attend a first aid course.

Three have gained Duke of Edinburgh awards. One for the recreation section of the bronze medal (I'd never played squash until my befriender started taking me); two others for hearing children read at two local primary schools every week for three months.

Another has developed skills as a young leader at summer camps for deprived children. Two others, since joining the scheme, have gained places at a college of FE.

But we do not win them all. And what happens at the end of their six months?

While with us, we try to set up a network of sensible things for them to do when they leave. Most want to stay, but only a few remain for re-referral.

Crime prevention schemes like ours are cost-effective. To contain such youngsters in secure accommodation or elsewhere for six months would cost an exhorbitant amount of money. And what might be the human cost?

* Contact address: Stepney Children's Fund, Toynbee Hall, 28 Commercial Street, London E1 6LS Helen Craig is a former deputy head in Waltham Forest.

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