Teenagers chill with coppers

7th April 2006 at 01:00
It is a bit of a teenage dream - a place where you can hang out with your mates, decorate it the way you want it, watch the programmes you like, listen to your choice of music. And, if the guy making tea in the kitchen is a policeman - well, that is cool.

But this is no dream, it is part of a radical approach to breaking down barriers at children's charity NCH's family centre in Winchestown, Nantyglo, one of the poorest areas in Wales.

Backed by a wide range of partners, including the local authority, Assembly government and European funding, the drop-in centre was established three years ago to support individuals and families of all ages. But, over the past two years, local police and workers at the centre have forged an alliance to tackle the problems of the area's young people.

It is an initiative that has seen police officers, armed with flasks of tea, accompanying project workers out on to the streets at night to make contact with initially rather startled youngsters.

"They looked at us like we were stupid when we first turned up on our own,"

says youth worker Martin Bewick.

"So you can imagine what it was like when we arrived with a policeman."

The officers have also been mixing with the area's young people at the centre in after-school clubs, getting involved with football tournaments and rock-climbing expeditions, and helping tile the centre's kitchen.

The reward for everyone's efforts has been a dramatic reduction in crime - down by 30 per cent since the centre opened.

"It was an area notorious for crime and disorder, a real hot spot," says inspector Iain Thomas. "But there is a lack of facilities for young people here, and I was concerned that we didn't just push them from pillar to post.

"I felt we were dealing with the symptoms when we needed to be tackling some of the causes."

It is a partnership that was nominated for a national police award last year and has won praise from the Home Office.

"As a policeman, you're aware that you are seen as a uniform delivering enforcement, and there was apprehension at first," admits neighbourhood PC Paul Webber.

"But now they just see me as part of the group. Our profile in the community has improved immensely. Where they used to run away from us, they now actually come looking for us."

And inspector Thomas believes that attitude has spread into the wider community.

"At one time we weren't welcome in this area. But now older people do come to speak to our officers about problems or issues in the neighbourhood."

Leila Wyburn, another youth worker at the centre who, like Martin, is studying for a BA in youth and community studies at the University of Wales, Newport, believes the ethos of the centre - "we're like a family, everyone interacts" - is a strong positive force.

She sees it in two young people who come to the centre for lessons after being excluded from local schools.

"They're doing OCNs (Open College Network adult learning courses) now.

"When they're here they don't just see the tutor. We call in and see them, bring them down to the centre, make them feel appreciated, and you see the turn around.

"One of them was determined that he wasn't coming in. Now he's here making us cups of tea."

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