A special relationship

While there are doubts about the overall effectiveness of mentoring with offenders, mentors at a scheme in Birmingham are enjoying some success in helping young offenders to resettle. Katie Leason reports

The merits of mentoring programmes for young offenders have recently been questioned in a Youth Justice Board report.(1) It found that the young people referred to 80 YJB-backed mentoring schemes often did not want to participate in them and many of those who did failed to engage with their mentors. It also found that the programmes were more expensive than equally beneficial options, such as YJB education, training and employment schemes. Overall, the evidence is stacked against a widespread roll-out of mentoring programmes to help tackle youth crime.

However, a programme for 18 to 25-year-olds in Birmingham is claiming that it has had some success in cutting reoffending rates. Since the New Hope Mentoring Programme began in 2003, 39 offenders have been matched with long-term mentors. Based on a similar programme in the US city of Boston, the mentors, who are all volunteers and mainly from local churches, befriend the offenders, provide them with life skills training and act as a source of emotional support. The mentoring relationship often begins while the offender is behind bars and continues on the outside with meetings in informal settings, such as parks and restaurants.

Here we talk to one mentor and one mentee to find out what they think of the initiative.

The mentee
It was Gareth Harrison’s probation officer who suggested that he meet a mentor. A heroin addict at the age of 17, Gareth, now 25, is on his second probation order after committing theft.  Homeless for a year – he had gone into private rented accommodation but was evicted when he could not pay – he started to shoplift when the money he received through jobseeker’s allowance was stopped because he failed to attend a required course. He has avoided prison but has spent a night in a police cell.

He first met his mentor in a coffee shop in the Bullring shopping mall. His first impression of Danny Fontaine was positive and he liked him immediately. “He was sound. He sort of listened. He didn’t judge me through what I was saying.”

He soon found that Fontaine would give him advice that he valued “instead of someone giving advice about the way they would do it”.

Now, more than six months since that first meeting, the pair meet weekly, usually in a fast-food outlet where they buy a drink and chat. They talk about what Harrison has been doing during the week, discuss any problems and decipher any letters or documents that Harrison is unable to understand – he is dyslexic and cannot read. The plan is to find a library that stays open late so they can read together.

Over the months, the pair have become more like friends than mentor and mentee.

Harrison says: “At first, if someone asks you where you are going you say you are going to see your mentor but now it’s more like going to see a mate. They have to become friends so that you can tell them important stuff and trust them.”

Harrison says that he feels comfortable being with Fontaine and that he can be himself.

“I can talk about anything,” Harrison says. “If I talk to my family or closest friends I argue, but I don’t argue with him. Because of my past I don’t go out. It’s hard to meet new people. If I tell them about the past and that I’m an ex-heroin addict they distance away from you. Danny doesn’t do that and really understands.”

Harrison also appreciates being able to contact Fontaine at any time of the day or night. “Mentors are good because you can get them 24/7. You can phone at 3am if there’s a problem. With everyone else you can’t do that.”

Harrison would encourage other people to find a mentor. “I’d recommend anyone to go for it. In a way, I’d be lost without Danny.”

The mentor
Danny Fontaine, 43, has been a mentor for two-and-a-half years and is clear about his motivation for doing so.

“I want to do something for the community as I have this belief that people should try to put something back.”

Harrison is the fifth person he has met with a view to mentoring. Of the five, two he saw only once because they failed to turn up a second time; one he met three times before losing contact when the person moved out of his hostel; and the fourth is in prison – Fontaine has mentored him for two years and so visits him periodically while writing letters in between.

A life skills tutor by day, Fontaine remembers meeting Harrison for the first time last summer. “He was a nice guy. He came over as mature and together compared with some of the others.”

Mentors and prospective mentees are matched by the scheme’s manager according to geographical whereabouts and personality. Given that Harrison and Fontaine have never argued, their
compatibility seems in little doubt. Fontaine says: “He finds it valuable getting issues off his chest and we try to come up with a solution together if that’s appropriate.”

The focus on serious stuff is relieved by more relaxed conversations about cars and football, or something that has been on television. Sometimes Fontaine talks about things that have happened to him during the day so that the session isn’t just about Gareth talking about himself.

However, Fontaine is wary of becoming too much of a friend in the conventional sense. “I have to be conscious of the fact that I’m a mentor as there are professional things to consider. There are some barriers and I have to maintain that distance.”

Fontaine does not go to Harrison’s house, for example, and the only phone number that Harrison has for Fontaine is for a mobile phone provided by the scheme.

The biggest challenge is encouraging Harrison to fulfil his potential, says Fontaine, as his mentee thinks he will always be judged negatively because of his drugs background even though he has stayed off drugs and made progress.

“The challenge is to keep him focused so he can think of the bigger picture.”

Fontaine recalls that one of the highlights of their time together was when Harrison had been offered a job. “He was really excited. It was something he’d been working towards and showed him that he had made some major steps as he had regarded himself as unemployable.”

Fontaine doesn’t have a limit in mind for how long he mentors Harrison, but as time goes on, he hopes to see him become more independent. He expects the frequency of their meetings to reduce gradually, to once every two weeks and then monthly. 

“I wouldn’t want it to become the case that he depends on me and doesn’t see himself stopping the relationship.”

Fontaine recommends others to think about becoming mentors. “You don’t need any qualifications and it is rewarding to see somebody grow and say ‘thank you’. Gareth will say ‘it’s been really good talking to you’.’’

(1) National Evaluation of Youth Justice Board Mentoring Schemes 2001 to 2004, Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, 2005


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