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The mentorship scheme reaching young people at risk of drug-related harm

Youth sits on sofa talking to a mentor who is sat in a chair

Over the last two years, Avon and Somerset Police have worked in partnership with St Giles Trust to support and divert young people in Bristol away from drugs and crime.

In 2021, the Home Office granted funding to Avon and Somerset Police and Bristol City Council as part of Project ADDER (Addiction, Diversion, Disruption, Enforcement and Recovery), which aims to reduce drug related crime and harm within the city.

Some of the funding was used to support a mentor scheme through St Giles Trust, to work with young people at risk of becoming involved in crime or drug-use and engage them in ways to change their behaviour for a more positive future.

Over two years, the scheme has supported and worked with 39 young people aged 16 and under, all of which were either showing signs of truancy from school, or not attending at all.

Detective Chief Inspector Larisa Hunt who manages the partnership with St Giles Trust on behalf of Avon and Somerset Police said:

“The uniqueness of this particular scheme is that the mentors themselves have lived experience and understand first-hand the situations that children can find themselves in. This is a hugely valuable tool when connecting with young people in a way that other professionals, and the police, often can’t.”

St Giles Trust mentor, T, has been working with young people on the scheme for the past 11 months. T has experienced homelessness and been involved in crime in the past himself, but since turning his life around, now uses his experience to educate and support other young people. He is a big believer in prevention and uses his own experience to engage and build trust with the young people he works with. His mentoring creates a safe space for young people and he tackles perceptions of gang involvement, violence, and exploitation, encouraging them to create a positive self-identity, healthy relationships, and to realise their potential.

“Being young, no one wants to lose face, so they play it as cool as possible, and often won’t engage with adults. In my role, I am here for them. I’m not part of their education, or the authorities, so whether they want me to be a sounding board or want advice, that’s for them to decide what they need.

“When I talk about my own experiences and what my turning points were, at that point they see me lower my guard to allow them to lower their guard. A lot of their responses are really positive, a lot are shocked because of the images they have of older people with lived experience.”

Young people at risk of criminality or drug-harm are often vulnerable for many reasons, including poverty, bullying, not having a parent at home or having family members already involved in drugs or crime. Many of the young people that St Giles Trust work with have a background of trauma of varying degrees.

Criminals take advantage of these vulnerabilities and befriend them – by offering protection, clothes, money, a lift, or simply making them feel special and building their self-esteem. That relationship soon becomes abuse but by this point it can feel almost impossible for a vulnerable young person to find a way out of the situation.

One young person that T worked with had got himself into debt bondage, where he owed money to the people exploiting him. He wouldn’t go to the police so T worked with him on recognising his options and understanding how things may play out. By providing a safe space for him to share his anxieties, T was able to encourage the young person to visualise a different way forward, and build some aspirations for the future. The young person is now looking to complete an apprenticeship.

Another young person was referred to the scheme because he was refusing to attend school. T met him for sessions at his home or at local community centres and slowly introduced the idea of why school is important and what it could help him achieve. After working with T for a while the young person returned to school part time before deciding to move to a school that offered the vocational training he needed to achieve his ambitions. T says that the young person is now attending school every day.

“The successes are very small, people take their own lives for granted and they don’t always understand what success looks like for other people, it’s the small steps. Many of the kids are just pleased to have somebody who is genuinely there for them.

“One young person I worked with started seeing people in his community shouting over to say hello to me, and it showed him that you don’t have to be a certain type of person to be respected – you can be yourself and it is safe to let people know who you are.

“Many of them have had multiple experiences of social workers which has built up a mistrust. They focus on the fact they are receiving support because they are ‘bad’. For me, it’s the opposite, I see what they can do, and I focus on their potential.”

St Giles Trust and Avon and Somerset Police have also worked closely with partners such as the Bristol Drugs Project and young people services, which many young people wouldn’t usually interact with without the trust and communication that having a mentor brings.

DCI Larisa Hunt continued: “Mentors like T really are invaluable for young people within our communities and show just how important it is to take a holistic, multi-faceted approach to divert and prevent young people from becoming involved in drugs or crime.”

If you’re worried about someone who may be involved or being exploited into crime, speak to someone. You can call us on 101, report concerns online or anonymously via Crimestoppers.

Alternatively, you can speak to your local substance misuse services if you are worried about someone’s drug use or need support yourself.