Police in Cambridgeshire are backing a new scheme that they hope will teach young offenders the value of information technology. The project, called Computers In Your Future, is the brainchild of local social worker Susan Grolies. She has been working with young offenders for nearly two years.
"Actually being effective when helping these kids turn their fortunes around is difficult. They're very defensive, and often find that people are against them from the start."
"One of my first cases concerned two young lads, two brothers as it happens. They were charged with breaking into the house of an elderly couple. While they were beating up the couple, the woman unfortunately died."
It wasn't long before the police got involved, and this is just the sort of situation that piques Susan's interest. She tried to help.
"I tried to set up a meeting with the elderly gentleman. My plan was to get everyone sat down together for a chat, in order to teach the man that there was fault on both sides." Unfortunately, Susan encountered the kind of closed-minded attitude that she has become used to. "The man told me that I was mad and to get stuffed!", she says with a weary laugh.
This is typical of the uphill struggle that a social worker like Susan has to deal with.
"You have to build up a thick skin in this line of work. You can just imagine what a rejection like that did to the self-esteem of the two lads."
There was some justice, as before long the shoe was on the other foot. Susan was quick to report the man for being so rude.
"I enjoyed reading his letter of apology, but I knew that he only wrote it because the police made him. I do like to think that he learnt a lesson on some level though. Most people enjoy telling someone else off, but it's a bit different when you're the one who's in trouble for a change."
One has to wonder if, having faced so much resistance, Susan sometimes thinks of throwing in the towel?
"Sometimes I do feel like giving up. Society has developed an "us and them" mentality. People don't want to accept that when something goes wrong with one part of society, it means that there is something wrong with the whole. People get very hung up on who stole something from them without wondering why."
Surely, there has to be some accountability when a crime has been committed? Susan disagrees.
"It's labelling activities as good and bad that causes a lot of the problems in the first place. These lads all suffer from low self-esteem and come from impoverished backgrounds."
After months of feeling like she was getting nowhere, Susan had an epiphany.
"The types of crime that these kids are involved in are very banal - they steal a handbag or vandalise a lift. In other words, the crimes that they commit are limited to their world. I wanted to change that."
The link that Susan made - one that most politicians and social policy makers overlook - was that these kids had almost no involvement in white collar crime. In other words, by analysing the type of crime that these young people were being excluded from, Susan was suddenly able to gain an insight into the limitations they face. As a result, she was determined to involve young offenders in IT.
"The changes were immediate and seemed almost too good to be true. I can think of one young man who saw the potential of the brand new computer and Internet connection almost straight away. Within three weeks he went from someone who had given up hope of ever having a decent life to being able to take his girlfriend and three of his kids on holiday for the first time. It's not every day that I have a victory like that, but when it does happen, it makes me feel great!"
An employee of the local council, who did not wish to be named, is less impressed with the scheme.
"Those people love this scheme because as soon as they get a computer, they sell it to their mates. It's a right scam."
Putting this to Susan, I once again see her signature sigh that must be the product of nearly two years of having to champion her clients' right to participate in the hi-tech world.
"Attitudes like that are not very helpful. These kids love their free computers. Due to the conditions that they live in, a bigger problem is that the computers keep getting stolen. This happens all the time, and our resources are strained, but we usually manage to get them another one."
I was curious to know what these people do with their computer and Internet setup, so I asked one of the kids. Susan's enthusiasm for the program is matched only by his own.
"It's been brilliant. Before, I was always getting into trouble because I had nothing to do all day - there is nothing to do around here. Now I spend most of my time on-line, learning about the Internet.", he says with a satisfied smile.
I asked local community Police officer, who also declined to be identified, what he thought of the program. He was also supportive.
"Already we've noticed a big difference on the street. Susan's program helps us a lot. The crimes that the kids are committing are now technically fraud, so no longer our responsibility. It's freed up a lot of resources."
The possibility of the kids using the computers to transition over to other types of crime is another point that I put to Susan, and I'm rewarded with another knowing smile.
"I'm not going to get drawn into labelling their activities as good or bad. I don't do that. It's not what the kids need, and it's not my job. What I do know for sure is that many of them have started to think in much bigger terms, when before, they were only interested in petty crime. Even if they are committing some crimes over the Internet, once they have learnt the computer skills they need, they don't get caught as often. This is actually helps because it breaks the cycle of doing something wrong and getting blamed for it."
With so many people seemingly unwilling to listen to her message, I wonder who she considers to be her most constant supporters?
"Apart from the kids themselves and the local police? Many segments of the local community have shown their appreciation for what we're trying to do. For example, the local IT companies were fighting each other for the contract to supply us with the new computers. Obviously, they wanted to make money, but that was far from their primary motivation."
It seems that Susan is a woman who wont be stopped in her pursuit of her clients' right to dignity and opportunity. As we were packing up, her mobile phone rings, and she doesn't even notice when I say goodbye. "Listen, I'm afraid that I'd rather help them than tell them off!", is the last thing I hear her shout. Good for her.