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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Island of last resort

Inspiring Swedish approach to youth detention

The most striking thing about the Hassela reform centre, apart from the apple blossom, the thick white candles burning on the breakfast tables and the smell of old wood from the ancient eaves of the dining room, is the silence. Sixty teenagers with criminal records, drug problems or a history of antisocial behaviour live here in Gotland, Sweden, in and around a beautiful wooden house with a conservatory stretching back into the garden. A trampoline sits on the lawn and a barbecue still charred from a recent feast is by the back door.

The "students", as they are called, are part of one of the world's most striking youth detention centres. They live in the main house or in smaller houses scattered throughout the village. Occasionally, there are "challenges" – the Irish boy, for example, who tried to hold up the post office with a knife, then went back to apologise – but for the most part, this small Swedish community accepts the 60 or so students who live in its midst as kids who need help to straighten themselves out. The students are referred here mostly by the Swedish authorities, although in recent years children from Ireland and Scotland have come to Hassela. There is a waiting list. Over the last 25 years, 700 people from 12 to 20 have been through its doors, most after having got mixed up in drugs or antisocial behaviour.

Its founders, Lasse Siggelin and his wife Kirstin, started their professional lives as teachers in the local school. They adopted two Colombian children and, over the years, were asked by social workers to take children from difficult backgrounds, and then children and young people referred by the courts. The key to their philosophy is recreating a family environment – something few of the students have experienced. The young people live in "micro families" in houses scattered throughout the village. Students are sent to Hassela for two years. Many of the "house parents" are former offenders who are prepared to embrace the extraordinary demands of life at Hassela, working for six weeks before taking a two-week break. "Hassela is a way of life for many of us who work here, not a job," says one.

But there is also an explicit political and cultural dimension to its work. Lasse declares himself a "child of '68", and an idealist. The Hassela website declares: "We have chosen to fight for democracy by creating conditions for young people to live a life based on democratic and not fascist grounds!" Despite its emphasis on vocational training, the programme is motivated neither by charity nor business. "We are doing the work to make people feel that they belong somewhere, to make them take responsibility, to make sure handicraft traditions are carried on, and to make sure that the countryside has a future," says the website.

Alex Siggelin, 28, and his wife Erica – plus their new baby – run a dog training centre where six young people live and work. Their old wooden house is the centre of a project that trains alsatians for the Swedish police. On the day we arrive, they are leaving for a weekend break on the mainland, but are taking one of the new students with them. Eric, 17, has been sent to Hassela for attacking his social worker and her car. "He has just got here and is very agitated, but he is calming down," says Alex. "I don't want to leave him alone here just yet, so we are taking him with us."

Alex was a street child in Bogota, Colombia, until the age of five, when he was adopted by the Siggelins. He believes most children need routine, to be listened to, and to know that the house parents will stay with them until they do what is expected of them. "Sometimes, when we get them here, they refuse to get out of bed. So we sit in the room and wait and talk until eventually they realise they just have to get up."

Alex and his family live with five students, and they eat and work together. "This place is about relationships," he says. "They are coming to my home and they can be part of that, but there are rules." Some children are given dogs to care for and are allowed keep them overnight in cages in their rooms. This removes the need for any arguments about getting up in the morning. "You can't negotiate with a dog," Alex says. "The dog has to be fed and exercised, so you just have to get up. You can't be angry around a dog or they'll get agitated. The kids know this and they learn to become aware and to amend their hyperactive behaviour. They calm down."

Valdes, 20, is a Hassela student. He was abandoned as a child in Lithuania and lived in an orphanage until he was adopted by a Swedish couple. He turned to drugs and had a heavy cannabis addiction. Since he came to Hassela, dog training has become the centre of his life – and he has been clean of drugs. He shares his room with his dog, Sita, and her nine puppies that will be trained as sniffer dogs for the Swedish police. The dogs are also used to check that the students don't try to smuggle drugs into their rooms. "I am so happy," Valdes says. "The dogs are my friends. I have a job working with the dogs. I never dreamed that could be possible."

Punishment is a dirty word at Hassela. Lasse says that once students have been through the initial induction period and have been settled in a house where they are comfortable, discipline is not a problem. "In 25 years, we've had three or four violent incidents," he says. It's an observation that is born out by two visiting Irish social workers. "We've been here 11 weeks and I've seen one incident where a voice was raised, and that was dealt with in 30 seconds," says Claire O'Dowd.

There are failures. On the day we arrived for a two-day visit, one student had absconded on the ferry – it's a three-hour journey from the holiday island of Gotland back to the mainland. Another went the next night. The waiting list for placements reflects the high demand for places at Hassela. But there is little in the way of hard outcomes evidence, apart from a study commissioned by Hassela that carried out phone interviews with students who had completed the programme in 2003-04. It recorded that 90% of the girls and 53% of boys described themselves, one year after "graduation", as being "well established, drug free and not involved in crime".

David Chubb, a social worker who has spent two decades working in traditional youth detention centres in Scotland, keeps returning to Hassela for inspiration. He says: "I came here when I was training to be a social worker over 20 years ago, and I still haven't come across anything that works the way this place does." He has referred students to Hassela, and next year is planning to come to Gotland – with his wife and two young children – to write a PhD. "I've been around youth justice for 25 years," he says. "It doesn't work the way we do it, and it costs a fortune."

Right and wrong

Affi, a 28-year-old graduate of Hassela, rebelled as a child against her family's strict Muslim code. She went through eight schools before she hit the streets of Stockholm, where she developed a drug habit. She was sent to Hassela for two years, and turned her life around. Now she is helping the seven students billeted with her do the same thing.

"We are with the students 24/7," she says. "We don't believe that you need to punish a child to teach them the difference between right and wrong. We are always with them ... But the most important thing we do is listen, listen, listen. Sometimes, parents are so busy they don't make time to do this. We also challenge behaviour, and we work hard on finding what interests the kids."

It costs £82,000 to put a young person through the Hassela programme. Chubb, who is based in the Shetlands, says Hassela makes economic sense. "I've come across kids who are clearly heading for a life in prison, and that is going to cost thousands of pounds over the years," he says. "Putting them in conventional detention centres is clearly not working ... we are wasting thousands of pounds on a system of punishing young people that just doesn't work."

O'Dowd and Yvonne Gaule, the two visiting Irish social workers, are overwhelmed by their experience of Hassela. "The first thing I am going to do when I get back home is write to the minister for justice and tell him they just have to see this place," O'Dowd says.

It's Saturday night, and the students are putting on a play about drug addiction. Madeleine is sobbing in the front row. She's been taking drugs since she was 13, and Hassela is her last chance. Her mother has come to visit her and they are both weeping. Lasse is hugging her.

There is a lot of hugging in Hassela. It may be unfashionable or inappropriate at conventional rehabilitation institutions, but at Hassela it goes on constantly. The Irish social workers were shocked by this. "We were taught to ... discourage physical contact," O'Dowd says. "Here, it is completely the opposite, but when we arrived we were like two sticks. Lars had to explain to the students that we were from Ireland and it might take a while for us to loosen up, but to be patient with us."

Not replicated

The Hassela model has not been successfully replicated elsewhere, although Lars believes there is no reason why it shouldn't be. An attempt to set up a similar centre in Australia failed two years ago, with the founder blaming lack of funding.

Former Hassela student Tanya Malashad, who had a troubled childhood after the suicide of her mother, says she was heading for a life of crime and drugs before she spent two years in Hassela. She subsequently became an air steward, trained as a pilot, then moved back to run Hassela's horticulture centre. She is married, with two young children, and lives in Gotland's only city, Visby. "Everyone who comes here has a big person missing in their lives," she says. "There is an empty room in your heart, even if you don't admit it. Most parents of the children here use alcohol or drugs and may be divorced. Hassela gave me love and rules, and listened to me when I was sad. Most of my former friends in Stockholm are either dead or in jail."

Lasse says: "Traditionally, the social work/detention system tells us: 'Give them a finger and they will bite your hand off.' Our attitude here is that we keep holding out our hand to them, and eventually they take it."

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