Helping put broken lives back together

Kevin Neary, left, and PC Graeme Buchan. Picture: Greg Macvean
Kevin Neary, left, and PC Graeme Buchan. Picture: Greg Macvean

ASKED when she knew her life was out of control, a deep sadness clouds Sam’s eyes before she speaks.

“I was at a house party at a flat in Gorgie and went into the next room for a lie down for a while. I found my friend had ripped a hole in bedsheets and hung herself from the wardrobe. “I took her down.” Sam was just 14 years-old and in the grip of Mephedrone, an illegal stimulant.

“She was 30 and looked after me. She was like a big sister. We’d go out and she’d make sure nobody took advantage of me. She just had her three boys taken away and the drink and drugs made her depressed.”

Brought up in a loving Ratho family, Sam enjoyed a “normal” childhood until she hit adolescence and derailment. All it took was one bad day and access to M-Cat, as it was known.

“All my friends were on it but I always said ‘no’. But then one day I tried it and loved it.”

Family and school became irrelevant as Sam was all-consumed. “I was out partying every night,” she says.

“I stopped going to school and was reported missing all the time – my mum and dad even got fined £300 for me missing school.

“I was totally out of control but I didn’t care.”

It would be another five years of turmoil and trouble – culminating in five arrests for assault in just six months – before Sam found solace and salvation in the shape of the VOW project.

Based in a former police post on Edinburgh High Street, it brings together police with the anti-addiction charity Aid & Abet in a national first.

PC of 25 years Graeme Buchan set-up VOW – Voluntary Offender Watch – in 2013 with one fellow officer out of a cramped, empty office in Corstorphine police station.

“We’d spend time looking at court lists and speaking to offenders, trying to find people to help,” recalls PC Buchan, 57.

“We had people who couldn’t understand why the police wanted to help. Then there were those who thought we just wanted them to inform on their friends. No doubt others thought we were just on a wind up,” admits PC Buchan.

“But if you’re desperate for help, it doesn’t matter who is offering it, you’ll probably accept it.”

PC Buchan still remembers his first client – a 21-year-old lad from Leith who was no stranger to the sheriff. “He was what I call a weekend warrior,” says PC Buchan. “He’d go out drinking with his friends at the weekend and get into fights.”

Four years on, and the only blemish on the lad’s record was as part of the Hampden Park pitch invasion after Hibs’ historic cup final win last May.

Poverty, poor family, bad housing, wrong choice of friends are all contributing factors – but as with Sam, substance abuse often speeds the descent.

“For some of these guys, it’s the first time somebody’s cared about them,” says VOW mentor Kevin Neary, 49. “I’ve had guys in floods of tears.

“These guys we work with are broken adults – with VOW we’re preventing young adults from becoming broken adults.”

In burly Kevin, with a thousand yard stare honed over a 30-year battle conquering his own demons, PC Buchan has found someone offenders can relate to.

“I ask them what was their dream as a kid. Some don’t even know, they’ve been living such chaotic lives,” says Kevin.

“So we show them it’s possible to change their lives – we light them up and that’s exciting for me. It’s rewarding to see and do this work.”

Help can be anything from getting clients to court – avoiding warrants for their arrest – to helping them claim benefits and avoid trouble. But most of all, VOW is about lending an ear and giving hope.

“I say to them, if you continue robbing houses, the theft team will come to get you,” says Kevin. “If you carry on with drugs, the drugs team will come to get you. If you want to change, the VOW team will come to get you.”

As with any programme aimed at changing behaviour, VOW tries to catch offenders young, aged 16-25.

“Anything broken, when you put it back together, it’s not perfect,” says Kevin. “So it’s better to try and prevent it getting broken in the first place.”

The intervening four years has seen 101 offenders come through their door – reducing their clients’ offending by 82 per cent and saving the taxpayer £5.6m in court fees.

VOW prides itself on being there for as long as a client needs them, with two exceptions – if they carry on offending or by mutual consent.

So confident is PC Buchan in VOW’s method, he feels it could help tackle the spectre of motorbike crime in north Edinburgh.

“If we could get them out of there, then we could help them,” said PC Buchan. “When you’re living in close proximity with others involved in motorcycle crime then it’s very difficult to walk away from it.”

It was this infectious sense of hope that saved Sam – though it was no easy road. “I told him I’d headbutt him if he came near me, I thought he was polis,” she recalls her first meeting with a VOW mentor in the cells beneath Edinburgh Sheriff Court. But a year later, Sam is off the drugs, out of trouble and back near her folks in Ratho with her partner and their young daughter.

She works part-time as a housekeeper in an Ingliston hotel and dotes on three-month-old Annie. “It it wasn’t for VOW, I wouldn’t have got Annie home,” admits Sam.

Now 20, Sam’s eyes light-up when asked about her VOW-inspired dream. “I want to go to college and do hostelry for bartending. And I want to take care of Annie.”