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The Guardian

Title: Saints and Sinners

In 1985, Brendan McNutt bought Bryn Melyn, a farmhouse in rural Wales, and opened its doors to problem teenagers. His daughter, Helen McNutt, looks back on growing up there.


I was seven years old when we moved to Bryn Melyn, a large farmhouse in NorthWales. My parents' aim was simple and idealistic: to bring abused and emotionally damaged inner-city boys between the ages of 15 and 18 to live with us in the countryside. There, the boys would have responsibility for looking after the farm and its animals. It would provide them with some experience of normal family life, and this would make them better.


This was the singular, pioneering vision of my dad, Brendan McNutt, a teacher who had worked with children in care homes. It was the reason why, in July 1985, my parents sold our home in a Liverpool suburb to move to a tiny village, five miles from the nearest town, Bala, and 30 miles from the nearest big town, Wrexham. It changed our lives, and it would involve me growing up alongside some of the most abused children in Britain.


That summer, I found myself living with my family (dad, my mum Nuala, younger brother Anthony, baby sister Louise), our dog and six teenage lads. The boys were striking and magnificent, like exotic giants: they had tattoos, piercings and huge leather jackets. They were tough and loud and occasionally violent. I was transfixed, though not in the least bit scared, and I was constantly being told off by my parents for staring at them.


It was a big change for the boys, too. On arrival at the farm, some would try to run away. Many of them had grown up in big urban institutions with locks on all the doors and windows. To find themselves in an open farmhouse, in a different country with a different language, miles away from anyone they knew, was daunting. My dad walked in one day to find a boy escaping though the downstairs window; the escapee was completely bemused when dad told him there was no need as the front door was open.


The boys soon became accustomed to the farm and a daily routine that included milking goats, riding horses, feeding cows and mucking out pigs. But Bryn Melyn was never Walton Mountain. Prior to coming to us, the boys had endured various forms of abuse, often at the hands of their own parents. Starvation, neglect, physical abuse and in some cases rape had been a regular occurrence in their lives. By the time they arrived, they were deeply unhappy, their behaviour was unpredictable and often antisocial.


They'd punch and kick holes in the doors and walls of the house and could be as aggressive with each other. They'd also occasionally joyride or make a nuisance of themselves on the streets of Bala. Sometimes they'd be escorted home by the police or detained in the local station. None of this upset me. I was young: I unquestioningly accepted that that was how things were. It did worry my mum though. Before moving to Wales she had no idea that when boys were described as displaying "challenging behaviour", this stretched to stealing cars and runs-ins with the police.


That said, mum became very protective towards the boys. They loved her because she made them birthday cakes and talked to them about their girlfriends. But she'd also get upset with the effect they had on our family life. Because dad was on call 24 hours a day, every day, it was difficult to do things as a family. Although we didn't see as much of him as we'd have liked, he was still a brilliant father. He could, and still does, relate to children in a way that few people can.


My dad was the one who had to deal with the boys when they were at their worst, and they were often abusive towards him. However, none of the boys ever directed their anger towards the rest of our family. Dad's theory was partly based on the beneficial effects of placing the boys in close proximity to smaller, vulnerable beings. And so it turned out. They would row and fight with my dad, but they actively sought friendship with us children, and my sister Louise was particularly popular.


Louise's best friend was a 6ft 2in pink-haired punk called Steve. With his massive build and penchant for facial piercing, Steve was the scariest looking of all the boys and his aggressive behaviour caused the most problems. He was putty in Louise's sticky little hands. The extent of his devotion became apparent during one particularly fraught confrontation with dad. As Steve was about to punch dad, two-year-old Louise toddled into the room. Steve's anger immediately evaporated. He picked Louise up and took her off to the fridge to search for pink elephants, completely forgetting about his violent mood.


Not all of the boys' behaviour was so endearing. We'd been at Bryn Melyn for less than two years when a boy - let's call him Darren - set fire to our house. We were on our annual family holiday when it happened. Darren started the fire late at night while everyone was asleep, and then fell asleep himself as the flames took hold. Bryn Melyn was badly damaged, but, incredibly, no one was injured.


Dad was agitated, not so much because his home and business had gone up in smoke but because he realised Darren would go straight to prison. I thought this was strange, although I didn't ask why. It was much later that I discovered why dad had been so concerned. He told me that when Darren was four he had seen his parents murder his younger brother. Subsequently, he had not grown beyond this childlike emotional age. Prison, reflected my crestfallen dad, was just about the worst place for him.


While our house was being repaired, we moved into a caravan in the yard and the boys were dispersed among other children's homes and sympathetic neighbours. The farm barns were converted into living quarters for the boys so they now lived in a separate building to our family. I missed living with them. Our newly rebuilt house seemed far too big and quiet.


My early childhood was certainly idyllic. I was largely oblivious to the rest of the world - my parents even banned us from watching EastEnders because of the aggression and bad language - and I thought that living on the farm with the boys was perfectly normal. Then I started secondary school and I realised that it wasn't.


Until I went to the comprehensive in Bala, I didn't know that our boys tended to get the blame for everything that went wrong in the area. I soon learned that Bryn Melyn was local slang for a place where bad people lived, a place where parents would threaten to send their children when they misbehaved. I was outraged; but I was also proud to defend the home as "the girl from Bryn Melyn".


Then, as I started to study for my GCSEs, the wider world came to Bryn Melyn. Dad had developed a new way of working with the children, and this involved sending the child abroad with one other member of staff. It produced great results but it was expensive and it meant taking the children to exotic locations. Overnight, his work became a national news story. The press went crazy. "Hooligans on Holiday", and "Thugs Abroad" were just a couple of the headlines.


Suddenly, my dad was everywhere, on television, on the radio and in the papers. He even received a marriage proposal from a Maori woman who'd seen him on television in Papua New Guinea. The envelope that had carried the proposal was simply marked "Brendan McNutt, UK".


A small part of me enjoyed having a famous dad, but mostly it was awfuI. In the quest for sensationalist headlines, he was portrayed as a maverick do-gooder for teenage tearaways; they depicted children as spoilt young criminals enjoying holidays at the taxpayers' expense. Much of what was reported was untrue and I felt helpless as dad and the boys - and by now, girls too - were trashed by the media.


I was sickened by the media's hypocrisy. It was so quick to be "disgusted" or "outraged" by child abuse yet it was quicker still to condemn the abused children once they'd grown up. It seemed that once the wide-eyed children from the NSPCC adverts became troubled teenagers, it was then completely acceptable to vilify both them and those who tried to help them.


Bryn Melyn wasn't without public support. The Duchess of York asked to visit, and gave a much-needed boost to morale. She was great with the children, and when one boy asked her why she'd decided to leave the royal family, she replied that as he knew, families didn't always work out.


For the past few years things have been a lot calmer and the home is now renowned nationwide for treating the most vulnerable young people in Britain. I am proud of what Bryn Melyn has become and feel fortunate to have been a part of its extraordinary history.

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