Sicily, ItalySicily, Italy, home to a rehab-style facility for troubled teenagers. Photograph: Alamy

First Italy fought its mafia mobsters by confiscating their wealth. Now judges are taking away something even more precious: their sons.

Riccardo Cordi, an 18-year-old scion of one of the country's most notorious mob families, is a pioneer in a new strategy to fight the mafia by removing their sons from their homes and families.

He is the first of about 20 teenagers sent into a kind of rehab by juvenile courts in the southern region of Calabria, home to the 'Ndrangheta syndicate.

By 16, Cordi seemed destined to follow his father, a reputed boss who was gunned down in a turf war, and three elder brothers who had been jailed on mafia-related convictions. Their photos line the walls of the fortress-like Cordi home.

But when he was charged with attempted theft and damage to a police car, the judge, Roberto Di Bella, followed his acquittal with a startling order: the 'Ndrangheta family prince would be banished to Sicily until he turned 18.

Di Bella had sent Cordi's brothers to prison and wanted to spare the youngest son a similar fate. He cited legal provisions that allowed courts to remove minors from families incapable of properly raising them. "If you don't like it, we'll take him away anyway," the judge told Cordi's mother.

The teenager was placed in a facility for troubled youths, where nobody cared that he was a Cordi. Rules were rigid and he was forbidden from going out at night. Residents made their own bed and ate meals at a communal table. "It was tough. I was counting the days," Cordi said.

The judge assigned Cordi a fledgling psychologist, Enrico Interdonato, who had supported a group of teenagers in their attempts to halt local businessowners paying "protection" money to the mob.

It was an audacious pairing, mainly because the Cordis were suspected of being part of the protection racket. The unlikely mentor helped Cordi understand the terrible toll of organised crime, ferrying him incognito to funeral ceremonies for mafia victims.

Mariano Nicotra, owner of a local construction firm, told Cordi what had happened when he refused to pay protection money: his car was torched and his daughter ostracised. Nicotra even gave away the family dog because mafia threats made walks impossible.

Slowly, Cordi began to change. Twice a week he helped out at an after-school centre for children from troubled homes, though doing something for nothing is an almost alien concept in the 'Ndrangheta.

He moved stiffly, always buttoned up and wearing a jacket, even at outings at sea. But he attended willingly, a supervisor recalled. One day, there was a breakthrough when Cordi clucked like a hen to make the children laugh.

His exile was not all hard work. On Saturday nights, Interdonato took the teenager out for pizza and beers, and even to discos. He started to earn respect because of his personality, not his name.

Weeks before Cordi was due to leave the centre, he rebelled. He packed his bags and tried to flee, but his mother persuaded him to stay.

In February, on his 18th birthday, Cordi's exile finally ended and he returned home to Locri.

In a letter to the Corriere della Sera newspaper in May, he made clear he was not repudiating his family but admitted that he wanted to lead a "clean" life. Cordi recalled how one morning, while in exile, he went to the sea and gazed at Calabria. "This time I saw it from another perspective; I was seeing it from another place," he said. "But it was I who was different."