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Why the great and the good fell for Camila Batmanghelidjh

Kids Company evaded scrutiny by offering quick, pseudoscientific fixes to profound social problems.

Jan Macvarish

Topics Politics UK

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This week’s sad news that Camila Batmanghelidjh has died aged 61 has been greeted, on social media at least, with the polarised reactions typical of our age. To some, the charismatic and exotically dressed founder of Kids Company was an inspirational figure. Her passion and good works are said to have filled the gaps left by a failing welfare state. That is, until she was supposedly brought down by a cruel Tory government and capricious ‘right-wing press’. To the more cynical, Batmanghelidjh was an outlandish grifter who managed to con millions from the taxpayer.

There is no doubting Batmanghelidjh’s drive. Kids Company began in 1996 with a single drop-in centre for youths in south London. By the time of its closure in 2015, it ran 11 centres with 650 employees and over 9,000 volunteers. Kids Company claims to have supported over 36,000 young people per year, though that figure is disputed.

In some ways, there is nothing new about ‘child-saving’ movements headed by often eccentric, missionary-type leaders. But Batmanghelidjh undertook the more difficult task of advocating for inner-city adolescents who had already ‘gone wrong’, rather than for younger, innocent and more funding-friendly infants. She preached love and empathy as the cure for the ills of a sick society.

Her ‘hug a hoodie’ approach of seeing the damaged child within the street-hardened teen was notoriously adopted by Conservative prime minister David Cameron. Partly, this was because Cameron wanted to champion Kids Company as a ‘big society’ alternative to the welfare state. He also wanted to rebrand the Tories as more caring – as no longer the ‘nasty party’.

Although Kids Company became more divisive over time, it enjoyed many years of light-touch scrutiny before its eventual collapse. High-profile supporters included banks and big corporations, celebrities and pop stars, politicians and members of the royal family.

In the almost 20 years of Kids Company’s existence, Batmanghelidjh raised £165million in funding, of which roughly £40 million came from the state. Notoriously, this included a £3million payment authorised by then ministers Oliver Letwin and Matt Hancock against official advice, just one week before the charity’s financial collapse in 2015.

What cannot be denied is Batmanghelidjh’s ability to tap into the zeitgeist. Kids Company made a great show of partnering with various academic research projects that involved scanning the brains of troubled teenagers. The aim was to ‘prove that the brain is altered by early trauma and abuse’ and that it could be rewired with the right interventions. King Charles reportedly claimed credit for handing Batmanghelidjh ‘a sheaf of 25 clinical papers that looked at the impact of abuse on children’s brain development’ back in 2005. Whether or not this was a true story, the idea that youngsters were acting out due to defects in their brain development was a widespread one at the height of Kids Company’s popularity. Few at the time questioned the scientific and ethical problems with this approach – spiked being a notable exception – though it has since been more widely derided as ‘neurobollocks’.

Kids Company essentially treated poverty and social breakdown as a psychological or therapeutic problem. Batmanghelidjh used the language of attachment and trauma to describe the problems of the troubled youngsters she encountered. She had trained in psychotherapy, but when quizzed by a parliamentary committee in 2015 after Kids Company’s collapse, she admitted that she was not actually registered with any professional body.

What really allowed Batmanghelidjh to pitch Kids Company as offering a unique and revolutionary approach to youth work was her ability to straddle the left-right divide. On the one hand, she promised forgiveness and ‘unconditional love’ to wayward youth in order to reshape their brains. On the other, she warned that without her intervention, social breakdown was inevitable. Arguably, her warnings of neurologically driven social decay were as doom-laden and deterministic as those of any reactionary complaint about the supposed inner-city ‘underclass’.

The tensions in this approach were exposed in one fascinating episode back in 2009, when a Kids Company billboard campaign was censured by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The advert featured a photograph of black youths apparently harassing a white man on the street. In the text, it claimed that childhood neglect produces stunted brains and, consequently, violent social disorder. The ASA ruled that the campaign was both racist and scientifically misleading.

Batmanghelidjh also rode the wave of the ‘first three years movement’ that was gaining momentum in UK policy circles from 2007 onwards. Essentially, this idea held that social problems can be traced back to early infancy and that bad parenting is to blame. It tapped into a vogue for both neurobollocks and for bashing parents.

There were multiple problems with this approach, not least its weak scientific foundation. Even more importantly, it avoided moral questions of parental, adult and social responsibility for the socialisation of children. Nevertheless, this policy context created the space for Batmanghelidjh’s influence to grow rapidly. Before long, Kids Company’s operations had expanded to breaking point. The project came crashing down in 2015 amid a flurry of allegations of mismanagement.

Following her death this week, many have claimed that Batmanghelidjh was completely exonerated of all charges of mismanagement, but this is an over-simplification. It is true that the most serious allegations of safeguarding failures levelled against Kids Company were not pursued by the police. Plus, a high-court judge eventually ruled in 2021 that members of Kids Company’s board were not unfit to run charities in future. But there remain plenty of serious questions about the way Kids Company was run and how it was able to attract such huge sums of funding, from government in particular, without being subject to the usual regulatory frameworks that are applied to children’s services.

As far back as the early 2000s, a child-welfare expert I knew in the London borough of Southwark, where Kids Company first operated, told me there were serious concerns among her fellow professionals about what was going on ‘under the arches’. She was especially concerned at how Batmanghelidjh seemed to be beyond criticism.

This lack of scrutiny was laid bare in a 2015 parliamentary select committee report following Kids Company’s collapse. The report concluded that, despite the lack of evidence for Kids Company’s effectiveness, despite its ‘controversial reputation’ and despite ‘clear signs of financial mismanagement’, the charity nevertheless ‘enjoyed unique, privileged and significant access to senior ministers and prime ministers throughout successive administrations’. Vast grants were handed over to it without any of the usual scrutiny and due diligence, MPs found. (MPs’ grilling of Batmanghelidjh and her fellow trustee, former BBC bigwig Alan Yentob, was later translated into a stage musical in 2017.)

The desire of politicians, policymakers, the corporate sector and the rest of the establishment to buy into the Kids Company approach was almost cult-like. Even after her spectacular fall from grace, Batmanghelidjh still had defenders in the royal family. In 2018, the daughter-in-law of the Duchess of Kent, actress Sophie Winkleman, angrily declared that Kids Company’s work was still necessary, ‘because people in Britain are shit at looking after their children’. And in 2020, Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton lent her royal seal of approval to Batmanghelidjh-style neurobollocks.

It might seem unkind to revisit the failure of Kids Company just as Camila Batmanghelidjh has passed away. But her rise and fall should alert us to the dangers of credulity in the face of pseudoscientific claims and highly dramatised tales of child suffering. More recent controversies surrounding charities and services for children, such as Mermaids and the Tavistock clinic, suggest that the lessons of Kids Company have not been learnt. Those with money to spend, whether their own or the taxpayer’s, are still vulnerable to ideologically exciting fads and to entrepreneurs with emotionally hard-hitting stories to tell. Tragically, the promise of easy fixes to profound social problems remains all too alluring.

Dr Jan Macvarish is visiting research fellow at the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, University of Kent. She is also author of Neuroparenting: The Expert Invasion of Family Life and co-author of Parenting Culture Studies, the second edition of which has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK

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