Meeting Camila Batmanghelidjh at the secretly-located headquarters of her charity Kids Company feels a lot like being transported into another world: a world where, cocooned from the buzz of the capital’s congested streets, humour, colour and imagination can reign.
Here, in a grotto in the centre of an unassuming concrete block, beneath twinkling paper lanterns and amidst purple, blue and green walls, the celebrated campaigner works her magic for some of the country’s most vulnerable young people. Her office, if you can even call it that, is a dream-like manifestation of her many success stories, packed full of artefacts collected and made by children the charity has worked with.
A few seconds in and I’m feeling like a child again, full of wonder and eager to explore. “That’s the idea,” she laughs. “Kids love it. The minute they come in they play with all the trinkets. It calms them down. But I do have a trapdoor leading to a little corridor we created and that’s where we tell the hyperactive kids to go. Then I call my PA in and let them pop out of the trap door to scare her!”
It is immediately obvious that Batmanghelidjh – who knew she wanted to work with traumatised young people from the age of nine – has a unique ability to relate to children and understand their behaviour. She is utterly unshakeable – “a very angry young man once walked into my office and asked if I wanted him to f*** me, but I just told him I was like his mother now!” – with an extraordinary empathy for society’s most difficult and challenging children and young people.
“I always think if a child behaves in a disturbed way, there’s always an intelligence behind it, you just have to decode it. It’s usually actually to defend themselves. The more violent they are, the more it’s about defence rather than offence. I like to say, ‘gosh, you must really need to protect yourself if you have to be that violent’.”
Like her office, Batmanghelidjh is an eruption of vibrant tones and bold patterns. Today, she is adorned with her signature multi-coloured robes and headdress, canary yellow shoes and red lipstick. In a sector dominated by grey suits and outfits chosen to help the wearer blend in, Batmanghelidjh’s attire is a powerful weapon. It makes her photogenic, unmissable and unforgettable – and has no doubt helped to drive the charity’s impressive media profile.
Major national campaign
There is, however, a much dimmer reason for our meeting today. Next month, Kids Company will launch a major campaign following a report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) that will, Batmanghelidjh believes, show why the current child protection system is “totally unfit for purpose”. It is neither a new nor unusual view, but Batmanghelidjh is among a minority of people able and willing to challenge the status quo.
The report is expected to reveal evidence submitted by social workers and young people that proves the child protection system is at breaking point. It follows Community Care’s own research, which found 80% of the 600 social workers we surveyed said child protection thresholds were rising in their area. Batmanghelidjh hopes the report will provide hard evidence of these problems; evidence ministers would be unwise to ignore.
What prompted Kids Company to instigate the research? “I have absolute respect for social workers,“ she says, “but the system really isn’t fit for purpose.” “Social workers have huge emotional demands placed on them and they’re struggling because they’re under-resourced and they aren’t working in proper support frameworks.”
As a result, Batmanghelidjh has seen a “perverse norm” develop where workers attempt to minimise neglectful situations for children because they lack the money or resources to provide a service. “And then very amoral decisions start being made about what type of abuse you let in through the door and what you don’t,” she adds.
This perverse norm, she says, translated into hundreds of children self-referring to Kids Company with chronic child protection and mental health issues. (Indeed, more than 90% of the young people they work with still self-refer.) “I tried to get some cases into social care and found it very hard,” she admits. “Social care is so snowed under in some areas they just can’t take more cases. It’s created a destructive culture. I’ve heard it from social workers, they come to see me privately, even heads of children’s services.”
Anxious she could be dismissed as “just that fruitcake saying it again”, Batmanghelidjh decided to ask a reputable think-thank to investigate. “The CSJ analysed a number of the cases we couldn’t get into the system. It was evidenced by barristers and is a very rigorous, robust independent review. So, now we have a big report coming out that social workers, mental health workers and other professionals have been whistleblowing to.”
Courage and determination
Spending time with Batmanghelidjh is fascinating for many reasons, not least her courage and determination to speak her mind. She calls ministers’ recent dismissal of Community Care’s survey “phenomenal arrogance”. “Who do you think you are sitting in your offices? Do you really think you know what’s going on on the ground?” she says indignantly.
She continues: “There’s a cultural trend where you develop a sense of agency over what you can control and deny everything else existing. The children’s sector is a good one for government to do this with because there isn’t a powerful contingency coming back saying ‘over my dead body are you going to deny this’. Kids can’t sue them, kids can’t take them to the European parliament. They can’t do anything.”
She is also refreshingly fearless about her own reputation with politicians. “Governments put pressure on people in senior positions to shut up. I know they’ll try it with me, but luckily I don’t have any political aspirations. I’m prepared to have myself written off so long as this issue is addressed. I’m quite kamikaze about this because children deserve better.”
So, what are her aspirations for the campaign? “I want all the political parties to sign up to a 15-year plan of systemic recovery – no more short-term thinking. Ideally, I’d also like to see a child protection lottery created so that additional money can be generated to support the recovery plan alongside government funding.”
Her message to Community Care readers is this: “I hope social workers realise I’m speaking up because I have total admiration for them. I wouldn’t have one of my workers working in the conditions social workers are. In fact, if my workers were left to cope in some of the conditions social workers are in, I’d [hate] myself as a leader.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean Kids Company is perfect – she admits to challenges and living hand to mouth as a charity – but they are at least “obsessed with protecting our workers and making sure they’re not getting too stressed out”. It’s clearly worked. Research by the London School of Economics last year found Kids Company workers rate their job satisfaction at between 92% and 97%.
“People think soldiers are heroes, and they are, but there is another type of soldier,” says Batmanghelidjh. “That’s the worker who’s surviving in very challenging social work structures. Kids have told me they feel like soldiers too because they are responsible for themselves in this system. When workers and children perceive social care contact as an act of surviving war, you know you are looking trouble in the eye.”
All photographs by Reckoner Films