The truth about my friend Kids Company boss Camila Batmanghelidjh
The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (January 14th 2024)
There has been so much written about the demise of her charity which is so wrong and unfair - she was acquitted by the High Court of all the allegations against her
Hope you’ve all had a great week and January isn’t getting you down too much. I’ve been thinking a lot about how much of the mainstream media’s portrayal of people and events is often so different to the reality. Particularly when it comes to someone they have built up and then cut down. That is often especially true of how women are treated and particularly women who dare to threaten the status quo or who look, or do anything different. So I offer this account of Camila Batmanghelidgh, a #queenager, the pioneering founder of an incredible charity which helped under-privileged children, who died this month, as a way of setting the record straight about her and what she did and most importantly didn’t do…
It’s amazing how many people in my life have been touched by her, worked with her or knew her. She is like a thread that runs through many of the people I love and admire most… this is my tribute to a remarkable, brave and truly public-spirited woman. (And big thanks to another amazing #queenager Vicki Harper at the Independent who commissioned a version of this article in an attempt to put the record straight, as she had also experienced Camila’s magic at first hand). If only Queenagers ruled the world…
Camila Batmanghelidjh had what the kids today call “Riz” – charisma, magic. That elusive quality which makes anything seem possible. “I worked for her for 12 years,” says one of her former assistants. “I sat outside her office and I would see real hard nuts go in there, CEOs, rockstars, captains of industry, top politicians. They’d go in looking all tough and come out melted, turned to jelly by her love and power, saying they had just had the most amazing conversation of their lives; that they had talked about their childhood in a way they never had before. That they’d written Kids Company a huge cheque, wanted to help, they’d be raving about how we were going to do a huge project. I’d take them out for a coffee afterwards and try to decode what had happened inside.”
Inside, meant inside Camila’s office at Kids Company HQ in Blackfriars. I’d been there myself a few times, once with my own young children. It was an Aladdin’s cave, a grotto of wonder and delight, filled with toys and colouring pens, with bright rich colours and rugs, a bit of an old tree trunk growing in the middle of it like the Faraway Tree. There was a tent, games and sweets. I remember thinking that if I was a traumatised kid and I’d ended up in this magical, warm, safe, colourful haven I would have thought that I had died and gone to heaven.
And there in the middle, weaving the web, was Camila – more impresario than charity boss. A visionary charismatic – larger than life in every way – physically because of the endocrine illness that had afflicted her her whole life, swaddled in colourful lengths of material, long dangly earrings, slightly Iranian inflected posh English – all heart and love. My kids adored her – they loved the freedom she gave them to explore her domain, “unlike most grown ups” was their conclusion. She fed them Haribos and let them crawl around her den, answering all their questions, truly seeing them. It didn’t matter that it was a Sunday, Camila was still at work; she was always at work, having trained as a psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic in London, the kids, their needs, how she could help was as she put it ‘her vocation’.
She told how she had eschewed having children of her own to help the vulnerable, to spread love to the world, to make the needy her family. In the early 2000s the media dubbed her the Angel of Camberwell. I saw her more as the Pied Piper of Peckham – rescuing 21st century Dickensian street kids from blighted lives of serial trauma and abuse. She inspired David Cameron’s Hug a Hoodie Big Society kind Conservatism. For a decade from about 2005 she was ubiquitous, the modern face of compassion. We sat on a panel together to choose the Social Enterprise of the Year for a Changemakers Prize that I ran. In person she was soft-spoken and giggly, kind and funny about the grey-suited bureaucrats from whom she was always trying to get more money to fund Kids Company, the charity which she established in the mid 1990s in south London to provide support for children who had fallen through the cracks of society. The kids, as she put it, who everyone else had given up on. Or simply saw as a problem.
‘It’s difficult to describe how ground-breaking and revolutionary the Kids Company model was,” explains a close former colleague. “Working for Camila certainly wasn’t for the faint-hearted. Providing an open door in the centre of a city for trauma-surviving young people, often expressing their distress through violence and rage, meant taking a deep breath every morning, knowing that literally anything could happen. Teamwork was everything, and the clinical supervision that Camila insisted on was much needed. “
While writing this article I have spoken to numerous people who worked closely with Camila – they all talk about her guiding principles. Her insistence that “no stone be left unturned” in providing care for vulnerable kids. “Camila didn’t believe in the word ‘no’ when it came to the youngsters in her care. She’d say, ‘There has to be a way, we will find it’. She saw the children as part of her family, she would NEVER give up on a child, she was all heart, everything she did was about giving the children love.” None of the people I spoke to had heard of Camila’s death in the media – they had all been contacted directly by children that were still in touch with and being cared for by Camila, nine years after Kids Company’s official demise. “That says so much about Kids Company and about the culture Camila built,” says her former assistant.
This loyalty was created because of the unique model of the care she offered in her street level centres in London, Bristol and Liverpool, which was truly unique, with psychotherapists, social workers and art therapists on tap, mixed in with musicians and artists, and young people drinking tea and chatting to their key workers.
“It was a great big, messy, unpredictable, edgy, but often magical soup,” says a former therapist at Kids Company. “Therapy was taken out of the therapy room and into what Camila called ‘corridor therapy’. It worked for a lot of young people who were excluded from everywhere else. Some would walk for miles across the city to join in. My favourite moments were watching gang members turn up for their aromatherapy massage sessions.”
An ex trustee says: “I learned more from Camila than anyone else about true, meaningful intervention. About radical empathy. About professional courage. About breaking down the silos between different care structures. About getting into the fabric of a young person’s life and really seeing it through their eyes. About the power of relationships. About the impact of trauma. About brain development. About the importance of a warm welcome. About building a community for those excluded from their own. “
Her former collaborators, however, are also clear-eyed about the problems at Kids Company too. “The reputation of Kids Company as chaotic was not unfounded. There were flaws in the model and it certainly didn’t work for everyone. Rapid organisational growth led to systems straining to keep up. Camila, was often inconsistent and there were broken promises.” Others talked of the guru being ‘narcissistic’ and coming to ‘believe her own hype’. “She charmed and captivated so many powerful people, from MPs and Prime Ministers to pop stars such as Chris Martin, who gave millions, that it could go to her head. She began to believe that because she cared passionately about vulnerable children everyone else did too. They didn’t”.
She also had a shadow. As one former staffer said “Camila kept me small. She’d say you’re not a leader like me, I come from a family of leaders.” She did. Her grandfather was an entrepreneur and philanthropist who built hospitals and hotels. Her great-uncle was head of the Iranian armed forces. Her father, Fereydoon, was a doctor who studied at St Mary’s in London, where he met her mother, Lucile, who was part Belgian and Iranian. They married in London, then returned to Tehran, where Camila was born – very premature and not expected to live – in 1963.
Perhaps it was this inner confidence, born of background and her against the odds survival that made her so very good at extracting money out of rich people for the kids. One bone of contention which she said came from her background was her present giving. I was a beneficiary myself – she sent me a beautiful sea-coloured rug and a very expensive vase, completely unnecessarily. It was part of her Iranian identity, she said. It showed that she cared and had thought about you, specifically. Although she was cleared of financial mismanagement this issue of gifts kept recurring – she would give some of her favourites at Kids Company money for Ugg boots or designer trainers.
When SHE was accused of stuffing cash into envelopes and handing the money over to youngsters that might have been used for designer clothes, holidays, drink and drugs,, her response was always the same. She said to me many times that we live in a culture which tells us to define ourselves by the things we can buy – that her children came from poverty and believed that their lives would be better if they had those trainers, or the Ugg boots.
I remember her telling me that she’d give them nice things so they’d realise that the things were not important but so they felt as good as anyone else. It was her love language. But it certainly caused tension within Kids Company. “I used to say to her that rather than giving staff expensive presents she should give them a pay rise” says her former assistant. “She would say but that is so impersonal, uncaring. Everyone would get stuff, she was compulsively generous, giving me dresses like hers and earings and scarves, so I would become a mini-me. I didn’t wear any of them! I loved her but she had a shadow.”
Though many were tearful when we spoke, some expressed guilt that they were not “more there for her” after the charity was shut down in 2015. As with so many who have been lauded by the media, Batmanghelidjh’s star crashed and burned as brightly as it had shone. A Newsnight investigation had claimed – erroneously according to later scrutiny from the High Court which exonerated her of all safe-guarding issues – that there were problems with sexual abuse at the charity, but negative stories about Camila and Kids Company had been doing the rounds for sometime before that.
As a senior editor on a national newspaper myself, I had been offered several scurrilous stories about Kids Company and Camila; often, I believe, motivated by jealousy from other charities who were less successful at fundraising. Or bureaucrats who disliked her ‘love first, we’re a family’ attitude to spending public funds – which seemed outside the standard guidelines for how charities were run. I remember at the time her telling me there was a smear campaign, that she was the victim of a “conspiracy” of those who did not like the dark picture she painted of the government’s ‘care’ system. Camila always said that the British state was failing vulnerable children, that its ‘care system’ didn’t actually care – “I was fighting the government constantly over child protection” she told Holly and Phil on the Good Morning sofa echoing what she had often said in private. “Too many children are abused and neglected here in the UK… Kids Company was dismantled on a pack of lies.”
In the years between 2015 and the demise of the charity under a cloud of allegations of lack of safeguarding and financial mismanagement (all of which she was ultimately cleared of) Camila continued to work from her small flat in West Hampstead with her ‘surrogate family’. Some of the children she had befriended and helped as teenagers became parents themselves, she talked fondly about being ‘a granny’ to them, not just a mother. She continued to work with Steve Chalke and his Oasis organisation offering therapeutic advice on looking after vulnerable children. Private backers continued to fund her in her efforts and she wrote a book, Kids, and worked despite her ill health – caused by her endocrine problems and obesity – to clear her name. These were bleak and tough times.
Not only for her. Some of those who worked with her still feel bruised about the fall out from Kids Company’s collapse. “There was such a stain over the charity’s name that it was really hard to get another job” said one former worker. “It was heartbreaking having to abandon the children” said another (at its peak Kids Company was supporting over 30,000 children and received £44 million in government funding over 12 years, a sum which was dwarfed by the private donations she received). The Charity Commission criticised her for not having more reserves, saying Kids Company was run on too much of a hand to mouth basis for such a large organisation. I remember putting that allegation to her myself. She just brushed it off, saying that she would never refuse a child in need because the rules said she was supposed to keep a month’s wages in reserve. Camila’s passion and determination to help the children – the very inspiration and devotion that built Kids Company – was also also to be her downfall. The larger than life swirl of chaos and excitement she brought to the operation as its leader, was her achilles heel as an administrator. “She was a bit of a maddun, but not a baddun” was how one associate put it to me.
Her former colleague said sadly: “There are still unanswered questions about building attachment relationships and offering unconditional love to young people when the love offered is only available as long as funding allows. A lot of young people were badly let down when the Kids Company doors closed for the last time. Important and hard-won relationships severed.”
The big sadness to me is that her death has been greeted with headlines around ‘scandal’ rather than extolling the extraordinary and ahead-of-her-time work Camila did with traumatised children. The neuroscience she pioneered showing that traumatised childrens’ brains are physically differently wired because of their experiences is now mainstream, forming the basis of any ‘trauma-informed’ care which is now being rolled out across schools and the police. Her insight that a child in fight or flight mode cannot be taught or reasoned with, but has to be soothed and made safe before any work is possible, is fundamental. Her input into this area is misunderstood – she was a true pioneer in this type of care before it was mainstream in any way.
Camila was a special and eccentric person – one of a kind. Sherborne-educated with a posh veneer, but also totally un-English, unbound by social constraints or convention. Her world view was different; she was as unfazed by a young hood wielding a knife as she was by a prime minister. She was entirely herself, without a filter; secure in her capacity to connect with other humans from the heart. An instinct she put down to having been born prematurely and having hovered on the verge of death for two and a half months.
Ms Batmanghelidjh’s family released a statement yesterday to say that she died peacefully in her sleep on New Year’s Day after celebrating her birthday with her loved ones .Her birthday was officially January 1st, but her real birth date is un documented because she wasn’t expected to live. Being so premature left her “differently wired from other people” as she told me once. She was so dyslexic she couldn’t use a computer or send a text – stairs looked flat to her. Perhaps her neurodiversity was why she had such a capacity to allow others also to imagine a different world.
“When you were with Camila impossible things felt possible; she would leave you dazed with love, fired up with a vision of how things might be,” says her ex assistant. “She truly cared for these young people. Her enduring legacy is how many of them have thrived and are now running their own businesses or are youth workers. The kind of kids whom the system had given up on. She truly was like family to them in a way the state can never be.”
Flawed but lovable. A pioneer and to be honest sometimes a nightmare, like all driven passionate people. I am proud to have known her and to have called her my friend.
I’ll be back next week!
Lots of love
By Eleanor Mills