At the court of Queen Camila Batmanghelidjh
PUBLISHED: 13:14 13 October 2014 | UPDATED: 13:14 13 October 2014
Camila Batmanghelidjh, one of the speakers at Cheltenham's recent literature festival, will be talking at the Mary Howard Christmas Fair in Hullavington this month about the work of her charity Kids Company. Despite a desperate need for funds, she tells Katie Jarvis, she's determined to carry on tackling Britain's current and profound abuse crisis
I’m going to start by relating two stories. The first involves one of my children getting into a fight with a child from a notorious local family – seven of them living in a tiny three-bed house; father rumoured to be in prison. Let’s call them the Smiths; and let’s call the child Romeo. I tried to settle the matter by inviting Romeo to tea. The kids didn’t bond but Romeo – this angry, disruptive, abrupt, confused little person - and I did. A few days later, to my surprise, he came up to me in school to ask if I’d help make a cake for his mum. We baked the most glorious cocoa-ed cake, covered in Belgian chocolates I’d been saving; then, together, we carried it to his chaotic, scruffy, bleak-looking home. As we approached, his mum opened the half-broken-down front door. “I’ve made you a cake!” he said, bursting with excitement. Without a word – barely a glance - she let him in. The next day, I unthinkingly asked Romeo what the cake was like. “I don’t know,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed any.”
My second story involves a high-fee-paying school my children once attended, where two of the children were brought each day by their expensively-employed nanny. The children called her ‘Mummy’.Sometimes, we’re blind to the obvious.
“Put your fingers in your ears!” Camila Batmanghelidjh instructs me. As I obediently plug my lugs (thinking she’s about to say something highly confidential to a staff member), she gives a 20,000-decibel yell to Nat, her PA next the door.
“Oh, I see!” I giggle. Ear - not child – protection. Laughing is what I do a lot in the next hour, in this place that deals with tragedy upon tragedy. In this orange room where - like the inside of an exotic tent - anything boring seems to have been chased away and left to kick its heels in the dull world outside.
This room – this land – is full of coloured kilims, tables of gloriously childish artwork; cushions, brightly-coloured pictures. Greens, pinks, reds, indigos, turquoises, in spots and splashes; mobiles of paper flowers; tinsel trees, photographs of children. Even on this nightlight-lit table, which functions as Camila Batmanghelidjh’s desk, the pens and pencils are multi-coloured, excitingly topped.
And then there’s Camila – mesmerically louder and brighter than anything I’ve described so far. I’m reminded of a hive, with the Queen at its centre. This is Kids Company HQ in London, a charity dedicated to helping traumatised, vulnerable, abused children; a thriving community with a powerful heart of beating stillness.
Ignoring Camila Batmanghelidjh is not easy: not her neon clothes and ready roar of laughter; nor her rocklike certainty gained through experience, academic research and compassion. Ignoring those she helps is much less difficult. You unseeingly pass them each day in the street; in the playground. They are the children yours won’t invite back to tea. The ones who disrupt classes; who stink of urine.
“…I need the loo but I can’t leave the bedroom because if he sees we are awake he will… make us dance at 4am, or he will give us kitchen towels to mop up the blood, while my mother sits on a chair, broken.” Sylvie (Mind The Child, Camila Batmanghelidjh and Kids Company)
Today is particularly mad. I wait while Camila grabs the chance to make a phone call – “One of my really disturbed kids,” she explains. “When she has an operation, we [Kids Company] are the next of kin.” This child is friendless; helpless. Almost. “Mental health has got rid of the most difficult cases because they are so snowed under,” Camila adds, as she organises an Oyster Card top-up for the lonely voice at the end of the line.
And then there are the TV stations that keep calling. Yesterday, in a Sunday Times piece, Camila spelt out how she might have to close this charity that supports 36,000 distraught children each year. Coldplay donates; Michael McIntyre donates; JK Rowling donates; Trudie Styler hosts camping holidays.
But government funding is conspicuous by its absence.
Really? REALLY? There’s no government help for a charity picking up the pieces that fall through the social-services net? That has centres in London, Liverpool and Bristol, providing a lifeline to child victims of violence, sexual abuse, homelessness, and drug dealers. That has rooms in more than 40 schools, staffed by therapists who understand that it’s hard to get up when you’ve spent all night cowering under the table with your pimp banging on the door. “Each year over 550,000 cases of child abuse and neglect are referred to social services, but due to the strain on resources, over 90% of children are left without support,” the Kids Company website says.
So why – for heaven’s sake why? - is it without funding?
“What I’ve found, having met different government representatives over a number of years, is that they lack visceral knowledge of what it’s like to be a child so profoundly devastated that you’re not even sure if someone on your birthday is going to ring you and tell you, ‘Happy birthday’,” Camila says. “But if the biological carers can’t care for children, the state must become the best possible parent.”
OK… So, just as abused children don’t have a normal love capacity, the privileged don’t have a deprivation capacity?
“Absolutely,” she says. What MPs lack (and she divides them into two: the vocational who want solutions; and the greasy-polers, in it for themselves) is an understanding of the minutiae of profound abuse and neglect. For example, “We decided children should have school lunches because they’re too poor. But, during the holidays - Christmas, half-term - there are no school lunches provided. Does that mean hunger keeps school dates? In a local authority after 6pm, there’s only one social worker on duty. What are we saying? That child abuse stops at six o’clock?”
Quite. I’ve just been shown round an art exhibition, created by Kids Company children using shoeboxes to represent a room in their home. One is bare, apart from bodies sleeping on the floor. Another shows a large bed and TV barely visible behind black netting policed by a ‘Child Keep Out!’ sign. One simply shows the inside of a pub, for god’s sake.
Another display focuses on hunger: a fridge labelled PAIN, full of empty stomachs. A papier-mâché joint of meat savoured by a huge bluebottle. A child huddled under a dining table. “These children often refuse free school-meals,” I’m told. “They enjoy being hungry because it’s what they are most used to.”
And this, in one of the richest countries in the world.
But surely, even if our politicians are blinded by privilege, their clearer-sighted advisors can enlighten them?
“The problem is that the advisors they tend to bring in are copies of themselves,” Camila says. “There’s a sort of narcissistic selection process where they tend to pick people who are like them.”
Great. But then, as I’m sinking into a feeling of hopelessness, Camila Batmanghelidjh bursts with laughter. Group-think? Not here! “As a leader in this organisation, I keep telling people: ‘Find me dull geeks!’ because it’s not a talent I have. FIND ME DULL GEEKS because I love them! I have absolute reverence for them!” she roars.
She’s so funny – so laugh-catchingly funny – in a world of horrors.
And it is a world of horrors; a nightmare where even those who should be helping are often desperately flawed. In her Mind The Child book of last year, there’s a chilling sentence from Angel, a child prostitute: “When we are judged by society, it’s funny because powerful judges, bankers and off-duty police officers want the most depraved services.”
“Actually, there is a big problem,” Camila confirms. “I have to say, there is a big problem. I’m aware that there are very high profile people who are going to be investigated for what’s described as historic child abuse. And, actually, even now, I could sit down and give you lists of corrupt police. I can see one officer who is giving a kid contraband goods to sell for him. When children see this, they stop trusting.”
The system, she says, is simply not accountable. Instead of a proper audit mechanism, local authorities are being judged on key performance indicators (KPIs). “The consequence of this is Rotherham. Of the 1,400 girls, more than half were not on the child protection register because the local authority was worried about their KPIs being distorted.”
The reaction from most directors of children’s services to the Sharon Shoesmith case [involving the death of baby Peter] was, “There but for the grace of God,” she claims. One consultant psychiatrist in charge of an entire health provision brokenly told her he had been ordered not to diagnose mental illness in children in order to keep numbers down. “If he speaks out again, he’s been told he’ll lose his job. This is the sort of climate that is dishonouring not only children but people who are working to care for them. A sick culture, the by-products of which are the Rotherhams, the Rochdales, the Oxfords. And there’s one going to emerge in Bristol, soon.
“But, you know, what’s also very interesting about Rotherham - and this is the insidiousness of it - is that the bulk of those men led ordinary lives. So what was it, really? What it was is that they used children as money-making commodities. In the short term, there was perverse sexual gratification; but, systemically, it was about making extra money, and vulnerable kids were fair game.
“And if you look at the Government’s attitude to childhood, you think, ‘Yeah – you set the cultural tone for it’.”
What I can’t understand – what I really can’t understand - in all of this is how she can keep compassion and laughter side by side. Why she doesn’t just curl up into a multi-coloured ball and rock helplessly in a corner.
“The joker in me would say it’s because I have brain damage,” she roars. “I have a very weirdly structured brain because of prematurity. [She was born in Tehran in 1963, two-and-a-half months premature.] I often think, ‘Bloody hell! Some wiring’s wrong in there!’, both in terms of how relentless I am about this task but also how really I don’t take myself that seriously. I have a childlike joy that’s stayed with me. But the other side of it is that, all my childhood, I was aware of an incredibly powerful spiritual current – that’s the best way to describe it. Not religious: I don’t crystal-gaze. But definitely I am driven by… I call it, on the wave of something spiritual.”
She at no time refers to God. In fact, at one point she talks about death being the end. Instead, her vision is one of another order; an uber-mathematics where numbers, aesthetics and the order in nature fuse. “I think there’s a pinnacle where these separations don’t apply.”
Many physicists would back the mind-blowing theory that the universe literally is pure maths. But while they’d use this to calculate physical laws, Camila uses it to understand people. Right from the age of nine – when she persuaded her mum to subscribe to a child-development journal – she innately understood order: that the brain is vulnerable to every experience we enjoy and endure.
She doesn’t mention, during our conversation, her father’s imprisonment under an oppressive regime, or her sister’s subsequent suicide. Instead, she laughingly tells of how she informed her mum she’d decided on a future career path. “My mother is a cross between Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor – a really vivacious, glamorous woman - and she got this nine-year-old saying, ‘I’m going to dedicate my life to childhood and open an orphanage’.” She collapses in gales of laughter. “I think she just thought, ‘No! I’m going to dive off a bridge!’”
But her path was set. Camila established her first charity – Place2B – in 1991, before founding Kids Company in 1996. As well as providing material help and therapy – and perhaps this is thanks to her mathematical vision – she also works with academics to establish cause-and-effect pathways to and from abuse. She flags up remarkable brain scans showing how neglect physically alters neuro-development. She explains the counterintuitive: why children say things such as, “You can’t have sex unless there’s a material reward involved because if there isn’t you might feel used.” Why mothers who were abused put their own children in the way of danger to mitigate “the unbearableness of having reflected back at you an undamaged object which then, in comparison, shows up your damage.”
Alongside all that, she demonstrates why punishment for disruptive behaviour doesn’t work; but that strategies – such as running up and downstairs when red mists of anger descend on these children – do. She understands that, when monsters such as Jimmy Savile emerge, it’s pointless simply branding them ‘evil’; we need to understand in order to prevent. That’s not forgiveness; it goes far deeper than that.
“What we found is that, once we have explained to the children about the damage and the challenges they’re facing, they take more responsibility. Because I’m not telling them: ‘Look! You’re so bad that you keep punching people’. I’m telling them, ‘The emotionally driven parts of your brain, as a result of being constantly frightened, have become irregular in activity. When you feel you’re about to punch someone, you need to do so much running around to the point that you’re breathless.’
“When [they hear this], the first reaction kids have universally is that they cry. And it’s because it’s the first time they feel someone’s understood what’s happening to them. They’re so relieved, SO RELIEVED, that you’re giving an explanation.”
So, Kids Company might close, then. Well, we know something of how such a closure might affect abused children. But how would its loss affect us – the rest of society - I wonder.
Camila Batmanghelidjh pulls no punches in describing the dystopia she believes would result. “I really think, in about five years’ time, you’re not going to be able to tell the difference between problems in the inner cities and problems in the countryside,” she says. Without the sorts of brakes Kids Company puts on, drug dealers will spread their insidious net; raids on wealthy rural properties will increase; there will be more riots; and police everywhere will be overwhelmed.
The trouble is, I believe her.
So what, I ask, is her message to the world.
Camila Batmanghelidjh hardly needs to reflect. “My message is that child abuse is a profound crisis in Britain,” she says. “But also that recovery is about healing it through love. And the beauty of love is that it actually isn’t limited to biological bonds. So, in short, I would say: Don’t underestimate what love can do. Because it can do a lot.” She smiles. “And I’ve got the brain scans to prove it.”
For more on Kids Company, visit www.kidsco.org.uk
This article by Katie Jarvis is from the November 2014 issue of Cotswold Life.
For more from Katie, follow her on Twitter: @katiejarvis