THE BLOG

Camila Batmanghelidjh May Have Been Incompetent - But She Wasn't Wrong

10/08/2015 10:10 BST | Updated 06/08/2016 10:59 BST

Years before I got involved in working with HIV, and just before I got sick with AIDS myself, I spent several years working at the Central London Teenage Project*.

This, run by the Children's Society, was the first-ever Safe House in the UK for teenage runaways aged from 18 down to, well, 9 was I think the youngest who turned up. Amongst other things, while working at CLTP we met kids abused by powerful people and powerful networks - which meant, for instance, that we were well aware of, and unable to do much about, things like the North Wales child abuse scandal a quarter-century before its principal perpetrators finally started receiving their due punishment.

What CLTP most deeply impressed on me, however, was the sheer depth of damage that physical and sexual abuse exacts on the kids who suffer it. The parade of suicidal, terrified, violent, intoxicated, self-harming, achingly vulnerable and simply lost young people who turned up, and whose needs I felt multiply inadequate to support, made me train as a counsellor and therapist.

And they have also made me pretty mad with the current attacks on Camila Batmanghelidjh and Kids Company. As in this piece.

In this piece in the Guardian, Peter Beresford, among an number of other writers I've read, attempts to portay Batmanghelidjh as some kind of naive or malignant Mother Theresa figure who was only interested in ministering to the incurable.

Her position was exactly the opposite. Beresford's is a slanted caricature of what her therapeutic standpoint actually was, portraying her as some kind of 19th-century patroness of the poor when she was actually motivated, and urgently so, by some very 21st-century findings about the impact of deprivation.

In his piece, Beresford says: "At the heart of Batmanghelidjh's philosophy is the idea that children's behaviour is biologically determined" when the actual reference he quotes - which I suspect he knows people won't bother to read - says exactly the opposite. In that report, Batmanghelidjh actually says this:

"Suddenly, the locus of control is not [my emphasis] necessarily and completely within the individual. Environments play a significant role. At Kids Company our staff have worked over the last 14 years with some of the most disturbed children and young people. We have seen evidence that sustained loving care can transform character expression, provided the child is kept as safe as possible and the reparation is delivered consistently and over a number of years. Some of our most violent young people have gone on to university or college and have become very sensitive parents. Each one of them had been exposed to chronic abuse and neglect, within the home and in the public space."

What Batmanghelidjh said, and consistently, in every interview I read with her was, essentially, this:

Character is not just biologically determined, it is environmentally determined. But we must not underestimate the very physical and organic effects of deprivation, or underestimate what deprivation actually consists of. Economic deprivation is only one part of it and not necessarily the part that causes damage (and is not always present - middle-class kids can be deprived too, though, for economic reasons, are less likely to be), or the part that perpetuates a cycle.

Deprivation involves growing up in surroundings of violence, cruelty, intoxication (of carer and/or kid) and above all lack of nurture, and that has measurable physical effects, as seen in things like MRI and PET scans, on that very plastic organ, the brain, and especially the suborgan that holds our concept of 'autobiographical self', the hippocampus. It even has epigenetic (NOT genetic) effects in what genes are switched on or off. There is a huge amount of convincing research in this area, as I'm sure Peter Beresford is aware.

He is accusing Batmanghelidjh of a 19th-century understanding of 'character' when in fact she had a very 21st-century one. Because the brain is plastic, (some of) the damage can be repaired, in the situations she describes above, but the sheer difficulty of doing so, and the size of the task, cannot be underestimated. (And some can't be repaired: there are things like foetal alcohol syndrome you can't get round, and one of the skills of being a therapist - and of being a client in therapy - is helping people understand what's curable and what isn't. See the AA prayer.)

In other words, and putting it in caricaturable terms - deprivation (sometimes) makes people batshit crazy, and you can't repair that just by giving them a living wage and books to read. You have to start from as near-scratch as you can. You have to attempt to supply some of the love and nurture these kids never had.

And to do this properly needs a lot of skill, a lot of time, and a lot of dosh. Ergo: give us £££.

None of that has any bearing on whether Batmanghelidjh ran her charity responsibly or competently; whether she was on an ego trip and should have been told to get off it; whether or not she was financially corrupt personally, or was blind to corruption; whether there was abuse within the charity (unfortunately there can be, in the most well-run organisations); and whether the skills she had in one area (publicity and fundraising) should have been better and earlier supported by a good CEO and mangerial team in the areas she didn't.

Kids Company may well have been a chaotic mess organisationally; Batmanghelidjh's charisma may well have blinded important funders to that, and her ambition may have blinded her to it.

But attempts to destroy the therapeutic understanding on which the charity was based smell to me of character assassination and will do nothing but set back therapeutic work with deprived kids (and adults) for years.

*This piece is dedicated to a member of the founding team of CLTP, Pauline MacDonald, who died last week.