By Nicholas Sebly

Child social services were badly affected by 33% cuts to local government core funding, most clinical providers kept quiet but Kids Company spoke out vociferously.

In case you have not heard of it, Kids Company was a charity that looked after maltreated children who the state seemed unable to help. It opened in 1996 and was built on a ‘wraparound’ model of care in which staff acted like substitute parental carers. This meant a child could get help with needs as varied as housing, food, education or emotional trauma, even outside office hours. One teenager helped by the charity put it like this: ‘With Kids Company, it was different from the school counsellor, or Camhs. It’s sort of like they bring you up.’

The charity closed in August this year after the government cut funding and a blizzard of allegations, some very serious, appeared about it in the press. The widely accepted narrative is that the charity was mismanaged both financially and in terms of governance, and the government should have withdrawn its funding far earlier.

The CEO and founder of Kids Company, unsurprisingly, has a different explanation for its demise.  Ms Batmanghelidjh claims to have been a voice for the most disenfranchised in our society, confronting those in power with uncomfortable truths. She maintains the intent and stridency of her recent campaigning had been threatening to the government and they responded by briefing the media and instigating a reputational meltdown. No one in the press has taken these claims seriously, and they have now been lost under the deluge of allegations and insinuations against Kids Company.

If her claims are true, however, they reveal a government that is vindictive and more interested in consolidating its power than the plight of the most vulnerable children in our society. They also show a state willing to withdraw government funding and brief the media in order to silence dissent. That ought to be news. Let’s look at the evidence.

See the Child

In October 2013 Kids Company invited Minister Nicholas Hurd to a meeting with 25 of its clients. The Evening Standard were present and reported some of the conversations that unfolded:  One gang member asked: “If it’s your job to know about our area but you never been down, how can you judge whether you spending enough on the problem? How much did you lot spend on Boris bikes? It’s all about priorities…. down here people are stabbed every day and there are kids with no food. What is more important?”

Another man spoke up. “We’re at the bottom of the pyramid. It’s quiet up your side. No stress… Nice clean air. Your children have a different life.’

Mr Hurd seemed to get the gist: “I hear your anger. I hear you say our priorities are wrong and that maybe money isn’t being spent in the right places.”

That was a succinct précis of Kids Company message from 2013 onwards and the volume and urgency of that claim was to increase. It reached fever pitch in June 2014 when Kids Company launched the See the Child campaign, which included hard hitting videos and facts detailing how generations of mistreated children have been failed by the state. The message of the campaign was fourfold: child social care was not fit for purpose; coalition budget cuts had made the situation much worse; and local authorities were now partaking in illegal practices to avoid their statutory obligations to help abused children. The final point was essentially that the austerity narrative was a lie. This was about economic priorities:  the money was there for Crossrail, the Olympics, and Trident but not for thousands of children living in fear and poverty.

The campaign was given extra weight by the inclusion of a 400 page report from the Centre for Social Justice, the right-leaning think-tank founded by Iain Duncan Smith in 2004. The report had taken two years to complete and included testimony from frontline professionals such as: ‘We’re sitting on a ticking time bomb in this country; I honestly believe that in many areas we have turned our backs on children and parents experiencing hopelessness and despair …’

Statistics highlighted the urgency: 2010 to 2014 saw a 47% increase in child protection cases in England but Local Authority core funding cut by 33%. As a result 2/3rds of Local Authorities had slashed their budgets for children and adolescent mental health, some up to 94%. Most damningly of 600 Social Workers surveyed 73% said they couldn’t do their job properly, leaving children at risk and 88% said budget cuts had left children at increased risk of abuse.

The Telegraph recently tried to undermine the validity of this CSJ report but the latest Ofsted audit of child social care provision confirms its stark analysis. They inspected 43 Local Authorities and found only 10 to provide a ‘good standard of child social care and protection’; the other 33 (75%) were judged inadequate or requiring improvement.  The report says: ‘Stretched budgets are putting additional strain on these crucial services.’

The CSJ and Ofsted reviews also cohere with an NSPCC study, How Safe Are Our Children?, which reported 520,000 child victims of maltreatment in the UK of whom just 11 per cent were on child protection plans. “For every child subject to a child protection plan or on a child protection register, we estimate another eight have suffered maltreatment,” it said. 

This is the truth Ms Batmanghelidjh was determined to bring to public consciousness: but was that intent threatening enough for the government to act in the way she claims?  It’s not implausible, given the political and cultural cachet of Kids Company, and what she decided to do next.

The National Taskforce

In conclusion to its report the CSJ had recommended the setting up of a Royal Commission to oversee a ‘wholesale rescue and redesign’ of child social care and mental health services. However Ms Batmanghelidjh didn’t trust the government to do this and decided to create an independent National Taskforce with the same scope.

The taskforce was very ambitious: it was to have ‘complete intellectual, clinical and systemic freedom to dream the best possible service model for children in adversity’. This meant a holistic approach with ‘no separation between social services, child mental health, and poverty (both emotional and material).’ Once a virtual model had been decided upon the plan was to pilot it in two local authorities, establish a Child Protection lottery to fund it, and get all political parties to agree to a 15-year plan of implementation across the UK.

This was no idle wish list: the NSPCC and Barnado’s both signed up as did many other organisations such as the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Ms Batmanghelidjh also persuaded influential figures to join the taskforce including Dame Tessa Jowell MP, children’s commissioner Maggie Atkinson, former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, the chief executive of Lambeth council Derrick Anderson, and Sir Keir Starmer, former director of public prosecutions (and now a Labour MP), who agreed to chair the board.

While the taskforce was promoted as being above party political concerns, such an array of left-leaning figures could hardly have endeared it to Tory HQ. Furthermore, the attempt to circumvent the government and then force change upon it no doubt offended politicians and civil servants alike. Ms Batmanghelidjh must have known this but after 19 years of watching children fall through the gaps in state care, she seems to have thrown caution to the wind. In gathering together all these organisations, reports and testimonies the single-mindedness of her intent was clear: to force the issue of child protection onto the political agenda, 10 months before one of the most tightly contested election campaign in 40 years.

As she said in an interview at the time: ‘This is an unashamedly radical and confident intention. Playing it safe, keeping it neutral and minding not to offend, has betrayed the maltreated children of this country and the dedicated workers who intervene in their lives. We are mobilising the general public in support of the social care sector and its children by encouraging them to place their votes and act as witnesses holding the government accountable.’

Manifesto Pledges

It is possible that senior child protection officials encouraged her in this notion. Apparently many saw this as the best opportunity for decades to push for change: a public inquiry had finally been launched into the Westminster Paedophile scandal, the police were now serious, even zealous, about investigating sexual abuse claims and the so called Cinderella law appeared in the Queen’s speech. This law would make it a criminal offence to deliberately harm a child’s ‘intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development’ through neglect as well as abuse.

The issue of child mental health certainly was finding its way onto the political radar, with all parties introducing a number of related policies into their manifestos. The Liberal Democrats document had two pages of text on mental health, which included a pledge to implement the proposals of the Government’s Children’s Mental Health Taskforce, and a commitment to a maximum two-week wait standard for all young people experiencing a first episode of psychosis.

Labour in turn, pledged to increase the proportion of the mental health budget spent on children, ensure teachers had training to identify problems early, and guaranteed all children could access school- based counselling if they needed it. They also committed to ‘support young people’s health and well-being through the development of social and emotional skills.’

The Tories were less forthcoming, only mentioning two policies specific to child mental health: ‘we will enforce the new access and waiting time standards for people experiencing mental ill-health, including children and young people’ and continue to ‘raise the quality of children’s social work, by expanding training programmes, such as Frontline.’

The Election

In a poll on the day See the Child was launched YouGov / Sun had the Tories on 33% to Labour’s 36%.  Many commentators regard this latest incarnation of the Conservative leadership as the most ruthless and strategic in its history. Certainly watching the volte face from the rhetoric of the Better Together Campaign to the fanning of English nationalism was to observe a clique seemingly willing to risk anything to retain power.  As the election got closer, however, the emotional tone emitting from Tory HQ was more akin to panic.

In a ComRes poll only 4 days before the election both parties were neck and neck on 33% and the maths favoured a Labour minority government. Indeed on May 3rd Paddy Power had Mr Miliband as 8/11 favourite to become the next PM and Anthony Seldon revealed that on May 7th Cameron “convinced himself that he will not be prime minister in 24 hours”.

In this tense build up, is it absurd to suggest the Tories were angered by a high-profile campaign highlighting the effects of budget cuts on vulnerable children?  Especially from a charity they had so publically supported. Is it also possible they perceived it as unhelpful to their chances of victory and were in a punitive mood?

Certainly what happened next could be interpreted that way. As soon as they won, the Tory party cut the £5 million annual grant to Kids Company, and made a final £3 million grant dependent on Ms Batmanghelidjh stepping down. According to Mike Gee, the charity’s safeguarding manager, the CEO received a letter which said ‘never again approach central government for funding.’

However, contrary to popular opinion, this was not the reason Kids Company closed: Ms Batmanghelidjh did step aside and the charity was willing to down-size and consolidate its financial position.  What finished off Kids Company was the volume of allegations appearing in the media.

The Media

In an article in March 2015 Camilla said: “Clearly, whilst we are having constructive discussions with government we are also being briefed against, and we’re not sure why.”

The first critical commentary about Kids Company appeared in Feb 2015 in The Spectator. It was authored by Miles Goslett and mentioned unnamed ‘Officials in the Department of Education’ who were ‘unimpressed by Kids Company’s financial management’. His article was accompanied by a blog post on Feb 11th by an ex-employee called Genevieve Maitland Hudson. She later wrote that in July 2014, she had been ‘commissioned to write a piece about the charity, looking at its published record on evaluation and the central role played by Batmanghelidjh in its activities.’ This was just as the See the Child campaign was launched.

In the blog the author took exception to the National Taskforce idea, writing ‘it takes considerable chutzpah to dismiss a Royal Commission because it relies on an elected government to create it’. This portrayal of the campaign as grandiose and anti-democratic was telling. How dare people in the voluntary sector intervene in a situation that the government had failed to address for decades?

These two pieces were the levers that cranked the floodgates open; they were also similar to the type of attacks that followed. These often involved former employees or civil servants, making claims that were hard for the bystander to verify or refute. A trial by media ensued, with the case for the prosecution most vigorously taken up by the Daily Mail, which published 12 critical online articles in seven days.

The ferocity and relentlessness of these attacks seemed to show little concern for the well being of the children involved. Something about the framing of information and the degree of insinuation also spoke of unclear motives. For example the ambiguity around how many clients the charity supported does need investigation; but if the press are to be believed one might conclude that figure was in the hundreds not thousands. This is hardly credible in a charity that had 10 different centres and provided therapy, creative, sporting, and educational activities alongside classroom support in 41 schools across London. Such selective reporting suggests an agenda to deny or minimize the level of need for Kids Company’s services.

The other salient fact is that the state knew about many of the ‘controversial’ issues for years. It knew about the living allowances as far back as 2003 when Chris Kent completed a report on the charity for the Home Office; it knew about Kids Company’s hand to mouth finances as they were detailed in a review commissioned by the Cabinet Office 14 months before. But all these issues were now to be portrayed in- and possibly to- the press as evidence of a rogue organisation, irredeemably flawed. Finally journalists at Newsnight / Buzzfeed were tipped off about alleged sexual abuse and criminality on Kids Company premises. For a charity reliant mostly on donations this was a death knell. The result was not the reform of Kids Company but its destruction and that of its CEO as a credible voice for the underclass. It is a legitimate question to ask, in a time of austerity, who that served.

None of this is to imply there weren’t problems at the charity. In this interpretation of events Kids Company was flawed, but whilst it filled the gaps in state provision and remained relatively muted in its criticisms, those imperfections were allowed to stand. However, once Ms Batmanghelidjh decided to directly and publically challenge a system that has allowed child social care to be underfunded for decades- the idiosyncrasies and failings of Kids Company were no longer to be tolerated.

Is this plausible? I believe so but it’s very hard to prove. What is verifiable, however, is that thousands of maltreated children have been failed by successive governments. Their story has gone again, subsumed by the deluge of insinuations against Kids Company. Whether that was deliberate or not, few would deny their narrative was inconvenient for this current government and other champions of austerity. They don’t want to see a black teenager on the front page of the Evening Standard asking:  “Why is £50 billion being spent on super-fast railways from London? Why do we need to get to Manchester in an hour? How can 20 minutes off your train journey be more important than providing basics for people like us with nothing?”

The Wider Context

In an interview in June 2014 Camilla said “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.”

It appears she underestimated the fragility of her position, but perhaps also the enormity of the challenge. A 2007 study by the UN children’s agency ranked Britain bottom out of 21 developed countries for child welfare. The report stated that our children ‘suffer greater deprivation, worse relationships with their parents and are exposed to more risks from alcohol, drugs and unsafe sex than those in any other wealthy country in the world’. Additional research suggests that 20% of children have a mental health problem in any given year, and a CAMHS clinician recently wrote ‘like similar services across the country, we find ourselves facing a dramatic increase in demand for our services, and a steep rise in the complexity and severity of our cases.’

Many organisations including Unicef, the Save Childhood Movement and Action for Children have drawn connections between this increasing family dysfunction and economic factors such as high living costs, long working hours and public spending cuts.

Much of the responsibility for this must therefore lie with our elites, who control or regulate the economy; but are they simply acting out their own childhoods? Certainly Nick Duffell thinks so; he notes that 62% of the current cabinet went to boarding school, some, like David Cameron, as young as seven. This experience is described by him and other psychologists as institutionalised child abuse or privileged abandonment, in which nurturing family bonds are sacrificed for ‘the hothousing of entitlement’. The result can be work-driven high achievers who struggle with intimacy and have a deficit of empathy.  Last year an American psychoanalyst working in Thailand with expats told campaigning journalist Alex Renton, “Middle-aged, middle-class Brits who went to your crazy private schools may just about be the most damaged social sub-group I’ve ever come across.”  

In short, the inability in the UK to understand and honour the emotional needs of children is not defined by income or class. It appears to be an endemic problem, rooted in the core beliefs and structuring of our society from top to bottom.  In this context, it was always going to be difficult to get the public and the establishment to truly See the Child, never mind prioritize their mental health. In such a culture, in which economic growth takes precedence over emotional wellbeing, the forces arrayed against the success of Ms Batmanghelidjh’s campaign were considerable. This doesn’t necessarily imply conspiracy, but certainly the murmuration of similar world views and vested interests. If Ms Batmanghelidjh had succeeded it wouldn’t have been just a policy change- it would have been a profound cultural shift.