Kids Company was one of the most recognised and loved charities of our time. Celebrities gave it money. Politicians and academics visited, and international child protection officials came for insight. Its maverick founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh, was an entrepreneur who regularly featured on the 100 Most Powerful Woman list and whose portrait hung in the National Portrait Gallery.
But after a stream of negative media stories about lavish spending and mismanagement, Kids Company was shut down and almost overnight, national sentiment towards its founder reversed. Suddenly Batmanghelidjh, who was once regarded as Britain’s most colourful and inspirational charity leader, became in the eyes of the media, a disgrace.
Batmanghelidjh claims she became the victim of a brutal character assassination. She joins us on the show to reveal what really pushed Kids Company to the wall.
Kids Company was once one of Britain’s leading charities, supporting homeless, at-risk and deprived inner city children. That is until its founder and CEO, Camila Batmanghelidjh, (pronounced Batman-gellitch) became aware of a police investigation into child-sexual assault.
Batmanghelidjh told Renegade Inc that her once renowned charity was shut-down and her reputation destroyed in a calculated smear campaign.
The charity was audited 46 times by the government during its 19 years of operation, and not a single complaint ever emerged.
“But we were short of money because the kids were hearing about us on the streets,” she said. “As our reputation grew, more and more children were arriving, but no one would pay for them.”
Increasingly Kids Company began receiving children who were very ill, or who had been badly abused. By law, children younger than 16 have to be picked up by social services; Batmanghelidjh tried to get it to pick up their cases but found it didn’t want them.
“The way social services survive in this country, is they limit the numbers of children that getting through their doors, so that they can keep within budget,” she says. “This is an unspoken understanding between central government and local authorities.
“Kids Company by virtue of being in a neighbourhood was actually upsetting the numbers that social services admitted to, needing help. That’s why there was this incredible drive to claim the Kids Company didn’t have any child protection cases, when we closed. We had 650 staff, 500 trainees, 10,000 volunteers. Were they all pretending to be working with children? We were packed with kids.”
“A couple of strange things happened” during 2014, the charity executive said. Batmanghelidjh received a visit from child protection police officers who told her a group of politicians, judges, celebrities and other “well-known people” were abusing children and that their investigations into these people were being blocked by some senior individuals within the police.
The child protection police officer said children were being taken from their homes on the weekends, often drugged, and that some were being pulled into prostitution.
“I was shown a list of some of these people,” Batmanghelidjh said. “The Home Office became aware that I had been given this information”.
Batmanghelidjh told the Home Office it should appoint a foreign judge because no British judge could offer real impartiality due to their inevitable connections to members of the British establishment, some of whom were named as suspects on the list given to her by the child protection police officers.
“The reason they had come to see me is because they were asking me whether I would chair the inquiry into historic sexual abuse,” she says.
Batmanghelidjh said she didn’t feel she was qualified to do that, but said she would help them find a suitable chair. A foreign judge was appointed but subsequently left quickly and without explanation.
“There are some people who believe that the inquiry is legitimate and that it will do a good job, but there are also people who believe that this inquiry is a cover-up and a stitch-up and that it’s not going to do the real deal,” she says.
“Some victims groups have pulled-out of that inquiry because they don’t trust it, and a number of barristers have also left that inquiry. Again there are different explanations, but one explanation that I have had off the record is that they don’t trust the process.”
The same month the Cabinet Office launched a surprise audit of Kids Company and the auditor was appointed by government through competitive tender.
“When he came into Kids Company I thought ‘oh my God what have they told him?,'” said Batmanghelidjh, “because he was quite ferocious during our first meeting. You could see he had clearly been told that we were terrible.
“But then he stayed, and completed the audit with his team, and actually he ended up saying that Kids Company was really well run. He identified only that we had a cash-flow problem, which was what we had been saying all along.”
Batmanghelidjh claims that some Cabinet Office civil servants tried to pressure the auditor into changing his audit outcomes to reflect a more negative result.
Though the auditor reported the pressure he was receiving to the Director of Finance at Kids Company at the time, he has not publicly blown the whistle on the events that occurred or the people involved.
“He’s trapped,” she said. “But absolutely this event took place.”
Batmanghelidjh says the British media started the proverbial fire that led the closure of Kids Company.
“What’s really important to realise is that the media group who created the smear campaign against Kids Company were affiliated to a centre-right think tank, The Centre for Policy Studies, which has in its manifesto the desire to shrink charities and make them independent of the state,” she told Renegade Inc.
“I don’t think that was a coincidence.
“I think politically, Kids Company was thought to have become too powerful, and too vocal and was seen to be challenging the government. I think that the powers that be inside government decided to use these journalists to create this smear campaign.
“I was good material for it because I look a bit eccentric, I’m a foreigner, I’m big and I’m female. So actually I had all the ingredients to be able to stir up an archetypal witch-hunt.
“They wanted me to apologise for what in effect were false stories created by them. I will never say that Kids Company was faultless, but it’s not fair to create that sort of narrative. It’s ridiculous.”
Then came the sexual abuse allegations.
“I found out on TV that we were being accused of sexually abusing children”, said Batmanghelidjh. “It was an absolute shock. No one had brought this information to the organisation, because the normal protocol is you think someone is sexually abusing children, is to take it to the child protection people within the organisation. If they are not good enough, take it to the child protection people in the local authority, take it to the police, take it to The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, take it to the Charity Commission.
“The person who created these sexual abuse allegations intended to harm the charity because they took it straight to Newsnight. Newsnight behaved completely irresponsibly because they should have said to themselves, ‘why has this individual brought this information to us and not to the child protection agency?'”.
The Newsnight journalists claims that as soon as he received the allegations, he reported the information to protocol, but Batmanghelidjh says she doesn’t believe it because police told her that Newsnight had the information in its possession for “quite a while”.
“But let’s assume that the journalist is right and that he informed the police straightaway,” she said. “You don’t go and interview potential witnesses and victims for your television program, because you’re interfering with the legal process and due process.
“If he reported it, he should not have made his film. If he didn’t report it, then he left children potentially at risk, if we were a child abusing agency.”
Batmanghelidjh says the media actually have a duty of care, across the board and that it should be bound by a Hippocratic Oath of “first do no harm”. She says the unethical, vengeful and biased way Kids Company was covered by the press harmed way more than her personal reputation, it harmed an investigation, the charity, people’s lives and it harmed employment.
“Kids company had a year’s funding ahead and it could meet all its liabilities,” Batmanghelidjh said. “But the minute the news program and the BBC broadcast these false sexual abuse allegations that had been taken to Newsnight, funders looked at Kids Company and thought ‘My God, I’m going to withdraw my funding from this charity’.
“We weren’t allowed to say goodbye to the children we worked with therapeutically. Kids were left. Suddenly their therapy ended without being able to say goodbye to their therapists.
They didn’t know what had happened, and the police, in the end, after nearly seven months of investigation didn’t even find one thing to prosecute.”
Batmanghelidjh was subject to a barrage of ad hominum attacks in the press. The Spectator called her “a garishly dressed lard mountain of Persian’s self-regard“.
The Sunday Times referred to her as “an explosion in a Nigerian sofa factory“.
While the right-wing media called her names, meanwhile the left-wing media had a whale of a time jumping on opinion bandwagons.
“You’d suddenly get an accountancy firm creating a conference titled: ‘how not to be like Kids Company’,” says Batmanghelidjh. “I’d think, ‘well you don’t even know what the story is yet you’re setting up a conference to say how not to be Kids Company’. There was a lot of that. It’s frightening because of what it means is the facts don’t stand a chance.”
And then in the middle of it all there was the racist material.
“When I was flavour of the month I was described as ‘a British businesswoman’, but when things turned I was described as an ‘Iranian woman’,” she says. “Then some of these people who created this misinformation went to Sky News to suggest that Kids Company was a cover-up for trafficking Iranian children, that I ran two brothels: one in Peckham and one in east London, and from which I was collecting money. This is the sort of material that was created as part of this campaign to discredit me.”
She says the people who knew all this was lies were terrified because there was such a huge discrepancy between reality and the story that was being told in the press.
Kids Company became an industry pariah and that anyone supporting it publicly would tarnish their brand.
“None of the sexual abuse allegations taken to Newsnight were founded,” says Batmanghelidjh.
Batmanghelidjh’s book KIDS: Child Protection in Britain reveals the real story behind the dismantling of a charity that spoke out against the government.
The Kids Company case proves there are very clear – and relatively easy ways – to smear somebody, to discredit them. Batmanghelidjh says that if it happened to her, it could happen to other charities that inconvenience the establishment.
“This is the frightening part, because at every juncture I thought someone sensible would put a stop to it,” she said.
“I thought, when we went to the Parliamentary Inquiry that Parliament isn’t going to collude in all this, that they would find the truth and that it would be a fair appraisal.
Then I went to the event and suddenly I was being accused of mesmerising a Prime Minister, doing Voodoo, being in ectoplasm, and this is all coming from an MP.
I then suddenly realised that Parliament wasn’t going to be fair.”
Batmanghelidjh credits her less than stellar performance during the investigation to concern for protecting the identities of the alleged child victims of sexual abuse whose reports sparked the original police investigation.
She was worried about the children the charity had been working with having their personal information revealed in the course of providing evidence and explanations to the inquiry with regards to how it operated.
“I didn’t feel it was appropriate to be discussing children’s personal circumstances on television in such a charged space,” she said.
“Not a single independent evaluator of Kids Company was called as a witness during the investigation,” she said. “Instead they brought the ex-Deputy Children’s Commissioner and she sat there and actually said to the Parliamentary Inquiry that there were no kids at Kids Company. The kids were all there. How can you say there were no kids?
“There were 17,000 child protection and child mental-health cases broken down per local authority and I wanted KPMG, the accountancy firm, to come into Kids Company and go through our database of kids, find the cases that were the responsibility of government, and for us to get around a table with the government to discuss who was going to take financial responsibility for them. The government didn’t want to do this. Now, if I had been lying about the numbers of children that we were supporting, would I want an audit company to come in and go through my database?”
When Kids Company closed its doors its former founder said that there would be a tsunami of cases and that local authorities would be overwhelmed. Since then, members of the press are saying there wasn’t a tsunami and that Batmanghelidjh must be lying.
“Just before we closed, there was a meeting between the local authorities’ representatives and the Cabinet Office to decide what to do with all the kids. We were seeing 20,000 children spread across about 38 schools. We worked with more than 40 schools, but we had therapy and social work programs in those schools.
“The decision was made not to refer the children who were in the schools programme to the local authorities, because in the schools the head teacher and the special needs coordinator would look after those children. So 19,000 of the kids were siphoned off out of the lot that we had to get to the local authorities. Bristol, where we worked, decided to take their own kids, and then Liverpool Council took their own kids. So all we were left with is the children at the street level centres in London to refer to social services.”
A group of Kids Company social workers and therapists got together and filled-out referral forms on behalf of those children and their families and they handed those referral forms to the local authority representative.
“I knew they would underestimate the numbers that we handed over to them,” Batmanghelidjh says.
“I knew they would make out like they were no kids, so I asked the team to photocopy the referral forms and there is a photocopy box of them, sealed, and we’ve still got that evidence.
“What then happened is the local authority representative began this whole narrative of, ‘there are no kids about whom anyone should be worried about’.”
Since Kids Company in Lambeth closed, youth crime in the area has increased by 25%.
“Because their social services team didn’t take the children,” she says. “We’ve had to get the kids lawyers, and the lawyers have been taking the local authorities to judicial review to try to get these kids care, so it’s not true that those kids didn’t need help.”
Tune in to the episode above to unpick the rest of the saga of what really happened to Kids Company.