A Real Love Story

Camila Batmanghelidjh, Founder of the charity Kids Company, speaks about the role of neuropsychology in her work with victims of abuse and neglect

“80 per cent of youth-offending programmes are failing.” When you think about how incredibly high that figure is, you’d think you’d feel moved and motivated enough to ask why. But as Camila Batmanghelidjh discovered, asking why is not enough. Her work with troubled youth has radically revolutionised the way we perceive the effects of abuse, violence and neglect, and shown that almost everything we thought we knew about those things, were entirely misguided. She also happens to have one of the most amazing wardrobes in Britain.

“Having founded my first charity, Place2B, which offers counselling to children in schools, I became very curious about a group of children and young people who were horrified at the thought of the school holidays”, says Camila. “They worried about not being protected or fed because their parents were either too chaotic or were actively maltreating them. So sixteen years ago I found myself underneath some railway arches, about to set up my second charity, Kids Company.”

“What kind of a society have we created, where a young man tattoos a tear on the side of his face, hoping that people will believe he’s murdered someone?”

Camila Batmanghelidjh was born in Tehran to an Iranian father and a Belgian mother. As supporters of the Shah, her family came under threat during the 1979 revolution, so at the age of eleven, Camila and her sister fled to England to attend Sherbourne boarding school. Her father was imprisoned in Iran and the trauma of this led to her sister committing suicide. So, it comes as no surprise that Camila is not immune to understanding the gravity of trauma, upheaval and emotional instability for a child.

Today, Kids Company supports 36,000 children with a programme of resilience and psychosocial care, as well as education. “Our 600 staff and 11,000 volunteers have worked together to create an extraordinary community which operates as a parental function, meeting children’s needs from the very basic to the aspirational,” says Camila, who does not have any children of her own.

“Our programmes are delivered through 47 schools, three street-level centres and a post-fourteen education facility.” But is this not another failing youth-offending programme? The statistics don’t even overwhelmingly suggest otherwise, they confirm, left, right and centre that Camila and her colleagues are getting it right.

“91% of the young people who were not in education or employment when they arrived at Kids Company have since been returned to it”, begins Camila, as if starting a very practical shopping list. Her modesty is baffling. She continues, “83% of teachers describe children improving in educational attainment as a direct result of Kids Company interventions. 94% of kids reduced or stopped altogether their substance misuse. 90% of kids arriving at our centres have benefitted from improved accommodation or provisions. 89% of our young people improved their anger management as a result of our therapeutic interventions.”

You can’t help but refuse to see these statistics in the context of merely hard work; there must be another reason for the success, aside from the dynamic leadership of Camila herself. Being a shrewd but compassionate businesswoman has been the engine behind Kids Company becoming a success, and has meant they’ve raised over £50 million since it began in 1996. Indeed, Camila cites her subjects as “the most challenging clients” as if they enter into this business deal, and are contractually obliged to see the results. Challenging they may be, but they were the reason for the success Camila points out, “it was their honesty in describing both the nature of the trauma they were exposed to and their defensive strategies for coping that guided our workers towards the delivery of Kids Company’s care model.”

“The children kept telling us that they couldn’t calm down; that they were unable to sleep due to night terrors and hyper-agitation. They tried to control their rage responses by using illegal substances. They described how, when they harmed themselves or others, they felt soothed.”

Exposing the truth about what was going on for so many children was the catalyst for Camila seeking the foundation of her work to be empirical and scientific. “It was the consistency and clarity of their descriptions which made me seek out the country’s best neuro-psychiatrists and clinicians. Gathered under the umbrella of www.kidspeaceofmind.com and supported by generous donors, we managed to conceptualise a research portfolio which involved Cambridge University, the Institute of Psychiatry, UCL, the Tavistock Clinic Portman NHS trust, and a number of other creative and intellectually rigorous departments, each with their own brief to take an aspect of the children’s experiences and illuminate the clinical drivers.”

Camila explains the drive to seek an appropriate clinical narrative in relation to these children’s difficulties stemmed from the fact that she felt upset at how unjustly they were being treated by the public and the media. “It felt as if child hatred had been unleashed, with the public sometimes describing the kids as ‘vermin’, as if they were worthy of extermination.” She continues, but with little bitterness, “I had learnt otherwise. Spending time with the children every day, I saw how courageous and dignified they were, how much endurance they exercised in the face of unbearable maltreatment.”

I wonder how frank this extraordinary lady would be about the experiences of the children she deals with every day, but she is not immune to the horrors of the truth. “Imagine being gang-raped in your family home, burnt with irons, hit with belts, left in the snow without your clothes, having the barrel of a gun shoved down your throat or tortured with searing cigarette lighters.”

The stupid and obvious reaction is to be amazed that this sort of abuse is as widespread as it is, and as frequent. Camila agrees that, “it wasn’t just one assault but a barrage of them that had delivered the children to the desire no longer to be victims, but to possess the potency of perpetrators of violence. They yearned to leave humiliation behind and perversely gain status by making other people fear them.”

As she speaks, I’m starting to understand how complicated it is, and how that complexity has been overlooked. “Their violence was pathetically defensive, an attempt to evacuate tension in order to achieve calm as well as sustain a reputation for violence. Those who are feared on the streets are less likely to get attacked, so revenge and reputation are important prerequisites for safety.” She stops, and considers darkly, in spite of her dazzling turquoise and fuchsia headscarf, “what kind of a society have we created, where a young man tattoos a tear on the side of his face, hoping that people will believe he has murdered someone?”

In the last three years, the extensive research has continued and has produced some shocking data. 84% of children and young people who go to Kids Company experienced homelessness; 82% were misusing substances; 1/3 didn’t have a bed; 18% did not own a single pair of underpants. Perhaps the latter is the most shocking statistic of all. It’s unassuming, and doesn’t wreak of abuse, but perhaps that’s why it’s so unsettling; it expects you to read between the lines. If a child doesn’t own underwear, what can we presume about the kind of nurturing they are, or aren’t receiving?

Camila draws light on some even more alarming details “it is not unusual to find rats in the fridge, or animal and human faeces in children’s beds. Indeed, firearms, machetes and knives are as common in these households as paper doilies and net curtains in other houses.” Much of Kids Company’s work is to show that these conditions are conducive to neurological damage, and the term for this is Neuroplasticity; the brain’s development is directly affected by the experiences it is exposed to.
Fundamentally, the essence of the research demonstrates that children who have been chronically exposed to conditions of maltreatment have brain development deviations, which mirror the disturbances of war veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (Dr Eamon McCrory, UCL).

“It is not just violent abuse that delivers assaults to the brain: constant negation, lack of tenderness, interest and nurture for children can be equally damaging,” explains Dr Eamon McCrory. “With overdriven emotional repertoires and underdeveloped regulatory mechanisms, vulnerable children struggle to calm down, maintain concentration and sustain an integrated vision of the self in the future. Terror responses dominate, shattering the capacity for mindfulness and the ability to modify their emotional responses.”
What this means is that children and young people are exquisitely sensitive and predominantly driven through emotionally enhanced processes, making the maltreated brain less efficient in its ability to communicate.

The findings of the research are geared towards Kids Company’s work, but they have an extensive impact on social issues nationally. They show that with lack of care, mindfulness is diminished and impulsive survival dominates. The physiological alert response is the primary driver of violence. How the violence expresses itself and what weapons are used gets determined by the cultural environments children negotiate every day. Only when we understand that environmental violence generates damage to the brain, hampering a sense of personal agency, will we be able to formulate programmes of reparation to genuinely meet the needs of the most vulnerable. And society shows it; between 75 per cent and 80 per cent of young people held in custody reoffend within two years; the average age that prostitutes start working in the sex industry is twelve years old; 3.5 million children are living with substance-abusing parents whose lives are unpredictable and chaotic.

Yet in spite of this, Camila argues that, “barely any political manifestos talk about the 1.5 million children in Britain who are being abused and neglected every year. Could it be that the politicians aren’t paying attention because kids don’t vote? It is regrettable that it took the riots of the summer to demonstrate to the public the impact of neglect and violence. You need to contain a lot of hate to be able to kick in shop windows with your legs and turn cars over.”

She continues with what sounds like the most original agenda to be pushed politically, “climate change is an important campaign on the political agenda. I would argue that an equally alarming concern is the emotional climate to which our most vulnerable children are exposed, often subsequently recycling the negativity in victimising themselves and others.”

“Communities are systemic: if some members are enduring significant harm, the darkness of that shadow will fall on those who are in the light. I dream of a day when our decision-makers wake up to the moral and societal imperative of protecting children who are being harmed.” It is perhaps this level of insight and perceptiveness about the importance of psychology in understanding deviation, that sets Kids Company’s work years ahead of other charities.

“Our scientific research into the neuro-developmental repercussions of abuse is intended to make the truth more visible through scanning machines.” The leaves me rather a clinical image, but for all the research, who could be fooled that there is really only one thing that’s important in this story. “Ultimately, recovery is about the provision of unrelenting love because it is nurture, attachment and protection which will impact positively the neuro-developmental trajectory. I guess, in short, it is about evidencing the potency of love.”

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