Camila Batmanghelidjh is a notable authority on coming of age. Earlier this year, she was awarded a CBE for her work with children in London, whilst Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour named her as one of the 100 most powerful women in the UK. She is a repeated and colourful presence on political programming like Question Time, where her unrelenting compassion and capacity for practical suggestion stand out in stark contrast against the moribund, often-disinterested, approaches to the realities of underprivileged children.

It is frequently too easy to dismiss vulnerable children as ‘problem cases’ when they act out. To do so overlooks the painful and embarrassing statistic that one in four children in the UK currently live in poverty, and this number is projected to rise by nearly one million within the next decade. Whilst these facts are difficult to address and remedy within a rigorous framework of segregated support services and recession-era cuts on public spending, they still belie a greater, unresolved problem: how we deal with children growing up in difficulty.

Camila Batmanghelidjh founded the charity Kids Company in 2006 to provide support, through whatever means necessary, to vulnerable children in London. She and an expansive network of 600 employees and 11,000 volunteers now reach over 17,000 children every year. Camila says that, aged nine, she told her parents she wanted to open an orphanage: “absolutely every grain of my being from the time when I was a child was centered around the issue of working out the complexities of vulnerable children”. This precociousness may have its roots in the complexities surrounding Camila’s own start to life. Born prematurely in Iran, and then “sent home to die” rather than being placed in an incubator, she was left with endocrine, metabolic, perceptual and learning problems, which, she believes, gifted her the ability to see things in the abstract, beyond conventional social structures.

Such problems, nevertheless, presented very real obstacles to her future success. In order to progress, she needed people, especially those in positions of influence, to recognise her potential. In this regard, she cites being offered an unconditional place to study at Warwick University as a defining moment: “it wasn’t until one person made an exceptional decision that my life was transformed.” It is this desire to make exceptional decisions for all children,to discover that thing in each individual, which underpins the culture of Kids Company.

It is Camila’s personal empathy and compassion that transcends conventional approaches to dealing with troubled and underprivileged children and, importantly, helps her recognise the limits that we put on human potential when we assume emotional and developmental uniformity. One thing that is particularly resonant is how proud she is when she speaks of the scientific research Kids Company have been carrying out that has proven her right. “People who believe that love is important intrinsically know it”, she says “but there are people who deny that, who want objective evidence. Well, we’re at the paradigm shift where that objective evidence is emerging because of brain scanning, which is now showing that love and attachment are two of the most important drivers of brain structure and physiological stability.

“What we now realise is the significant change that the front part of your brain, your frontal lobe, is responsible for managing your emotional repertoire, located deep inside your brain, in your limbic system. The frontal lobe of all teenagers rewires in adolescence — it becomes really weak and, because of that, teenagers are that much more impulsive and emotionally driven. But if you look at the way we’ve organised education, the most important and significant life decisions are being forced upon teenagers at a time when their brain is the most vulnerable. So teenagers end up really struggling, not having enough support socially or educationally, because we’re also a nation that hates adolescents. An adolescent is as vulnerable as a toddler in terms of the needs they have — they just hide it more. We’d be better off making critical life decisions aged 20 onwards, and it’s about getting people to understand this; that adolescence might be a time of experimentation. It certainly shouldn’t be a critical decision-making time, because it’s the time when the brain can do least of that. I’ve worked now for 25 years with children and young people at street level; I see people make considerable improvements from 25 onwards. Sometimes it’s just about holding a teenager safe until relevant brain changes kick in. I saw my own brain improve in my late 20s and early 30s, so I know that your brain can make continuous progress.

“If you then take children who have been maltreated, or who haven’t had enough loving care (because your frontal lobe develops due to the quality of the attachments you have, quite literally the interaction that a mother and baby have wire neuronal networks), you have frontal lobe vulnerability, and therefore those children who’ve had poor care have a double whammy challenge. “If they’ve been abused, then the emotional centres of their brain have been deregulated because of the amount of fright hormone in those centres, which changes the electrical activity in those areas. So we’ve got lots of kids overdriven from the emotional centres in their brain, revved up, deregulated and with depleted capacity in their frontal lobe to be able to calm themselves down. What we’re not realising is that it’s a mental health problem generated by poor social care conditions. It’s not that kids are born this way — you can have a dormant gene for aggression, but it won’t be summoned up if the environment hasn’t demanded it of you. That person may become a competitive sportsperson, not necessarily a violent perpetrator. The perpetrator behaviour is socially driven and that is what society isn’t embracing, that these children are so vulnerable that they need an enormous amount of protection, but they are the most attacked.”

When Camila started Kids Company in 1996, she would arrive at the office at 9am. 400 children would sit on the bench outside, waiting their turn to see her, but what she says surprises her is that out of all these children accustomed to gang fighting and scavenging in bins, nobody would fight. As the stories of these children started to emerge, she explains coming to understand their “journeys of terror” — she got a sense of these children who, as toddlers, had no stability and were in a constant and nebulous period of fright. “It is when the children were in this optimum state of fear that the perpetrator would step in, maybe hit the child, maybe throw them against the wall, and would eventually make some sort of contact. This violence became organising for the children, because they have made a shift into something tangible; they can say ‘I got kicked today.’ There then exists a concrete resolution to an unpredictable situation.

“Following the violence, there is a period of time when the perpetrator leaves and the child is left to recover, which the child perversely comes to understand as rest. So the children develop a cycle where they get an ordinary tension buildup in their day-to-day lives, but haven’t had the mothering to understand how to calm themselves down and so go looking for violence — in the form of a fight, or through harming themselves — purely to get a sense of evacuation, because their brain is unconsciously driven towards this post-violence abeyance.”
What Camila came to understand was that the problem did not lie in a ‘flawed morality’ — these children were more than capable of following the rules required of them to survive on the streets or in the drug trade — but that they were not able to regulate their own emotional energy without violence. She says that when she understood this, she understood what she needed to do.

“Making them safe was the single most important ingredient in getting them to calm down, because I needed them not to release so much fright hormone. So sorting out their housing, getting dealers off their backs, sorting out their parents and siblings all became really important. As did getting our workers to become like substitute parents, to love them and cherish them. But then comes grief, because once these kids get attached, they calm down and can realise the terror they’ve been through. And they realise they hate you, because you are the person who’s giving them what they want from their own parents and a discrepancy appears between what you’re doing and what their parent can do. Conflict sets in and they then try and rupture the relationship, but you’ve got to hang in there.”
The intimate relationships that Kids Company encourages its workers to develop with the children are entirely at odds with a state system built on boundaries and distance. What she says to her workers, all of whom are in paid and outsourced weekly therapy, is “don’t be institutionalised, you need to surprise these kids with care — send a text message to say that you are thinking of them, buy them underwear [18% of children arrive at the centres with no underwear or socks]. We encourage workers to develop that relationship, to be very attachment orientated, to call. The boundary is to never use the child to meet your personal needs. So you can hug a child, play fight, whatever, provided it’s not about your needs, it’s about theirs.”

It is this exceptionality that develops a person-to-person relationship; the interactions stop being about an employee doing a job and develop into something more authentic, relatable and effective. And Kids Company is effective — more than 90% of children who were not in education or employment when they arrived at Kids Company are now in some form of education or employment that, most importantly, is sustained. 84% of the children who arrive at the drop-in centres are street homeless. They have a Centre of Excellence dedicated to specifically addressing children who are not progressing at the rate they could. Camila says that what is important is that they are not saying that because you are traumatised with emotional needs that you can’t achieve. But neither is she unrealistic — she has established a syllabus called ‘Path to Life’ for hyperactive children, where they only ever have to study for two hours a day at the dedicated Kids Company college. They can arrive at varying times and engage with any of the 26 courses on offer, ranging from how to deal with bailiffs to how your brain works, and a collection of those courses is the equivalent to a GCSE or A-Level qualification. She says “what I’ve cut out is having to turn up every day at set times for children whose brains feel like they’ve swallowed a helicopter; I think there’s a lot in the education system that we have to change to go with the rhythm of these kids’ brains rather than against them. And if they can’t? They’re not losers, they’re not failures; we just wait for the next gateway.”
When explaining how trauma stunts development, Camila discusses 20 year olds with the charity who are developmentally like 11 year olds. She challenges typical notions of determining maturity by age — Kids Company does not have a ‘cut-off ’ point; you are finished when you are ready to finish. They are a permanent safety net. Camila confidently explains, “once you make the pledge to care, you have to really be there long term, and then it’s up to the kids for you to be there as much or as little as they want. To come back, or never come back. To pretend you never helped them, as part of the transformation that they need to go through.” She explains that she believes “your age is what you can do. There are children here who could rob a couple of banks but, honestly, they can’t even get it together to feed themselves. Literally — I’ve got two boys whose mother used to starve them; they used to draw on a piece of paper pictures of food and swallow them. These two are now in their twenties, and to this day, even though food is available, they starve themselves. Breaking that cycle is complex. To them, starving is maternal attachment, and undoing that takes time.”

Talking about why conventional approaches to disciplining problem children repeatedly fail, Camila says, “I keep saying to people, there’s nothing you can do to these children that hasn’t been done to them. When you’ve been stripped naked, beaten with belts, had stuff poked inside you, me sitting here and saying ‘I’m going to deprive you of your playtime because you spat?’ They’re looking at me like, ‘fuck off! Who do you think you are? I don’t give a damn. All I’m thinking about is if I’m going to live tomorrow.’ There was this big boy, this tall guy, at one of the centres. Everyone was frightened of him. One day, he came at me in a menacing way and I just went for his cheeks and pinched them and said ‘you’re so cute, do you really want to frighten me that much?’ And he froze. Because he’d never had that. And now he’s like my best friend, he’ll do everything around the premises to make sure nobody is violent. Because what surprised him was love. That is the surprising ingredient. But threat? That’s like water off a duck’s back. These are kids that say to me that prison is the best place to be. They’re somewhere safe, no one’s killing you, you’re consistently getting fed. What can I threaten them with?

“Some of these kids get to a place where they don’t care if they live or die, and they’re really dangerous. I think the most high-risk element of a dangerous person is someone who doesn’t think they want to preserve anything anymore. And I think that’s what people aren’t understanding. They think that the danger is what weapon someone picks up. But it’s when you’re prepared to die. I liken it to warfare; the conventional soldier wants to survive and the suicide bomber doesn’t care. The suicide bomber will win, and a lot of these kids have the psychologies of suicide bombers because they feel the state, their carers, institutions, everyone hates them. So they think ‘what have I got to lose? Who shall I live for? Who gives a damn what I achieved? I don’t have someone to come home to and say look what I did today.’ And that’s what’s really dangerous.” Britain is in a dire situation for child social services and mental health. Internationally, we’re bottom of the league of the 21 wealthiest countries for our treatment of children across all indexes. Britain has got the largest pregnancy rate for children in all of Europe. We lock up more children than any European country and yet we have an 80% reoffending rate, both in custody and youth offending teams. The average age that prostitution starts for girls in Britain is 12. The NSPCC says that the rate for child sexual abuse is 1 in 10. Child mental health is 1 in 10. Children of drug addicts are exceeding 3 million and over 1.7 million children aged 15-16 are running away each year, 75% of them never reported missing. These children are by their very definition disenfranchised and ignored, they don’t appear in the media so they are not seen as a priority. Camila talks of receiving a “reluctant respect” from authorities who would like to operate in the way the organisation does but are frightened of rebuttal, of authorities that are financially depleted and left without leadership, professionals who turn to her for help behind closed doors. These are situations organised by disparate statistics and funds that are isolated from borough to borough, segregated between ‘mental health’ and ‘social services’. There is no cohesion, no overall accountability, no care. There is a vast disparity between the 80,000 children in care and the 1.5-2 million mistreated, and yet there is no way of categorising those in between — there’s a truth in the middle that is devastating lives and being left undiscussed.

“I have a boy who’s been arrested for stealing baby milk, aged seven, and was put through a police interview. Nobody ever called social services to think about why a seven year old was stealing baby milk. In that household there are now eight children, and they have all had terrible lives because of this mum who just can’t do it, who disappears for days on end; there are rats, cockroaches, and the baby’s ear was bitten by a mouse… it’s horrible, horrible; there is a lack of food, faeces everywhere, but because she’s not beating them, they’re not qualifying for the social services intake. So they’re left in that situation. Recently, the 11 year old held up a shop with an imitation firearm, and I’m thinking, ‘yep. I’ve been warning you since he was three. If you leave him in this environment, eventually he’ll work out some way to survive’.”

These are not children capable of paying lobbyists. These are not families who are likely to register to vote, so they are not governmental priority. It is up to the public to identify these issues and raise their profile, and it is through collaborations with designer brands like Liberty, Selfridges and most recently a jewellery collaboration with Folli Follie that Camila hopes for increased visibility. Speaking to her about the responsibility of the fashion industry and magazines to engage with the stark realities of child poverty, she is exceptionally astute. “There is such a thing as emotional aesthetics. Aesthetics fundamentally is the mathematics of balance. That’s why things look beautiful, because they have some sort of innate balance. And the emotional aesthetics of culture are becoming distorted and there is an emotional ugliness around that. Collaborations with Folli Follie, as with this interview, are like mainstream people suddenly saying, actually this is an issue that is important. We’ve created a culture in which power commands action. People who have power can do something about things. The difficulty I have is that my client group doesn’t have legitimate power — power through violence, but not legitimately. So we need people to assist them, so that those who are decision makers can sit up and listen. It’s incredibly important when people of influence make contact with these children, so these children feel like they matter. That’s all they want. They just want not to be trapped as discarded victims, they want to be chosen for care because someone feel’s they’re worth it.”