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18 December 2006

Person of the Year: NS Readers’ Choice

You chose the individual who did most for the good of humanity over the past 12 months

By Brian Cathcart

A champion for the kids we forget

New Statesman readers have chosen as their Person of 2006 a psychotherapist from Iran, who works among the children no one wants, in a district most notable lately as the place where Damilola Taylor was murdered. It is a vote of gratitude and admiration, but also a vote of hope, for in the past decade Camila Batmanghelidjh has not only transformed the lives of thousands of young Londoners; she has also begun to change the way this country thinks about its most distressing social ills.

By the example of her work in Peckham, south London, she is showing us that a whole range of apparently intractable problems relating to children and young adults, including drug abuse, antisocial behaviour, gang culture and even gun crime, may not be beyond solution after all. We can do something about them besides dishing out Asbos and filling up our youth prisons.

This is a reversal of decades of defeatism, a real light in the darkness, shone by a 43-year-old woman of great determination who happens to have a dress sense so outrageous that, as one writer put it, she makes Carmen Miranda look like Jane Eyre. One measure of her impact is that she has prised £3m out of Gordon Brown’s Treasury to help support her small charity Kids Company for the next three years, and the model of care she has created is assessed for possible repli cation elsewhere. Another is that the Conservative leader, David Cameron, seems to have adopted her message – which is that our most troublesome children are also our most troubled, and they need love more than they need punishment.

On the face of it, what Kids Company does is not rocket science. It takes children who have rejected or who have been rejected by every other form of care, children with the most deprived and often violent backgrounds, and it gives them everything they need. This starts with accommodation, clothes and food and runs through to education, role models and often in tensive psychotherapy. The programme is designed for and wrapped around the individual child, who, if necessary, is looked after from breakfast to bedtime. And this is not short-term: a child who arrives at the age of 12 may stay with Kids Company for five years.

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Batmanghelidjh writes and speaks in harrowing terms of the “clients” at the Peckham drop-in centre known as Arches II. “Almost nine in ten of them do not have a father figure living at home. From a young age they have been exposed to relentless neglect and violence. They have witnessed all manner of horrors: skulls cracking, blood from syringes shot over walls, the mindless destruction of furniture, crazed sexual behaviours and frequent criminal activity.”

This can create a terrifying condition in which children are unable to feel or remember emotions – except perhaps in cases where they have been abused, when they come to despise themselves and despise all suffering. “They nurture a cold sarcasm towards the fragile in themselves and in others . . . When such a perpetrator attacks a vulnerable victim, the perpetrator does not recognise that, deep down, it is himself that he is hating, not the victim. The perpetrator simply sees a disgusting vulnerability and wants to eliminate it.”

These boys and girls are the feral children, the teen thugs and child junkies of the headlines, and what Kids Company does is to give them time, care, love and a substitute family structure. It teaches them how to become calm, how to communicate, how to feel and how to begin understanding themselves. And the results are impressive. Here is one simple measure: it is rare for a child arriving at Kids Company not to have been in trouble with the police, and quite a few are multiple offenders, but it is far rarer for a young person who has experienced the care ever to come before the courts again.

A battery of independent assessments confirms that this small outfit in south London outperforms by far the official services, and it is a verdict the children endorse, with 97 per cent saying it works for them. Out on the street, the message must be the same, because six out of every seven “clients” turn up of their own accord.

Batmanghelidjh insists that while the principles may be simple, the practice and the academic and scientific foundations are complex, and delivering this standard of care is incredibly demanding. Kids Company operates a ratio of one member of staff to three children – high by any standards – but with particularly difficult children it is much higher. She describes how, when one very disturbed girl turned up, five care workers were swiftly timetabled to look after her. And with work so exacting, those care workers also have to be cared for.

Is it expensive? It certainly costs more than the provision officially on offer to such children in most parts of Britain, but Batmanghelidjh doesn’t measure it that way. “The worst kid I had cost £20,000 a year to care for. If he had been in custody, that would have been £46,000. I think it’s not expensive.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the challenge she throws down. Here is an approach that can take the most damaged and most violent children we have and help them to become balanced human beings. Do we want to put up the money and continue to have that, or would we rather live with the violence, the crime and the death – and pay for the prisons and policing that go with them?

It is a challenge that many social workers and childcare professionals up and down the country will recognise. Batmanghelidjh is not blaming them for what is wrong: she is blaming the country as a whole. “This society is not telling itself the truth,” she says. “Decent citizens, by being com placent, are ignoring the realities and creating the ghettoes to which these kids are condemned. Those who have money are not taking responsibility.”

Though she talks to politicians, both Conservative and Labour, she believes that only a change in public attitudes will make the difference. We need to make early intervention and holistic care the priority, she says, instead of punishment after everything has gone wrong. On the evidence of 2006 she is making headway, finding her way on to platforms as diverse as Desert Island Discs and the Conservative party conference, as well as winning the Woman of the Year Award 2006 and now becoming New Statesman Person of the Year. Care agencies and local authorities, too, are paying attention; Kids Company is suddenly receiving a lot of visitors.

Batmanghelidjh is a forthright advocate with an advertising copywriter’s knack for words. Of plans for “junior Asbos” she has remarked dismissively: “You can’t force respect; it’s a two-way thing,” while recently she spoke of vulnerable children as being “thermostatically impaired”, meaning that they had lost their internal social controls.

It certainly helps that she dresses so flamboyantly. She is a cloud-like figure, draped in layers of what seems to be the brightest curtain material (a style she says she borrowed from Kurdish women she knew in her youth), and when she enters a room every head must turn. But she doesn’t welcome the idea that she is a colourful novelty, and worries that people sometimes underestimate the academic credibility of what she does, the years of effort behind it, and the complexity of the work of Kids Company.

She insists that she has wanted to do this since she was nine years old, the pampered child of an Iranian doctor and businessman and his Belgian wife – though it was the upheaval of the 1979 Iranian revolution that caused her to do it in Peckham. She was at school in England at the time, and so here she settled. There may be something in her genes all the same, because her father, Fereydoon, who died a couple of years ago, was also a campaigner of sorts. While in jail in Iran after the revolution, he discovered the medical usefulness of water in treating a variety of illnesses among fellow prisoners, and in his later life in the United States he became an apostle of water, writing a series of books on the subject.

By her own account, what Camila inherited from him was his entrepreneurial flair. She certainly needs it now, because fundraising takes up a great deal of her life. The Treasury money covers less than half the costs of Kids Company, and even with support from blue-chip sponsors and prominent advisers (Prince Charles, Charles Allen, Aviva, Man Group . . .) she struggles to keep the show on the road. And she is quick to point out that the Treasury cash runs out in 2008.

But she knows she has always come through before, albeit by remortgaging her home on several occasions; and so the money worries never dim the dream that, before too long, Britain will be dotted with clones of Kids Company, all properly funded and staffed, and that the ongoing cycle of drugs, crime, neglect and abuse may in time be broken.

Best of the rest . . .

The following nominations formed our readers’ top ten . . .

Angela Donald, mother of murdered teenager Kriss

Muhammad Yunus, banker and winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize

Warren Buffett, philanthropist

Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty

Norman Kember, peace activist

The average Iraqi citizen

Daniel Barenboim, pianist and conductor

Caroline Lucas, MEP

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