'I've got kids who sleep with knives under their pillows'

Another teenager dies on Britain's streets. What can we do to stop the killing? One remarkable woman may have the answer

Esther Walker Meets Camila Batmanghelidjh
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:17

In Sidcup, Kent, 18-year-old Robert Knox is stabbed to death on a night out with his mates. He is the 28th teenager to die in violent circumstances this year. In south-east London, Jimmy Mizen, 16, is fatally wounded by a shard of glass during a scuffle in a baker's shop. The search for his killer continues. Garry Newlove, a father of three, is kicked and punched to death outside his home in Cheshire; three youths, aged 19, 17 and 16, are convicted of his murder. At times, it seems as if barely a day can pass without some new report of a stabbing, a savage beating, an unprovoked assault.

The public and political response to the spiralling violence by, and among, Britain's teenagers is a mixture of outrage, confusion and despair. And simmering at the back of our consciousness is the sense that a generation has been lost and that there is no answer.

But Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of the youth charity Kids Company, sees a familiar pattern . She believes that these apparently random killings have their roots in the same cause.

Since 1996, Iranian-born Batmanghelidjh has been trying to help the children who are the worst of the worst, those who are on the very edges of society the kind of teenagers who murdered Newlove, the kind who will probably have murdered Mizen and Knox. She is not Supernanny there is no naughty step here. The children Batmanghelidjh helps are the sort that other psychologists sedate.

"We're looking at a new syndrome," Batmanghelidjh says when we meet at Kids Company's headquarters near London Bridge. "It needs to be named. Social and emotional deprivation is creating a new kind of brain.

"The fascinating element in all these childrens' lives is the absence of a functioning parental figure. If you really think about it, if you don't have a parent there is no food in the house, no one washes your clothes or organises socialising for you, you don't get taken to the GP, the dentist or the optician. You live in chaos."

The child who knocks on the door of Kids Company's drop-in centre usually has drug-addicted or alcoholic parents. They may have not eaten properly for days, they may be ill and dirty.

It seems unthinkable to most of us that, in Britain in 2008, a child could starve to death. Yet, on the day after Batmanghelidjh and I meet, it is reported that that is just what happened a fortnight ago in Birmingham to seven year-old Khyra Ishaq.

"The assumption is that if you are seven years old, there is an adult who can refer you to social services. But these children do not have that adult in their lives and they have no access to help.

"Back when I started, there were people saying to me that what I was trying to achieve wasn't possible and that it wouldn't work," Batmanghelidjh says. "They just thought that I was an eccentric who loves kids, and they became very preoccupied with the way I look and dress. They didn't understand the intellectual framework behind Kids Company."

Her clothes are certainly extraordinary, and rather splendid. Today, she's dressed in a voluminous multicoloured frock, with matching fingerless gloves (which she removes to shake my hand), a turban, big costume-jewellery, black square-framed glasses and pink lipstick. If it is a visible and cheerful presence that these children need, Batmanghelidjh provides it.

These days, Kids Company helps 12,000 children. Therapists work with disruptive children in schools to prevent exclusion; children can drop into Arches II, the street-level centre in Camberwell; and there is a school, the Urban Academy, for over-14s. At the drop-in centre, children are provided with an evening meal, shelter from the street, leisure activities and psychotherapy.


Born in 1963 into a wealthy family in Iran, Batmanghelidjh came to England at the age of 12 to attend Sherborne School in Dorset. Like many middle-class Iranians, she and her family fled the country after the revolution in 1979; they were left with no money or status, and Batmanghelidjh took a job as a nurs

ery nurse. In spite of severe dyslexia, she got a first-class degree in theatre and dramatic arts from Warwick University, completed a Masters in the philosophy of counselling and psychotherapy, spent two years studying child psychology at the Tavistock Clinic, and took a course in art therapy at Goldsmiths college, London.

Realising that what the most desperate children in society needed was a place they could walk into off the street, Batmanghelidjh set up Kids Company in some disused railway arches in Camberwell, south London. On the first day she opened her doors to the youth of Southwark, Batmanghelidjh had to stand and watch as local teenage boys turned up with bricks and knives and ransacked the centre. She didn't react or call the police, she just kept opening her doors. Soon, Peckham's most violent and dangerous teenagers were pouring in, seeking her help.

Batmanghelidjh is sometimes mentioned alongside Ray Lewis, Boris Johnson's new deputy mayor for young people and the founder of the Eastside Young Leaders Academy. He straightens out wayward teenage boys with discipline, uniforms and marching drills. The difference between them is that Lewis won't take on a teenager unless he has the support of his parents; Batmanghelidjh is there for the children who are truly alone.


Take Peter, one of Batmanghelidjh's many success stories (89 per cent of her charges do not reoffend). He comes into the room to say hello and I assume he works at the company. A bright-eyed, cheerful man of about 20, he shakes my hand and chats politely. Then Batmanghelidjh reveals his true identity. This is "Mr Mason", one of the case studies in Batmanghelidjh's book Shattered Lives, which explains, with examples, the therapeutic theory behind her work.

Peter arrived at Kids Company when he was 14, having already stabbed his violent stepfather and committed a string of other offences. As a young boy, living in Jamaica with his drug-addicted mother, he had helped her to commit a burglary, during which they stabbed the household dog, killing it. When he arrived in Britain, having been thrown out by his mother, he had nowhere to live and was capable of extreme and horrifying violence.

Now, after years attending Kids Company, during which time Batmanghelidjh has addressed the chronic lack of care given to Peter as a child, he is doing well and has applied for college prospectuses.

Many of the children Batmanghelidjh helps have, like Peter, suffered from both neglect and physical violence. "If you are a child living with a drug addict, for example, drug dealers could and will burst into the house at any time of night or day. You are always in debt to them. Girls are often violated by the drug dealers at a young age, and pretty quickly [the dealers] want young boys to come and work for them. I've got kids who sleep with knives under their pillows because they don't know what's going to happen in the middle of the night. They live in constant terror and they are very jumpy their brains become different in structure and chemistry from other people's.

"These sorts of children don't care if they live or die. They are very brave and they cause great harm because they have nothing to lose."

Samuel is another child at Kids Company HQ today. Batmanghelidjh met him when he was five she found him wandering the streets of a rich London neighbourhood in the middle of winter with no shirt on. She started talking to him and he led her back to the flat he lived in with his mother; Batmanghelidjh quickly discovered that Samuel's mother was a crack addict who was unable to care for him. His father had died from an overdose.

"I tried to get his case picked up by social services, but because he wasn't being beaten he didn't meet their criteria.

"He was left without food, appropriate clothing or bedding. He had to cope with drug dealers coming in and out of the house, who often attacked both him and his mother." The most violent and dangerous children are those, like Samuel, who have been violently abused. "Not all children who have been abused go on to abuse, but all abusers have been abused themselves."

Batmanghelidjh rejects the idea that violent video games or rap music have much to do with these very serious cases. "The most dangerous children are those who have experienced violence first-hand, behind closed doors. Other children, who have been well cared-for at home, can come across these very violent children and have to mimic their behaviour to protect themselves from it. It's those children who are more likely to be influenced by violence in films, video games and rap music."

Violent physical abuse, combined with neglect, is a dangerously powerful combination, Batmanghelidjh says.

"The fundamental issue is how much quality attachment you had to a parent figure as a child. If you have had good care as a child, you can survive almost anything. Emotional deprivation is a lethal weapon."

The children who attend Kids Company often become uncontrollably angry at behaviour that seems to replicate abuse they suffered as children. They find it difficult to calm themselves down. "They all used to say to me, 'I can't calm down, Camila. I can't fucking calm down." I knew that they weren't all random, that there had to be a reason for them being like that. We have found that 83 per cent of our children have multiple traumatic memories; when they are abused, their bodies release a lot of adrenalin, and that acts as a super-efficient ink that stamps the memory into the brain."

With no caring adult in their lives with whom to discuss the trauma, the child becomes more and more agitated. Children at Kids Company are often unable to sit still, unable to sleep. Direct eye-contact is intolerable. "For them, being looked in the eye was a precursor to being attacked. They also associate looking or staring with somebody witnessing them being abused and failing to protect them from it."

The only thing that releases the agitation is adrenalin they seek that release by looking for a fight, or an aggressive sexual encounter. They become hypersensitive to humiliation and will react in extreme ways to any perceived disrespect, or "dissing".

If someone is rude to a psychologically "normal" person, that person might become annoyed, but they will probably dismiss it eventually and get on with their day. If one of these children experiences a perceived humiliation in public, it triggers overwhelmingly stressful memories of being abused as a child. There is no limit to how aggressive they might become. They are, says Batmanghelidjh, unable to rationalise the situation, and are quite capable of murder.

"I can understand what happened in the Garry Newlove murder. He probably came out of his house and quite legitimately shouted at some children who were behaving badly. But we have no idea what that shouting might have triggered in those boys. What would have been a normal shout at a normal kid turned into something fatal. I can imagine it. I have seen what these kids are capable of in times of stress.

"My dream is to make the general public understand that this violence is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue. It behaves like a virus. If we want to understand it, we need to have experts on how viruses spread to find out how it is working at street level."

Kids Company's approach is, first, to make the children understand that they are not bad or evil something they will have been told often in their previous lives. Their disorder is explained to them, and they are encouraged to channel their mental frustration and anguish into non-criminal activities. They are also provided with therapy to unpick the frozen traumatic memories.

"We have plastic brains to explain to the kids what's going on in their heads. The first time you talk to them about how they're feeling, and why, they look at you and say, 'Oh my God! How did you know that about me?' And then you ask how they're sleeping and you discover that this knife-wielding, terrifying teenage boy is wetting his bed because his nightmares are so bad."

Rather then seeking out fights, the children are encouraged to box, run on a treadmill, or even go hang-gliding to achieve the vital adrenalin release all activities that are arranged by the centre. All the windows at the centre are of perspex, as it is assumed that the children will, at some point, put their fists through them. There isn't any furniture around that is too easy to pick up and throw.

Boxing is, of course, an old-fashioned remedy for troubled boys' aggression. Both Frank Bruno and Mike Tyson came from difficult backgrounds and channelled their rage into the ring. And yet, both Tyson and Bruno have had their own mental health problems in later years; as Batmanghelidjh knows, boxing alone is not enough.

"The children have access to art and drama therapy, which works very well. We had one boy who, when he was stressed, used to spit at people. It was very horrible. So his drama therapist worked with him and asked him to make his spit talk."

I'm not absolutely sure what she means by this, but it seems that by giving his spit a voice, the boy was able to reveal his problem to his therapist; he had been raped as a four-year-old, and then again at 11. After that, he was forced into prostitution. Once these traumatic memories had been aired to his therapist, the spitting stopped.


Throughout the profession, it is acknowledged that Batmanghelidjh's approach gets results; even clinicians who practise very different sorts of therapy see that. The recent findings of a report on Kids Company, carried out in conjunction with the Institute of Psychiatry, speak for themselves: 97 per cent of Kids Company children say that their lives have benefited positively from it; 88 per cent of teachers working with Kids Company therapists say that the behaviour of their troublesome children improves; and 87 per cent of the youths who are enrolled in the Kids Company centres are helped back into education and employment.

But these results take time and money. Progress is slow. It can take five or six years for a child to show signs of rehabilitation, and they will always bear the scars of their past traumas.

For the moment, Kids Company is on a high. The excellent results from the report, combined with the high-profile involvement of public figures notably Prince Charles and Alan Yentob have made the Establishment sit up and take notice of Batmanghelidjh.

"Shelia Hancock mentored one of our most challenging kids," says Batmanghelidjh in wonder. "I mean... this kid was vile! Sheila wanted to take her to the zoo. I thought, 'Are you mad?' But Sheila was wonderful. And Helen Mirren I've never met her, but after she won her Oscar for The Queen, we got a call saying that she wanted to donate her earnings from her TV appearances to us. We couldn't survive without kindnesses like that." Kids Company has just been awarded a 12m government grant. Good news, but the money only applies to children over 14; Batmanghelidjh still has to find 4m to provide for her under-14s.

Also, the work is getting more dangerous. "My staff and I are working in a very risky environment and we are at risk from the wider communities we work in. When we first started, the firearms were in the hands of the drug dealers and they would only use them to mind their business. Now they are in the hands of 15- and 16-year-olds. It's a different ball game. We have hired extra security to stand at our gates in bulletproof vests.

"One of the things I often worry about is being snatched into a van or being shot at I'm really aware of that. I get sent threats all the time I have to call social services for some children, or pull one out of a paedophile ring. Yes, I get threatened. I've written my will, you know what I mean? I'm realistic.

"But my kids have lived this life, every day, as little children. The least I can do as an adult is live it with them 14 hours a day. I get to go home and sleep in my own bed and thank God that no one knows where I live."