It’s been a noisy couple of weeks for Kids Company. Since it was reported that the Cabinet Office was withholding £3m from the once-feted charity unless its chief executive, Camila Batmanghelidjh, stepped down, celebrities, including designers Bella Freud and Stella McCartney have rushed to her defence. The organisation, specialising in therapeutic support for troubled children, has maintained support from a number of prominent backers who have donated millions in the past. Batmanghelidjh, 52, vociferously denies claims of mismanagement and insists that she won’t be pushed out but had always planned to leave the role next year. “Ugly games” are being played in an effort to silence her “uncomfortable” message that vulnerable children are going unprotected, she says.
Kids Company has expanded rapidly in recent years: the result, it says, of a huge rise in demand from young people who have been turned away from mainstream services. Now Batmanghelidjh warns that the charity is likely to halve in size, with the loss of hundreds of staff, as it attempts to ward off a serious financial crisis. But, with 650 staff and an income reported at £23m in 2013, what does its work look like on the ground? Three young people who have been through Kids Company’s doors tell us what the charity’s intervention meant for them.
Eniola Akinlabi, 22, graduated from the University of Essex with a first in psychology a last year. She blogs about lifestyle, fashion and mental health, and attends Kids Company’s School of Confidence, funded by hairdresser John Frieda.
My problems started when I was 14. I lived alone with my mum and she was trying her best to support us, but it was a very distressing, confusing time for me. I felt very hopeless, like there was nothing out there for me. I had very bad mood swings, I was angry all the time, and began using alcohol as a coping mechanism. I’d been an A-grade student, but at school I became completely uncooperative. I would come in as I pleased, stay for an hour and then disappear. In lessons I was disruptive and confrontational; no one could tell me anything.
I talked to the school counsellor, but it got progressively worse. Eventually I was told by child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) that I had clinical depression and anxiety. At 17, I was referred to Kids Company by a teacher, and started seeing a key worker once a week. We mostly met in coffee shops, just to have a chat. Sometimes we’d have dinner. It took a while, but gradually she became my emotional rock. I’m still seeing her, five years later.
Some people say Kids Company should have stricter boundaries in its work. I think that’s absolute bullshit. Social services get really uptight about boundaries because they’re scared, but the most important thing when you work with children is being able to demonstrate that you love and care for them. With Kids Company, it was different from the school counsellor, or Camhs. It’s sort of like they bring you up. It was a lot more relaxed, which made it more comfortable to talk. I used to hate going to Camhs, where I just felt like someone was judging and assessing everything I said. I would go in for an hour and just stare at them; it was excruciating.
Kids Company deals with a lot of tough children; they get tested a bit. My key worker said at the beginning: “There’s nothing you can do – you can swear at me, you can tell me to go away – that’s going to make me like you or care about you any less.”
Through Kids Company, I got a mentor when I was at school, and did maths classes at its Urban Academy. I carried on seeing my key worker, though less often, when I went to university. I don’t think I would have got through it without her. She wrote to them about my mental health problems, so I got the emotional support I needed. These days I’m having therapy with Kids Company. I have an amazing mentor through the School of Confidence, and do workshops there, too.
The thought that Kids Company might close down is scary for me, because without them I wouldn’t be where I am right now. I would have been a completely different person; I think my mental health issues would have crippled me by now. Maybe I would have given up.
‘It helped me through some of my lowest moments’
Claudine Adeyemi, 25, is a solicitor working in property litigation for a large London law firm. Last year she founded the Student Development Co, a non-profit organisation providing careers support to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I left home when I was in the sixth form. Although we get on really well now, I didn’t have a very good relationship with my dad at the time and it just got too much. At first I was in a B&B – it was filthy and had bed bugs. Then I moved into a girls’ hostel, which was better, but a lot of the girls had their own issues. There would always be late-night parties, people taking drugs, all the issues you’d expect. I’d struggle to sleep, and would often feel low and think: “What’s the point?”
When I was 17, I won an award for student of the year in south London because I’d got four As at AS level, and it was Camila from Kids Company who presented me with it. She pulled me aside at the event, gave me her card and said I could get in touch with her. I got a Kids Company key worker, who I saw every week or couple of weeks. We’d go for a coffee and talk about any issues I had. The support I got was amazing. It was just comforting to know there was someone there that I could talk to, and it helped me through some of my lowest moments. She was always able to pick me up, was always encouraging and supportive and positive at a time when my confidence was low and it was hard to stay focused, living alone at a young age in the hostel.
I think people don’t always understand what Kids Company does, but that’s because they do so much and the support they give is completely on a case-by-case basis. My key worker also helped me get out of the hostel and into my own flat, after about a year. It was completely unfurnished, so she arranged for me to have some furniture that had been donated to Kids Company – a table and some sofas – and found this place where you could get other things really cheaply. She also got me a place on a mentoring programme linking young people with professionals, connecting me with a barrister who gave me an insight into the legal world.
Now I feel I have a kind of duty to provide support to others, which is why I set up the Student Development Co. Our volunteers work with young people aged 16 to 24, targeting those who are from low-income households or ethnic minorities. We’re particularly focused on the soft skills you need in the workplace. I wanted to do law from quite a young age, so I knew I had to get the grades. I ended up with four As, in English literature, history, politics and sociology, and studied law at University College London. I’m not sure how things would have gone if my key worker hadn’t been there. I don’t know if I would have been able to stay focused enough to get those results and get to where I am today.
‘These days I know I can achieve things’
Jane (not her real name), 25, is a full-time mother and has been seeing a Kids Company key worker and therapist for around four years
My father wasn’t around much when I was growing up and my mother was very violent. She used to hit us with whatever she could grab; she’d break antennaes off radios and beat us with them. There were times when she’d strip me naked, throw me into the shower and whip me with a bamboo stick or a belt. Once, when I refused to get ready for church, she locked me outside in my pyjamas – a vest top and shorts – for hours. It was the middle of winter.
When I was 16 I was raped – that’s how my daughter was conceived. I got the police involved but it didn’t go far; they didn’t believe me. I was the smart one, I was an A* student, but I got all Bs, Cs and Ds in my GCSEs and I was so depressed. I started college but I had all that trauma in my head and I didn’t stay.
It was only when I was 21 that I got involved with Kids Company. I’d just broken up with my boyfriend and he’d stolen my debit card and taken all the money from my account. I had nothing to pay my rent, electricity or gas with, no money to feed myself or my daughter. My state of despair must have shown on my face, because as I walked past one of the Kids Company centres, a key worker stopped me and asked if I was OK. I just broke down. Having grown up in a family where emotion wasn’t allowed, being asked if I was OK was a big thing.
They gave us some food and helped me get a budgeting loan. There was a long waiting list but later that year I got a key worker, and was also referred for therapy. I’d seen the state mental health people for depression when I was 18, but it hadn’t helped. As soon as I was discharged I was attempting suicide again. I just felt there was no way out. I thought: “This is what it’s always going to be like – it’s going to be shit, no one’s going to want me, I’m never going to be able to get a job or control anything.”
The therapy has been a lifeline for me. Because of the way I was feeling after my daughter was born, I hadn’t managed to bond with her and wasn’t nurturing her. Therapy has helped me to develop as a mother, and taught me how to show love for my daughter. It had never been shown to me, so how I was supposed to know how to show it? Today we have a really close bond. I did a year at Kids Company’s Urban Academy and managed to complete an arts course, which really built my confidence. Then I did an intermediate apprenticeship in customer service; Kids Company provided two hours of after-school care every day, which was a big weight off my shoulders because you get paid peanuts on apprenticeships, and it meant I didn’t have to worry about whether I’d have enough money for food. Now, I’m looking to go back to college to do an access course and want to study politics and international relations at university after that. These days, I know I can achieve things.
I still suffer from depression, but things are a lot better than they were. It’s really hard to pick up the phone and say: “I want to kill myself.” But knowing that they’re going to be there, that they’re going to help you through it, that’s the most beautiful thing.