Who really is Camila Batmanghelidjh, the former boss of Kids Company?
She certainly is a woman with powers of persuasion. For 14 long years, Alan Yentob, one of the BBC’s most senior managers – in his role as the charity’s chairman, was her door opener to corporate funds and gave her a gloss of establishment respectability.
His support allowed Kids Company to raise tens of millions of pounds, including £30 million of government cash, and helped made it one of the most successful and high-profile charities in the land.
In their joint appearance before the Commons Public Administration committee, Yentob bull-headedly maintained that Batmanghelidjh was both brilliant at running Kids Company and had done no wrong , despite mounting evidence suggesting there had been poor stewardship, elements of profligacy and exaggerations of the impact of the organisation on a substantial scale.
In consequence of this seemingly totally unquestioning loyalty – which also led Yentob to trying repeatedly to influence BBC coverage of the Kids Company bankruptcy – he could now, if the Trustees for once fulfil their role properly, lose his job as Creative Director.
A BBC career which began in 1968 could end in ignominy, though his £6.3 million BBC pension pot would no doubt ease the blow. So what was it that persuaded Yentob to embark on this kamikaze course?
Batmanghelidjh certainly had a seductive vision. She wanted to help what she claimed was a huge feral underclass of children in our inner cities who had had been on the one hand excluded by their families and, on the other, had slipped through the net of formal child protection measures. To do so, she had built a network of around a dozen drop-in centres where she claimed 36,000 children every year received food, cash, travel passes, key-work therapy support and above all, love.
Kids Company – however chaotically – undoubtedly in some ways met a need. Government policies – including those of George Osborne and Nicky Morgan – have been systematically undermining the cohesion of family life for decades.
But was Kids Company handling 1,500 or so genuine cases a year or 36,000? That remains to be seen. The latter is the number in Kids Company annual report claimed to be helping; it emerged at the Commons hearing that only a thousand or so records had actually been passed on to social services after the charity went bust.
As always, in the face of such evidence, Batmanghelidjh argued that she was right and everyone else – and especially the nasty prying reporters like Miles Goslett who did not do her bidding and conspiratorial civil servants who withheld a £3 million grant – were wrong.
But how reliable is she? Remarkably little has been written about the huge contradictions and omissions in her life story. Scratch the surface of what she claims and you are in a kind of Narnia. According to Camila, she is a woman of remarkable powers of caring who, forced out of her native Iran by the Ayatollah Khomeini, overcame astonishing odds to fulfil her pre-destined purpose to save millions of children. But to put it bluntly, it simply does not add up.
Examples of self aggrandisement saturate every page of her autobiographical book Shattered Lives. In the first page of chapter one, as a taster, she tells us that she seemed to have been born with a ‘profound knowing’ (about children’s problems) and that by the age of nine, in her native Iran, was both reading complex psychiatric journals and being entrusted with the care of a class of 90 nursery-age children.
She then recounts her education. There is one specific qualification – a Master’s Degree in psychotherapy from Regent’s College London. Most of the rest is placements with social services, jobs in nurseries, and the like. Read quickly it all sounds very convincing and impressive – a woman with a mission and in a rush – but none of it is verifiable.
Another question here is whether Batmanghelidjh is actually a properly-qualified psychotherapist. Yes, she is specific where she took the degree, but most of those who go on to practise psychotherapy then register with one of the two professional bodies, the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) or the UK Council of Psychotherapists (UKCP).
Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Administration Committee, specifically asked her if she was a member of a professional body. Her only response was that she was ‘talking to’ UKCP – whatever that meant – and she then did not seem able to know what the initials UKCP actually stood for.
Another huge question mark here is that the basic MA which Batmanghelidjh says she took does not encompass expertise in counselling children, or identifying and coping with their special needs – child psychotherapy is a complex specialised field that requires years of extra study. That leads to a suspicion that this self-styled Pied Piper has no specific qualifications at all to be working with vulnerable children.
Other massive doubts about Batmanghelidjh are raised by this article in Glamour magazine. It’s the type of puff-feature for she would have had ‘copy approval’, which means in effect, it was written largely to her specification.
Every assertion – as in the autobiography – seems to be calculated myth-building, constructed to explain and justify her lack of qualifications.
First, though, comes a touch of messianic modesty. She claims she is brilliant because her abilities are a fusion of the spirituality of one grandparent and the entrepreneurial genius of the other –a multi-millionaire by the age of 22.
She then tells us that her empathy for children was there from birth because she was born two and a half months prematurely and nearly died. As a result, too, she became so ‘dyslexic’ that she can’t write. Hey presto! That therefore absolves herself of the need to have formal qualifications. And if you doubt her, you are being anti-dyslexic, and attacking her on the grounds that ‘there’s something medically wrong with me’.
Her realisation that she was ‘good with toddlers’ comes next. She had no money and chose child care as the least bad way of making some. The nasty rich people she worked for were so callous as parents that their children were desperately unhappy. Her charges self-harmed by cutting their hands, then wrote on the walls with their own blood, cut up Persian carpets, too and also stepped through ‘Francis Bacon paintings’(!).
There follows another convenient problem: when she was finding her way in London as a student she had to ‘hide her name’ because if she didn’t, the Ayotollah Khomeini would find her and have her killed. That meant she had to adopt a series of assumed names based on colours. Most of her work experience in the childcare field was in this period. Hey presto again! That means for a very good rabbit-out-of-the-hat reasons none of her work history can be verified.
In summary, the more you probe, the more elastic and seemingly preposterous the written information about Batmanghelidjh becomes. It feels like a weird Hall of Mirrors.
If she can prove I am being a nasty suspicious journalist putting two and two together to make five, I would be delighted to hear from her. But from what I have read, the only way of describing Kids Company is that it was a cult based on her own giant ego. More fool Yentob for believing her.