After 19 dedicated years of service to child welfare in the UK, well-known children’s charity Kids Company has closed its doors amid a whirlpool of controversy.
An investigation by BBC’s Newsnight and BuzzFeed revealed that £3m of government funding was to be withheld from the charity, unless its leader – Camila Batmanghelidjh – stepped down. The funding was reinstated against the advice of senior civil servants and despite allegations of financial mismanagement and misconduct. Later, it was reported that the Cabinet Office has plans to recover the funds, and the charity closed its doors on August 6.
The charity sector plays a crucial role in protecting vulnerable children and families. The National Children’s Bureau 2011 report, Ripple Effects identified more than 64,000 charities working in child welfare and child protection across the UK. Children’s charities have however, been vulnerable to austerity measures. Government funding is expected to have been reduced by £405m by 2016.
In the face of austerity, when a household name like Kids Company closes down, it’s important to reflect on its legacy.
Started in 1996 by Camila Batmanghelidjh, the mission of Kids Company was to provide education as well as practical and emotional support to inner-city children living in deprived or dangerous neighbourhoods. It operated in London, Bristol and Liverpool, offering support to schools and communities through 11 street centres, partnership with 40 schools and outreach work with vulnerable communities. A therapeutic performing arts programme was also operated in Liverpool.
The broad remit of Kids Company has been to provide different avenues of skilled support to vulnerable children, young people and families at the street level, using a “unique wraparound package of care” for each child. Despite the criticism of narrow therapeutic interventions, it is undeniable that over two decades, Kids Company has increased its reach and impact in working with vulnerable children.
Over the years Kids Company has distinguished itself within the charity sector. In 2007 it was awarded the Liberty and Justice Human Rights Award. It was also awarded “Child Poverty Champion” status by the Child Poverty Action Group, for its work in empowering disadvantaged children and young people. By 2013, this growing recognition within the sector enabled Kids Company to secure government funding of £8m over two years, which was to be used to provide summer residential programmes focused on retraining and employment.
Of course, it’s impossible to discuss Kids Company without mentioning the charismatic personality of its leader Camila Batmanghelidjh. A strong voice for immigration, enterprise and child welfare, Batmanghelidjh has also received accolades for her work in the charity sector, including a CBE. Charitable organisations often need strong voices and colourful advocates to etch their social cause into public memory, and Batmanghelidjh is a formidable force in the charity world.
Indeed, it has been noted that part of what made Kids Company unique is the fact that it was a “product of a profoundly unequal city where extremes of deprivation and of privilege co-exist uneasily; the genius of Camila Batmanghelidjh was being at home in both, serving the former by prodding the conscience of the latter”. But the often unconventional approaches used by Bantmanghelidjh, and her closeness to certain government officials and wealthy allies, have fuelled existing controversies around financial mismanagement.
A bad omen for charity work?
On one level, these events serve as a warning that charities must not be held up by a single personality; creating and sustaining a positive impact will depend on more than just the face of an advocate – no matter how recognisable that face is.
But the closure of this veteran organisation also highlights the uncertainties surrounding the charity sector at the current time, and has stoked fears about the wider decline of the welfare state. The end of Kids Company raises questions about whether charities should have close links to the private sector; or whether the wider child protection agenda should remain within the ambit of the government.
The fact is that 6,000 vulnerable children now no longer have the support of Kids Company. Between the political wrangling of the government and the demise of this charity, there is a serious risk that the voices of people who use these services will be lost. As Peter Beresford reminds us, it is the service users themselves – the under-priviledged children, young people and families – who are best placed to comment on the contributions made by Kids Company. Anyone who attempt to “fill the gap” left by Kids Company – whether government or charity – has a duty of care to those left behind.