Camila Batmanghelidjh
Ashoka Fellow since 2007   |   United Kingdom

Camila Batmanghelidjh

Government service programs are failing to address the needs of the increasing number of children in the U.K. who have faced neglect or abuse. Camila Batmanghelidjh has developed a more comprehensive…
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This description of Camila Batmanghelidjh's work was prepared when Camila Batmanghelidjh was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.

Introduction

Government service programs are failing to address the needs of the increasing number of children in the U.K. who have faced neglect or abuse. Camila Batmanghelidjh has developed a more comprehensive approach to delivering care that empowers children, families, and care professionals to work together and support the healthy development of some of the U.K.’s most disadvantaged youth.

The New Idea

Traditional family and neighborhood child-rearing and protection networks in the U.K. have collapsed, leaving the most vulnerable children without the care and support they need to recover from abuse and neglect. As state service provision has become increasingly siloed and increasingly likely to apportion blame on children themselves, services have worsened and children’s needs have gone unaddressed. In response, Camila is creating a holistic model of support for children within schools and on the streets that is founded on the belief in nurturing always, and on addressing the psychological needs of children as a critical step towards full healing. Camila works within schools in extremely low-income neighborhoods where an overwhelming number of children have faced trauma caused by neglect, abuse, or violence in the community. She provides them and their families with medical, social, psychological, legal, and other services through participatory activities that create a nurturing environment that attracts continued participation. Camila then works with violent and abused street children and establishes safe street centers through which she implements her model to heal and reintegrate them into society. Next, Camila works with research centers, child care specialists, and the media to transform the current negative paradigms towards troubled children that have led to ineffective policies and inappropriate child care. She demonstrates scientifically that traumatized children are physiologically affected by neglect and violence, and that they can be cured by a nurturing approach.

The Problem

There is a recognized escalation in violence among children in the U.K. Much of the current social discourse—which in turn informs government policy and care structures—attributes this rise in violence to lack of respect or poor moral choices on the part of the children. It is clear, however, that the root causes of the increase in violence and abusive behavior are much deeper and more complicated.

For many children, family structures and community networks have been shattered. Generations of children are born into households without good parenting or even basic understanding about proper caregiving. Thus, many of the most vulnerable young people do not have a competent caregiver in their lives—a parent, extended family member, or friend in the community—that can command services on their behalf, or navigate the path to help.

Children raised in dysfunctional families are more likely to suffer from neglect and abuse. And without intervention or proper treatment, these children are most likely to develop into adults with psychological troubles, and worse, into parents who themselves are abusive and neglectful. In addition, there is increasing scientific evidence that serious neglect and abuse can have a negative impact on brain development and neurochemical infrastructure. Studies show that when children are severely and regularly abused, the brain enters a state of hyperarousal and brings about a deregulation of healthy brain function.

Currently, services for troubled children are siloed in an inaccessible, piecemeal fashion. A lack of common standards and communication between service providers, both geographically and cross-discipline, means that the various needs of children are not being met. Moreover, organizations within the care system are stuck in the traditional referral framework. However, children in dysfunctional families rarely engage with the referral agencies or follow-up on scheduled appointments, so ultimately do not get the support they need.

The care profession is concentrating increasingly on outputs and outcomes, rather than nurturing and caring for children who need multifaceted treatment to recover from abuse and develop healthily. And as the profession becomes devalued, its ability to argue the case for a quality approach to service provision rather than a quantity-based approach is diminished.

The Strategy

Camila founded Kids Company eleven years ago to transform care structures for children who do not have an adult providing adequate care or advocating on their behalf. Camila takes a child-centered approach to delivering care that empowers the children to rebuild and take control of their lives. Staff work with the child, rather than on the child, to identify their needs, and then provide support in the areas of mental health, housing, education, nutrition, and self-esteem.

The Kids Company model strives to meet all the basic physiological and emotional needs of the children it supports. Camila provides, where required, quality housing, food, clothing, and health care. To reduce trauma and balance brain chemistry, she provides alternative therapies such as massage, osteopathy, and sports activities. Clinical biochemistry assessments and subsequent nutritionally-based interventions are used to address chemical imbalances as well. To address issues of self-worth, Camila helps the children identify a talent or passion and enables them to pursue that passion, fundamentally shifting their self-perception from victims to people defined by their qualities, talents, and achievements.

At Kids Company, children are supported unconditionally, within a simple rules framework, in order to recreate family structures and bonds. This “owning the act of care” by Camila’s staff provides children the space to be able to relax, feel safe, play, have fun, and begin to heal and grow. Children go from a point of despair to the possibility of hope. In this way Camila provides the support structures that give rise to healthy brain function, and thus constructive social behavior from children who would otherwise exhibit disruptive, violent, or aggressive behavior.

Camila also breaks down divisions between caregiver and subject. Children move from recipients, where care is imposed, to active participants, where they learn to value themselves and their abilities. This transforms the power dynamic of the care relationship and allows children to begin believing in themselves and their capacity to change their behavior.

Through her work with academic and medical institutions, Camila regularly tests and develops new tools to understand and shape children’s treatment and recovery process. For example, by establishing neurophysiological evidence that proves dysfunctional family relationships negatively effect brain development, Camila has been able to make the case for the adoption of new methods by the state to comprehensively address the damage done to abused and neglected children. Thus, Camila is changing child care provision at a micro level and using the evidence of her success to prove the effectiveness of a new model for government policy and practice.

Camila is leveraging corporate involvement from Ernst and Young and Accenture to measure the effectiveness of Kids Company compared to other approaches currently offered by government-funded service providers. She hopes to prove convincingly that there is a cost benefit available to government commissioners who adopt this methodology—in other words, that by investing money into developing the Kids Company approach today, the state will save money in the long-run.

Camila is also committed to spreading her model across her field and has formed a leadership group to help her do so, and ultimately reinvent child care. She is shaping Kids Company into a center of excellence that trains individuals and organizations in the various methodologies she has developed. In addition, she trains child care teams in hospitals and clinics around the U.K. and in other countries, including Egypt, Iran, Russia, and South Africa, and has developed a service delivery manual to assist her.

Camila and Kids Company have some 200 paid staff, 180 staff mentors, 2,000 volunteers, and 200 clinical trainees. In 2006 alone, Kids Company supported more than 11,000 children in thirty-three schools and two street level drop-in centers. The turnover for Kids Company last financial year was in excess of £5M (US$8.2M). Her organization is also growing, taking on more centers and working with more schools, mainly outside London.

The Person

Camila was born into a privileged Iranian family and spent her early years growing up towards the end of the Shah of Iran’s rule. She remembers being fascinated with the nature of the human mind and psyche from an early age, even begging her mom to subscribe to a journal of children’s psychology. Camila also remembers thinking that she had too much energy and curiosity to be contained within the scope of a normal life. She channeled this energy into two particular interests: Children and painting.

When she was nine, Camila’s school entered two of her paintings into an international art competition, which she won. When the Iranian Minister of Culture found out that the winner was a nine-year-old child he insisted on meeting with her. The minister, probably sensing the forthcoming political turmoil, observed that Camila was “too unusual” to stay in Iran, so her parents sent her to a special education school in Switzerland.

While in Switzerland, Camila was diagnosed with severe dyslexia, and due to the nature of the school, was provided with specialist teaching support and with opportunities to take a leadership role in organizing the school’s entertainment events—an interest and talent of hers.

At age twelve, Camila moved to the Sherbourne School for girls in Dorset (U.K.) where she was put in the bottom set of children because of her dyslexia. To rebel against the rigid system, and to prove that she was capable, Camila organized an entertainment show that soon the entire student body wanted to participate in. Experiences like these made her recognize and appreciate the innate talent that all people have, and to also challenge conventional structures, particularly when dealing with children and learning.

While at Sherbourne, Camila’s father was imprisoned during the Iranian revolution for his links to the old regime. This left her with no income, and from the age of fourteen she started to work in special schools and nurseries to pay her school fees.

At Warwick University, Camila studied Theatre and Dramatic Art. She acted in and wrote several theatrical shows while all the time working in a counseling capacity with private clients. After university, Camila went on to found a counseling service for the university, a counseling service for a citizen organization called Women’s Aid, and another organization, The Place to Be, training 250 counselors and working in eleven primary schools to provide counseling support to children. Camila’s commitment to challenging the current paradigm of service eventually led her to establish Kids Company, where she has embedded a transformative approach to service provision from day one and across all the activities of her organization.

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