John-Paul Flintoff

Can "bad kids" turn good?

One London woman believes they can

Not long ago, three teenagers boarded the No. 12 bus in south London: Cleo, Mandy, and Mandy’s brother Brian. At the top of her voice, Cleo said: “I’m going to mess someone up on this bus.” And the three of them started robbing the passengers.

Cleo saw an attractive ring on one woman’s finger. She went over and started tugging at it, trying to get it off. In response to this, the woman behaved extremely unusually. She didn’t seem scared, for a start. She said, “You clearly need help.” She told them she wouldn’t allow them to carry on robbing people and asked them to get off the bus with her. They were scornful, but did as she asked. Then she told them about a place where they could find help.

Most people, encountering such children, would be too wrapped up in fear to venture such a compassionate insight into their antisocial behaviour (nor would that necessarily be recommended). But the woman with the ring, Suzanne Harding, happened to work for a remarkable children’s charity, Kids Company. As head of education, she was able to guess correctly the dreadful condition of these children’s lives.

As investigations would later show, the children were living together in a dismal home in Camberwell, surviving entirely on their own. There were five of them. Mandy, the second child in her family, looked after the others. (Her father had died of an overdose, her mother was a heavy drug user.) Cleo had moved in with them after her own mother threw her out when she was 12.

They lived without chairs or tables. They shared two broken beds. They had no functioning cupboards, using bin liners instead. Having only three plates, two forks and one spoon, they took turns to eat. Or just used their fingers to scoff items they had stolen from supermarkets and high street bakers.

When they weren’t robbing bus passengers, they often picked on people their own age, seeming friendly, taking them around a quiet corner, then grabbing their belongings. Sometimes they robbed drunks in the West End. For fun, they jumped on trains and went to the seaside. But they stopped going to Brighton after one of their friends was raped there. None had attended school for a very long time.

Perhaps predictably, their response to Suzanne’s offer of help was abusive. “No one can cope with us,” they boasted. All the same, they came to have a look at the place she described. They found cosy nooks and chairs covered in drapes. There were kitchens, an office and art rooms. Children of all ages ran around or sat quietly, alone or in pairs to play or to read. Here and there, adults stood chatting with them.

To Mandy, Brian and Cleo, this seemed a wonderful opportunity for creating mayhem. Shouting and swearing, they opened all the doors and overturned all the tables. They threw all the books off the bookshelves. Having done that, they went away. Over the following days and weeks they came back and did much the same, again and again. But one day they arrived covered in blood, after somebody was shot in front of them. They were shaking and scared and hungry. Once again, a kindly adult spoke to them. They shouldn’t be seeing that kind of thing, she said. They could get help.

When I was at school, at an inner-London comprehensive, I knew many children like Cleo. One boy in particular comes to mind. At the first parents evening Robert Lester arrived late, dragging his mother behind him. Even to me, aged 11, it was obvious that she was a prostitute – she looked like the ones I’d seen on television. She was also hopelessly intoxicated; heckling the teacher and laughing wildly at routine information about timetables and so on. Robert was plainly embarrassed. Later that evening, my mother told me he must be a very unhappy little boy and that I should be especially nice to him. But Robert never seemed especially interested in my friendship. Instead, he would spit in my face and lock my arm behind my back. I was by no means his principal victim, and his attendance was sporadic, but for the first year or two Robert – and others like him – terrified me. Eventually they stopped coming altogether. I didn’t miss them.

Years later, I went looking for Robert and the rest of my classmates when researching a book about my experience of state education. The final chapter contained a brief outline of their subsequent life stories: how they became, variously, shopkeeper, teacher, dope fiend, musician, photographer, firefighter, and so on. Some were hard to locate, but I found them eventually. A few seemed to have disappeared altogether: without exception, these were the ones who, like Robert, had been horrid, brutal children. Two, I learned, were dead; the others I guessed were in prison.

Ever since, I have thought of Robert whenever confronted – as we all are, occasionally – by those children and teenagers who hang around on street corners and eyeball you with menace. I’ve wondered if these children were irreparably antisocial. Could they, as my generous, socially liberal mother believed, be “turned” into something more appealing, perhaps even useful to the society that, presently, has no better solution to the challenge they represent than to throw them into prison at the first chance? Could Robert have been helped? Could that ring-pulling girl on the bus, Cleo?

At Kids Company they believe she could.

The charity’s main site in south London is known as The Arches (it was originally founded under a railway arch). At most play centres, you might see parents dropping off their children or picking them up. That doesn’t happen here, not often, anyway, because many of the children who come here lack reliable parents. That might be because of mental health problems or drug addiction, or because the parent is in prison. The vast majority have no father figure.

The following paragraph describes the lives of some children who found their own way to Kids Company. (It’s taken from a random sample put together for fundraising materials.) One girl, aged seven, was taken to visit her mother’s drug dealer when a gunman broke in and threw the dealer out of the window; the girl wouldn’t stop crying for days. A brother and sister live with a pathologically obese mother who is unable to get out of bed. Another seven-year-old girl has no known father and a mother dying of cancer; Kids Company is trying to organise fostering arrangements before the mother dies, but social services wants to do it afterwards; the girl sinks deeper and deeper into silence. A boy, aged five, found his father dead after an overdose of alcohol and drugs. Four children, aged from two to 11, were found by Kids Company staff living in a bedroom covered in urine and flies; they had no beds and no sheets. One three-year-old’s hair is falling out from anxiety. A nine-year-old had been rejected by his mother and was brought up by a man who is not his father, frequently absent because of work; the boy wears a house-key round his neck and carries a timetable explaining when to wash his hands and what to eat; he’s often devastatingly lonely. One seven-year-old’s vagina is severely damaged after she was assaulted with a house key, aged two, by a carer; her older brother has the manner of an old man, with the burden of the world on his shoulders.

But the really shocking thing is not the individual stories. It’s the sheer number of children involved. Kids Company doesn’t only care for children who turn up at its gates: it also works within some 17 schools in south and central London. Head teachers give them the names of children known to be troubled: at one school there are no fewer than 110 child-protection cases. So as not to miss anybody, Kids Company staff also speak to individual teachers, who might say: “This child has been smelling for three years, and nobody knows why…” Altogether, there are some 4,500 children on Kids Company’s books.

The founder of Kids Company is Camila Batmanghelidjh (everybody calls her Camila), a surprisingly cheerful woman of large stature, always distinctively dressed in colourful robes and turban. She first came to public attention in Britain after a 10-year-old boy, Damilola Taylor, was murdered by other children in south London in November 2000. She was interviewed extensively on television because, with her base in south London, she seemed to know so much about the grim lives of the children believed to be responsible. (Nobody has yet been convicted.) But her work is of much wider significance than that might suggest. As the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, recently told her, Camila’s approach to antisocial children could be of enormous significance for (among others) the many thousands of haunted and dangerous child soldiers and former child soldiers in Africa.

Camila was born two-and-a-half months prematurely to a wealthy Iranian-Belgian family in Tehran. Weighing less than a kilo, she was not expected to survive. She did, but with many health problems. “That’s why I’m large. I also had some learning difficulties. I’m fluent in speech but writing is difficult. I thought I was thick. I couldn’t tie my own laces till I was 12.” But she had an appetite for learning: at nine, she enrolled her mother in a psychological society so that she could read the journals.

She was sent to school in England, at Sherborne in Dorset, and was there when the Iranian revolution took place. “I had word that my father had been killed. It was a very dramatic time. My older sister committed suicide… I ended up with no status and no money, because the bank accounts had been frozen.” The school, to its credit, kept her on. And a neurologist amazed everybody by declaring that she was intellectually advanced. He suggested she use tape recorders instead of pen and paper. The result was dramatic: she qualified to study theatre and dramatic arts at Warwick University and took the first first-class degree in many years. Then she did an MA on the philosophy of counselling and psychotherapy, two years of child observation at the Tavistock Clinic in north London and a course in art therapy at Goldsmiths, in south-east London. For four years, she trained in psychotherapy.

At intervals during her studies, she also worked with children. Word spread around the affluent homes of Knightsbridge that she could sort out difficult toddlers. “I can’t explain why. It must be a gift. I never try to control a child, just find the source of the behaviour and change it. I had no inhibitions, didn’t worry at all. I remember one kid having a tantrum on the pavement, screaming her head off, and I just sat and waited on a bench. I sat for an hour and a half, and when she saw that I didn’t lose it, she didn’t do that again. I saw terrible neglect in those homes. I would say, ‘Your child is doing this because you are not spending enough emotional time with him or her.’”

Underlying everything Camila does is a belief in the attachment theory elaborated by the British child-psychologist John Bowlby and others. This essentially holds that children develop as the direct result of how their first carers engage with them. Physically and emotionally neglected children expect others to be unresponsive, unavailable, and not willing to meet their needs. Abused children expect others to be rejecting, hostile, and unavailable. Both types behave in ways that increase the likelihood that others will treat them in the ways they expect. And once a child has established a model of its relationships, Bowlby suggested, changing it can be difficult. Thus, when offered the hand of friendship, Robert Lester would spit.

In Why Love Matters, published this year, psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt presents a highly readable account of the latest research, which uses the hard science of biochemistry and technologically advanced dynamic brain scans to support attachment theory. Her book, substantially indebted to the cross-disciplinary work of University of California professor Allan Schore, demonstrates that adult behaviour towards babies produces effects that are physically etched on to the babies’ brains for years to come.

One of the most important factors distinguishing human beings from our nearest primate relatives is the development of inhibitory mechanisms. These are physically located in pre-frontal lobes that mature in spurts around the ages of two and five years; a child’s experiences in early life – and the biochemicals that flood the brain during that period – literally determine the lobes’ structure. When a baby is upset, for example, the brain produces a hormone, cortisol. In normal amounts cortisol is fine – actually useful – but if a baby is either neglected or abused the brain becomes accustomed to levels that are either too low or too high. This leads, respectively, either to depression and fearfulness or emotional detachment and aggression.

If this affected only one child, it would be bad enough. But parenting behaviour is re-enacted across generations. One study, by the University of Minnesota, showed that 61 per cent of mothers who had been sexually abused as children went on to maltreat their own children. The same study found that, of mothers who reported no abuse in their childhood, fewer than 1 per cent were identified as maltreating their child. How did individuals abused as children break the cycle? The same study found two distinguishing features: the availability of emotionally supportive individuals; and involvement in long-term, intensive psychotherapy, enabling them to come to terms with their early experiences. And that’s what children get from Kids Company.

When I met Camila for the first time we sat in the art room with the door locked to keep out children who clamoured constantly to speak with her. She drew a tiny stick figure on a piece of paper. When children come to her, she said, they’ve often lost the ability to empathise. It’s no good merely instructing them in conventional morality. “It’s about rekindling the capacity to feel. Unless you can experience empathy, and have a sense of self-preservation, you behave dangerously.” It is no use trying to explain to these children that their crimes have hurt their victims. “It’s not that they don’t realise, it’s that, deep down, they don’t give a damn.” Locking children in prison doesn’t work either, she says: 87 per cent re-offend. “If that was heart surgery they’d shut down the hospital.”

If children are to care for others, Camila said, they first need to hear someone apologise to them for everything they’ve been through. “We do that here. We apologise.” Then Kids Company staff attempt to remodel children’s ability to empathise by helping them to form intensive attachment relationships. In the process they often become more aggressive, not less. “They don’t want that attachment to develop,” Camila explained. “They say we are making them soft, and they won’t be able to survive on the streets.”

Their behaviour fluctuates wildly. Cleo, the girl who tried to rob Suzanne Harding on the bus, would sometimes come to Kids Company to curl up under a table and go to sleep. Seemingly incapable of showing affection while being watched, under the desk Cleo would stroke the shoes of the woman who sat there, Maz Alavi (one of several psychiatric specialists on Kids Company’s staff). But her moods remained unpredictable. Sometimes she would close the door, Alavi recalls, and sit crying. “One day she got angry and she wanted to beat me up. And she did, a bit.” Another time, Cleo locked herself into the toilets and started breaking everything inside. Another member of staff, Anthony Mitchell, went to investigate. “I said, ‘Cleo!’” he remembers. “She said, ‘Go away.’ But I’d heard glass break so I kicked the door down. She had a piece of glass in her hand. I tried to talk to her. I said, ‘Hit me.’ And she was, like, punching and kicking. And I said, ‘You got it out of you now?’ She said ‘Yeah’, and she started crying.”

In her book, Sue Gerhardt acknowledges that the brain forges neuronal connections throughout life: Einstein’s brain, on examination, proved to be 15 per cent wider than other men’s in the parietal area involved in maths reasoning and visual-spatial thinking. But again and again Gerhardt insists that the essential building work on a child’s brain occurs during pre-school years. Did Camila really believe she could rebuild a teenager’s pre-frontal lobe just by talking kindly and administering dietary supplements?

”Well,” she smiled, “we know from stroke victims that different areas of the brain can take over all kinds of tasks… The success rate depends a great deal on how early you get hold of the kids. If it’s before they’re 14 years old, you can really turn them round. But they will still have some problems: they’ll always be relatively quick to anger, and may have learning difficulties.”

As it happens, Camila had just returned from spending a week with Cleo, whose problems included an addiction to crack cocaine and who had recently attempted suicide after revealing to Camila for the first time a history of horrifying abuse. To get Cleo off crack, Camila took her away to a cottage in Somerset, miles from other people. “We went up together by train. The first thing she did at the cottage was run inside and get the knives.” (Cleo has a history of self-harm.) “I had to negotiate for her to give them back. As she was withdrawing she was shaking terribly. She showed unbelievable courage. I was exhausted – but we did it! Now we want to get her into rehab, because there are reasons why she did this.

”Cleo is a great example,” she continued, “of how quality care can help.” Once uncontrollably wild, Cleo used to stop on the street to pick fights with strangers. She doesn’t do that any more. Camila even takes her to restaurants, “to learn things that would not otherwise be in her behavioural repertoire – everything from engaging with waiters to holding the cutlery correctly”.

Over the last few months I have spent a great deal of time with Kids Company, observing as much as possible the full range of their activities. I hung around at The Arches, the drop-in centre, where children get one-to-one therapy and sessions with a trainer in neuro-linguistic programming. (In the public health sector they would get only pills. Kids Company’s mental health team is bigger than the combined teams of two local boroughs, Lambeth and Southwark.) They also receive massage and osteopathy and hot meals and vitamin supplements, plus regular education sessions, readying them to join state schools when places become available. (It can be a long wait. Hundreds of children in south London have waited more than a year.)

All of this is possible only thanks to the individuals and institutions, many of them businesses or City companies, who contribute money, products and spare time. (An example is WH Smith, which substantially funded the Kids Company exhibition, Shrinking Childhoods, which opened this week at Tate Modern.) Only 10 per cent of the nearly £2m a year Kids Company requires comes from government. That’s largely because the charity works in the gaps between government departments – where crime intersects with housing and education.

I visited Camila’s home in north London, full of colourful artwork, sprawling house plants, carpets and cushions, for one of the weekly meetings of the staff embedded at schools (typically in tiny classrooms that would otherwise be unused, and decorated inexpensively by volunteers). Among the first things she did was introduce Heidi Backman, from Switzerland, who has come to London to join Kids Company as a free-floating clinical psychologist. After that, staff raised their main concerns: one mentioned the case of a boy living with a suspected paedophile. Another member described a nine-year-old girl who persists in throwing herself down stairs. “I think she has been abused,” Camila ventured. Heidi, the new psychologist, asked: “What is the diagnosis?”

Camila replied with a smile: “They don’t do a diagnosis in this country – because then they would have to refer children to the health service, and that costs the local authority a lot of money.”

According to Camila, reforms of the public sector, designed to save money, have driven out the kind of people who could help troubled children. “As [public sector] agencies become more corporate,” she said, “the vocational personalities working within them tend to shut up, because they’re seen as a nuisance. To save money, they’re being driven to act unethically. But we are witnesses in these children’s lives, somebody independent to uphold their right to care.”

A few days later, Inbar Sagiv, a young Israeli who leads the Kids Company team at Lillian Bayliss school in Lambeth, walked me round that forlorn, dilapidated institution, hemmed in by council estates and boarded up terraces, and described various tough cases in her files. I also went on visits with Theresa Antwi-Boasiako, one of Kids Company’s social workers, who previously worked as a receptionist and, in her spare time, as welfare officer at her Pentecostal church. One visit was particularly telling. Danielle, 19, had recently been given a flat – the rent paid by Kids Company – after having a baby. The father of her baby, himself only 16, had left her. She seems depressed, Theresa told me, and spends hours dressing herself but doesn’t get around to bathing the baby for two weeks on end.

Danielle is not easy to help. Sometimes she doesn’t answer Theresa’s calls. Other times, Theresa drives miles across London to appointments and Danielle’s not there. When we arrived at her flat, she’d gone out (to McDonald’s). Under gentle pressure from Theresa on the phone she deigned to come back, accompanied by her baby in his pushchair, the baby’s aunt – only marginally older than Danielle – and the aunt’s toddler. We carried the pushchair to the top floor. (The lift was broken.) Danielle opened the door and spied among the vast pile of unopened mail three envelopes containing benefit payments. Her mood was transformed: she leapt about, beaming, wandered through to the undecorated living room and tore them open. (She was disappointed by the small sums.) Only after some minutes did she remember her baby, still lying outside the front door in the pushchair – and then only because Theresa gently reminded her. I came away depressed, convinced I had witnessed what promises for the baby, despite Theresa’s best efforts, to be a lifetime of neglect.

On another afternoon I attended a training session at Kids Company’s headquarters, a few miles across south London from The Arches. Twenty-two adults, roughly two-thirds of them women, sat in a circle in a sparsely furnished room. Most were in their thirties or forties. I recognised a few faces: Theresa, the social worker, Heidi, the new psychologist. There were several others, dressed in street gear, themselves reformed “bad kids”.

In this session, three of the adults were going to role-play difficult children, bursting into the Arches and causing mayhem. (By remarkable coincidence, they decided to play children whose cases I’d heard a great deal about: Cleo, Mandy, and another friend, Clifford.) The rest were to intervene appropriately or try to carry on with whatever they were doing. Camila instructed them to set up the room to resemble The Arches. “Can we have an art department over here, please,” she called. “And an office over there… “

As staff moved the furniture there was a lot of laughing and a powerful sense of expectation. Heidi sat at a table with a paper plate, pretending to be a child eating lunch, while Theresa sat opposite doing the same. Then, suddenly, everything went wild. “Cleo”, “Mandy” and “Clifford” rushed in swearing and throwing things around. Tables were overturned. One of the “children” pulled Theresa’s chair from under her, and she crashed on to her back. Soon after, somebody managed to intervene, taking “Mandy” out of the room with an arm held firmly behind her back – but she immediately found her way back in.

Camila turned to me with a grin: “This is exactly what happens!” At this point the woman playing Cleo shouted: “I WANT CAMILA! If you touch me I’m going to stab you!” Meanwhile “Clifford” lay on the floor, flailing and likewise yelling to staff not to touch him. (They weren’t touching him.) After a few moments more he got up.

When calm had been restored, there was a brisk burst of applause. Camila asked: “OK, what did we handle well and what did we not handle well?” (They did well by standing back: when the children realised that none of the adults was, in fact, touching them, they stopped struggling and got up. Not handled well: somebody left a door open, allowing the children to rush back inside.)

Finally, Camila asked me if I had any questions. There was one thing. What should I do, I asked, if I found myself on a bus with the likes of Cleo? Anthony Mitchell, still breathless after role-playing Clifford, came over to show me a couple of moving-image clips sent to him recently on his mobile phone. These showed a real mugging, filmed by the perpetrators as they harassed a victim on the Tube, slapped him around and took his phone and wallet. The victim is a black man in his early twenties, quite obviously frightened. “Look at this guy, he’s just sitting there,” said Mitchell with consternation. What should he have done? “You have to keep calm,” said one person. Another added: “If you are afraid, you have to hide that: Cleo told me once that what pisses her off is that people make an assumption that she is going to do something wrong.”

One evening in September, I arranged to meet Camila outside a branch of Nando’s, an inexpensive chicken diner. It was dark when she arrived, accompanied by a teenager who turned out to be Mandy. She was strikingly tall, casually dressed, wore a great deal of “product” in her hair, and concealed what I took to be an amiably goofy streak beneath the swagger and argot of a former street kid. Together, Camila announced, we were going up the road to a nearby mental hospital to visit a girl who had been forcibly admitted for observation; and to give her a chicken supper.

As we walked, I was shocked to learn that the girl in question was Cleo. Having overcome her addiction in the cottage in Somerset, she had been temporarily accommodated at a bed-and-breakfast near her friend, Clifford. But she remained fragile – having only recently started discussing her history of childhood abuse. The local authority’s housing department (typically uninterested in matters such as mental health, which fall outside its remit) proved characteristically slow to arrange a permanent home for her and the consequence was that Clifford’s mother – an addict – got Cleo back on crack again. Then she tried to kill herself.

I’d never met Cleo, but found this news surprisingly upsetting. I’d heard so much about her progress, noted the affection with which staff and other children spoke of her, and hoped she might prove Camila’s belief that even the hardest cases could be turned into valuable members of society. Was I to abandon that hope?

Entering the hospital, Camila advised us not to respond if people approached and behaved strangely. She also suggested I hide my notebook because it might worry the paranoid schizophrenics. I tucked it into my trousers, and as we turned a corner we arrived at the locked door to the ward. A black girl peered expectantly through the glass, eyes blazing with welcome. This was Cleo. She wore a red sweat-top and black squishy hat over braids that were coming apart. She hugged Camila and Mandy and accepted without comment Camila’s quiet explanation that I was interested in the work of Kids Company. A couple of other patients, interested to find out more about the visitors, came over to shake hands too.

The ward was unbearably grim. Grotty public sector furniture occupied the central area, creating a horseshoe round a ceiling-mounted television that most of the inmates ignored. Three-quarters were men, roughly twice Cleo’s age. They all looked malnourished and dirty.

We filed into a side room, separated only by glass panels. A grizzled man was reading a newspaper and muttering impenetrably at it in a Jamaican accent. Cleo began by telling Mandy about life in “the crazy ward”. She’d seen cockroaches, she said, with a childish combination of horror and satisfaction.

”Look at him,” she said suddenly, gesturing towards a man in a woolly hat who stood before a blank wall. “In one minute, he’s going to run into that wall and start headbuttin’ it.” And that’s what he did, repetitively and extremely hard. The nurses took their time arriving and he was stopped, eventually, by fellow patients.

Then Cleo described an establishment she visited not long before she was admitted here – a private hospital, catering specifically for adolescents with emotional problems. “Mandy, man, it was like a hotel.” But a bed became available at this ghastly mental hospital instead, saving the local authority a lot of money.

In this ward, patients are not allowed to keep anything even remotely dangerous. Bored and frustrated, Cleo threw a cold drink at one of the nurses earlier that day. “They came at me from nowhere,” she said. “It’s like they was in the floor.” Forcibly restrained, she was obliged to kneel with her hands behind her back. “This woman sat on me, Mandy, she was enormous. They put my head back to take these pills. I wouldn’t take them. But they came that close to injecting me, man, so I said, ‘All right, I’ll take your fuckin’ pills.’”

As she spoke, Cleo constantly dabbed her nose with a crumpled paper tissue. She found it darkly amusing that she had caught a cold in a hospital. A doctor had told her, she said, that she shouldn’t be in here because she wasn’t mentally ill. (She put on a “comedy” Indian accent in impersonation of this medical ally.) Mandy, standing up and pacing rather dramatically, urged Camila to do something: “Get her out, Mills.” In reply, Camila explained that Cleo has to be observed for two weeks more. There was nothing she could do about it.

Not long before we arrived, Cleo was visited by her mother. Until a few weeks before, they hadn’t seen each other for two years. The mother, for years a chronic alcoholic, has become a born-again Christian and was trying to forgive her daughter for her part in their troubled relationship. “But I ain’t forgivin’,” Cleo said.

It turned out that Cleo’s mother had taken from her daughter £20 provided by Camila for her to make calls from the ward’s public phone. Camila had brought no cash with her, so I offered my own small change. It wasn’t much: less than £5. Camila passed it to Cleo. Then Cleo went outside with Mandy to smoke. (Cigarettes, life-threatening only in the long-term, were allowed. Mandy had brought in fresh supplies.) While she was out, Camila told me again how outraged she was that a child had been admitted to this adult ward.

When the time came to leave, Cleo accompanied us to the locked door. She hugged Camila, then Mandy. Then the girl who, not long before, would threaten to stab any male staff at Kids Company who so much as looked at her, decided to hug me too. It’s hard to describe how touching I found this. Why did she do it? It can’t, surely, have been because I gave her £4.97 for the phone; nor because I expressed polite approval for a sketch she showed us depicting Sonic the Hedgehog. She hugged me, I believe, because I had made the effort to visit her in this horrible place and – despite remaining emotionally vulnerable – Cleo has learned to behave appropriately with strangers.

It would have been wonderful to have described meeting her in some other context: a restaurant, a university lecture, a society party. To report that the once-feral street kid had been transformed into, essentially, Audrey Hepburn. But nobody would believe that. For what it’s worth, I believe Camila has transformed Cleo, as she has transformed many other difficult children, but she can’t do everything. She can’t force the local authority to move faster to find Cleo accommodation (though she does what she can by writing letters and making calls). Nor can she always prevent doctors admitting a child to the adult ward of a mental hospital because that is cheaper than a rehabilitation centre that seems like a hotel.

Like the local authorities she deals with, Camila is limited by the resources available to her. Kids Company staggers from one financial crisis to another. On the day Heidi joined as psychologist, the charity’s trustees told Camila she must lay off a considerable proportion of her staff or face closure – unless she could find £500,000 within a few weeks. As her operations manager, Simon Tucker, formerly of McKinsey, explains, “It’s easy to look after middlingly vulnerable children. Really vulnerable children require more work and resources. We could dramatically improve our performance if we changed our client group.”

In an attempt to raise the money she needs, Camila recently commissioned a document comprising letters to potential donors, written by staff and by some of the thousands of children Kids Company has helped. One of these letters was written by Mandy, and it demonstrated, in characteristically exuberant fashion, a more straightforwardly positive answer than Cleo can perhaps for the moment provide to the question of whether wild children can be “saved”.

”When I first found out about Kids Co,” Mandy’s letter began, with reference to that violent incident on the No. 12 bus, “I was committing crime. I was taking drugs. I was not living in a safe environment. And I wasn’t in education. Now I have my own little flat, I pay my own bills, I take no more drugs, I don’t commit crime and I’m in full-time education. BEAT THAT!”

All children’s names have been changed.

5687 words. First published 20 November 04. © FT Magazine

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