Questions over Kids Company's use of money and its research projects continue to dog the children's charity following the news late last week — first reported by BuzzFeed News and BBC Newsnight — that the Cabinet Office was refusing funding to the organisation unless high-profile chief executive Camila Batmanghelidjh steps down.
Batmanghelidjh has defended her record as head of the high-profile charity and dismissed accusations of financial mismanagement, saying "the government is blackmailing a charity for no reason".
A report in the Sunday Telegraph highlighted concerns over the way the charity managed rented accommodation for teenagers. One former staff member told the paper: "They were just saying, here's a flat, and the kids were doing the things you'd expect unsupervised teenagers to do. Some of the kids' families were unhappy about it."
The Charity Commission also confirmed to the paper that it had been in contact with Kids Company's trustees to "urgently assess its funding position and the impact issues reported in the media may have on the future of the charity". There have also been reports that the charity had to call in the Official Receiver after being unable to pay staff last month.
In the Sunday Times, writer Camilla Long described how, over the course of nine hours, spread over two days, she met "about 75 staff but only two children".
Long also raised questions about the charity's research: "Someone told me about 100 children have been tested in order to prove — and I'm simplifying here — that hugs can reverse the effects of abuse on the human brain, which is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder." She added that she wasn't allowed to see a copy of an "academic report" Batmanghelidjh said she was producing.
She went on to describe how staff "seemed keen to pathologise the children's behaviour", and said she was told by a therapist that "the way a four-year-old waved his cutlery suggested he was disturbed".
Batmanghelidjh has long been committed to proving a link between abuse or neglect in early childhood and the development of the brain. In 2009, her charity produced an advert that made "misleading claims about a supposed link between emotional development, brain size and violent behaviour", according to an adjudication by the Advertising Standards Agency.
Her interest in the subject apparently stems back to 2002, when, according to the Evening Standard, Prince Charles sent her "a sheaf of 25 clinical papers that looked at the impact of abuse on children's brain development". Her charity has also offered support to the cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith after he was accused of "oversimplifying" and "distorting" the findings of a scientist by implying neglect or family breakdown could change the development of a child's brain.
In January, the charity uploaded a video to its Facebook page that showed fashion designer Katherine Hamnett and Batmanghelidjh discussing how love is "the most important ingredient" in brain development, and how the charity's "good quality care" could change a damaged brain.
Kids Company's attempts to research this issue have been going on for several years. It funded a 2008 study by the Institute for Child Health (ICH) and Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) to give brain scans to children to find out what caused their "antisocial behaviour". The project was entitled "Neural and physiological markers of antisocial behaviour in adolescents."
In the study, the charity selected 10 children aged between 10 and 14 and they were given brain and MRI scans. The charity had assessed whether these children's behaviour was "antisocial".
According to a Freedom of Information Act response, "the parents/carers (sic) consent for the MRI brain scan was obtained as part of the overall consent for the child to participate in the study". However, it goes on: "Where it was not possible to contact the child's parent/carer, the child's keyworker from the Kids Company signed the consent form."
An "information sheet for carers" produced for the research showed the children taking part received £10 for their participation in the study. The document says: "We are particularly interested in the relationship between changes in brain function and activity, and the development of specific mental abilities."
As well as brain and MRI scans, there were paper and pencil tests, computerised tests, and "assessment of physical status and emotional state". Urine and saliva samples were also taken. The data from the study wasn't published because, according to the FOI reply, it "did not confirm the hypothesis".
In 2010 the charity commissioned a similar-sounding £1.6 million project that aimed to study the brains of children. The research was carried out by academics from the Institute of Psychiatry, University College London, the Anna Freud Centre, University of Oxford, and the Tavistock Clinic.
Another FOI reply from 2013 gives details of a similar project in 2011 that included King's College London, Kids Company, and the Rita Lila Weston Foundation. In this study, 23 individuals aged 12-20 with childhood physical abuse and psychiatric diagnoses, 20 individuals "matched for psychiatric conditions" but with no physical abuse, and 27 "healthy controls" with no mental illness and no history of abuse were given brain scans.
On Friday night, Batmanghelidjh defended the charity on Newsnight, telling the show that the charity was audited on a quarterly basis. She said she she will step down "when the children, staff, and trustees feel it's the right time".
She also told The Times that she was targeted by the government after she approached senior figures in the Home Office with a list of names relating to the Dolphin Square paedophilia scandal, in which young boys were allegedly raped and murdered by establishment figures.
Alan White is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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