Kids Company — a charity that provided practical, emotional and educational support to deprived and vulnerable inner-city children and young people, in London, Liverpool and Bristol — closed its doors on 5 August due to a lack of funding.
Founded in 1996 by Camila Batmanghelidjh, Kids Company attracted significant “celebrity” and governmental support — in 2013 23% of its income came from central and local government and much of the rest from high-profile supporters, including Prince Charles, Coldplay, Richard Branson, J.K. Rowling and others.
Why did it fail? The simple answer seems to be a failure to plan for interruptions in funding, as has now occurred when concerns were raised about how the charity was run and spent money. In addition to concerns over safeguarding issues.
The Metropolitan Police have launched an investigation after young people disclosed experiencing sexual abuse and exploitation by other, older service users and reported that staff did not take this seriously or pass concerns onto the police or social services. Batmanghelidjh denies any awareness of sexual abuse or exploitation and claimed that such incidents would have been reported.
Much of the media coverage has focused on Batmanghelidjh as an individual — a controversial figure, portrayed as a “radical outsider” who was loved by the rich and powerful. But the story of Kids Company raises more fundamental issues about how services should be run.
Third sector organisations have long been central to the delivery of social care services. Many provide important and essential services to vulnerable people and, often, go the extra mile in doing so. Batmanghelidjh started Kids Company because she believed social services were failing children experiencing poverty, abuse and trauma.
The criticism is not unfair — but where does the problem come from?
Since 2008 child protection investigations have increased by 60%, child protection plans by 50%, care proceedings by 104%. At the same time funding is being dramatically cut. Caseloads are escalating; services are overstretched; thresholds are rising; and services are struggling to recruit and retain workers. In these circumstances vulnerable children and families can and do fall through the gaps.
Social services that remain in the public sector are increasingly case management and firefighting severe crisis situations, rather than direct work with young people. We’re told the solution is outsourcing to companies and charities that can work more creatively. But is the solution really contracting out these essential services? The closure of Kids Company suggests not.
The criticisms of Kids Company’s mismanagement and concerns around professional boundaries
highlight the issue of how accountability can cease to exist when the state contract essential social services to charities which it funds (just about) with public money but does not control, and which are not subject to the same inspections as statutory services.
Kids Company also demonstrates the precarious nature of a model where projects are run from one funding bid to the next. The closure of such a high-profile charity has triggered anxiety across the sector as a whole as many organisations struggle to stay open in the face of funding cuts.
Contracts are not just being awarded to not-for-profit charities run by people who want to improve lives and communities. We’ve already seen public services, from the NHS, to schools, to benefits assessments opened up to private companies to run and make profit. Surely children’s services are a step too far? Not for the Tories.
One major concern of government ministers and officials was whether Kids Company was offering “value for money”.
What do they mean by value? The Tory’s latest plans to cut £12bn from the welfare budget are a clear indication that this “value” is not the quality of lives of vulnerable young people. The “value” is in the potential to make profit. When services are assessed on that basis the door is opened for privatisation and marketisation and young people’s needs go out of the window. Familiar names like G4S and Serco are already running children’s residential placements and, in some boroughs, services to examine children who may have been sexually abused. All they have to do is set up a not-for-profit subsidiary which then pays the parent company for management, administration, etc to generate profit.
It shouldn’t be possible for essential services to “go out of business” leaving vulnerable people stranded. Kids Company service users and supporters marched from Camberwell in south London to Downing Street on to call for greater awareness of the children and young people left without vital support by the closure.
The public sector as it exists is not perfect, far from it. But the answer to services being overstretched is in fact a reversal of outsourcing not more of it. Services should be run by local social services, and reorganised under workers’ and service users’ control allowing a level of accountability and democratic control. The loudest voices should not be those of trendy individuals or celebrities, but those of young people and the people who work with them on a daily basis.
We need decent funding which is reliable and allocated according to need, not dependent on an individual’s ability to make a decent pitch.
We need to employ more social care workers and others in the public sector, and reduce caseloads to allow workers to do the creative work we came into social care to do — listening to and working with young people to tackle the very real challenges they’re facing.