Kids Company said not to have reported 'crimes'

Chris Cook
Policy editor, Newsnight

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The closure of Kids Company sparked protests at one of its centres

Kids Company staff are alleged to have failed to report complaints of violence and sexual exploitation involving charity clients to the authorities, according to people who worked at the charity. The incidents, which are said to have occurred between 2008 and 2012, are alleged to have been known to members of staff with relevant responsibilities.

Police are investigating these allegations, which were uncovered by a joint investigation by BBC's Newsnight and BuzzFeed News. Camila Batmanghelidjh, chief executive of the now-closing charity, has not replied to our specific questions about the allegations, but has said she would have immediately reported any such incidents had they been known to them.

Speaking today on the Victoria Derbyshire show, she said: "We've already had lawyers going through the details. There isn't an allegation that will stand, I'm telling you. Now, in 19 years we haven't had a single protection problem in the organisation and whenever something is raised with us we immediately report it to the police."

Newsnight and BuzzFeed News have been told of allegations that staff knew of complaints from girls, then aged 16 to 18, that male clients in their 20s had been forcing them to have sex and commit sexual acts on them. Two witnesses have alleged that complaints had been made known to relevant members of staff at the Urban Academy in Southwark.

One of these witnesses said that they believed the concerns had not been passed on or addressed after conferring with one of the girls who complained she had been sexually exploited. The relevant authorities have also confirmed to Newsnight and BuzzFeed News that, in both cases, these allegations of sexual exploitation were not known to them.

After taking expert child protection advice, this employee testimony was shared by the BBC with the authorities. It is believed to have triggered a police investigation into the charity, whose existence was announced last Thursday. The investigation is being led by the central Sexual Offences, Exploitation and Child Abuse Command.

Referring to how one man is alleged to have behaved, a former employee said he was "22, 23 at the time" and he "sexually exploited" girls aged "16, 17 upwards". She said that girls had told her: "There'd be repercussions if they didn't… you have to do it, he'd blackmail them."

This former employee, who left the charity unhappy with its management, said that the girls said they were told: "If you don't do it I'll tell them about this, this, this and this. Or [he would] photograph them naked and then threaten to send it around to other people."

Violence and drugs

Further witnesses have given accounts of other serious offences that were also not passed on to the police. Two other former staff members have described how one young client of the charity - then aged under 16 - attacked a worker at the charity with a snooker ball at The Arches II, a centre for under-16s.

The staff member was said to have been rendered unconscious and hospitalised. The member of staff was, however, also allegedly advised by Ms Batmanghelidjh not to inform the police. The young client said to have committed the attack is currently in prison for murder.

Referring to why violence might not have been referred on, one of the former employees said: "They didn't want police involvement, they didn't want anything negative towards the charity and especially for the young people," a former employee said. "[Batmanghelidjh] was of the mindset - 'Oh they can't have a criminal record. It would go bad against them.'"

However, other witnesses have pointed out incidents where violence was reported by the charity to police.

Speaking to the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme today, Ms Batmanghelidjh said: "In 19 years, we haven't had a single child protection problem in the organisation. What I think has been going on is a malicious discrediting campaign."

In a formal statement issued last week, the charity said: "The organisation operates robust policies and procedures that ensure all Kids Company's clients are protected and that staff work safely with clients at all times. All allegations of criminal behaviour regarding Kids Company employees and clients are immediately reported to the police."

Several witnesses have also stated that strong marijuana - so-called skunk - was openly smoked by staff members and by clients at the Urban Academy from witnesses spanning several years. According to the former employees, clients sell drugs in and around the Southwark centre. In some cases, it was sold to staff. One former staff member alleged that neighbours had complained about the smell.

Ms Batmanghelidjh told The Report on Radio 4 that: "On our premises it's an absolute no-no to be smoking any drugs. Having said that, a lot of the kids - over 80% - arrive at our centres addicted to substances and much of our work is about getting them off drugs and we're very good at that.

"But it takes a while and therefore because they're not allowed to smoke on the premises it is very possible that they go out on the estate or wherever else and smoke."

Regulation of the sector

The Kids Company sites at the centre of these allegations were unusual in their lack of external oversight. The charity's Urban Academy in Southwark was a large youth work centre that did not hold any contracts with its local authority. That meant that it was supervised less closely by social workers than similar centres.

The Arches II in Lambeth, meanwhile, provided full-time school facilities to under-16s for children who struggled in conventional schools. But that part of the facility was not inspected directly by Ofsted, the education inspectorate. This is because it was not regarded as a school for the purposes of regulation.

Peter John, leader of Southwark Council, said: "I think a lot of people will be shocked to know that an organisation like this that provides services similar to schools but isn't a school [and] services similar to youth services by local authorities can choose whether or not to be regulated by Ofsted [the education inspectorate].

"I think that's a real gap and it's for government to act to say organisations can't sit outside the regulatory framework and if they're going to provide services to young people they have to have government oversight."

  • The NSPCC can be contacted on 0808 800 5000

UPDATE - 23:07 - Ms Batmanghelidjh appeared on Newsnight this evening;

  • Referring to the allegations around sexual abuse, she said: "If such a thing had taken place it would have triggered all our safeguarding procedures." But she added that she was "co-operating with police 100%… we wouldn't want something like this to have happened and go unchallenged".
  • Ms Batmanghelidjh remembered "hearing about the incident" with the snooker ball, but denied asking the member of staff not to contact the police. She said that the member of staff did not approach her following the incident as far as she was aware and that "it was never brought to my attention that the staff member wanted to press charges".
  • She said young people were "absolutely not allowed" to use any type of drugs: "If we find that out we challenge them".