Kids Company academic research wrongly portrayed, say scholars

Research organisations who previously worked with the troubled children’s charity have sought to clarify ‘misleading’ descriptions of clinical work

December 17, 2015
Camila Batmanghelidjh, Kids Company founder
Source: PA
Research problem: Camila Batmanghelidjh cited work that appears to be unpublished, inaccessible or based on small studies

Academic literature used to defend the expenditure of almost £50 million of taxpayers’ money at Kids Company has been wrongly portrayed as “evaluations” of the now defunct charity, according to scholars involved in the work.

While the sudden closure of the high-profile youth work organisation in August has triggered several inquiries into what ministers, civil servants, auditors and the Charity Commission knew about Kids Company, very little attention has focused on the large volume of academic work linked to the charity.

However, a total of 21 academic projects linked to Kids Company are listed in its 2013 annual accounts, and Alan Yentob, its chair of trustees, told a parliamentary committee in October that “very thorough” evaluations by academics were proof of the charity’s “clinical know-how”.

Mr Yentob, who stepped down as the BBC’s creative director this month over the “distraction” of the Kids Company closure, listed “evaluations” by the “Tavistock and Portman Trust, the Anna Freud Centre, the Royal Society of Medicine, the London School of Economics [and] University of Cambridge medical school”.

He added that “if these evaluations are read and seen, I think people will not assume that Kids Company does not have clinical know-how to deal with very, very difficult kids”.

However, when contacted by THE, many of the organisations cited by Mr Yentob denied carrying out any sort of evaluation.

Ian Goodyer, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, who led several neuroscience projects funded by Kids Company, told THE that “nothing we did using the donation from Kids Company constitutes in any shape or form an evaluation of the organisation”.

Similarly, the Anna Freud Centre – a London-based child mental health charity with close links to University College London – said that it “has not been part of a formal evaluation of Kids Company’s clinical work”.

It was “involved in several collaborative research projects with participants from Kids Company that have sought to understand the impact of abuse and neglect on young people’s emotional and neurobiological functioning”.

Similarly, a Royal Society of Medicine spokeswoman said that “contrary to Mr Yentob’s statement…no evaluation of Kids Company has been undertaken by the society”.

She added that Camila Batmanghelidjh, the charity’s chief executive, had spoken at an educational conference in October 2011 and Kids Company had supported a second meeting on clinical issues. While delegates at such meetings may have been invited to assess talks about the charity in written feedback, “delegate feedback cannot be interpreted as an RSM evaluation of Kids Company”, the society said.

Other pieces of work cited by Mr Yentob, and by Ms Batmanghelidjh in numerous interviews, also appear to be unpublished, inaccessible or based on work with a low number of Kids Company clients.

A report from the Tavistock Clinic by Stephen Briggs, professor of social work at the University of East London, on the effectiveness of Kids Company interventions with young people is inaccessible, although slides available online show that it involved a total of 29 participants.

Professor Briggs did not respond to THE requests for copies of his work, which includes a report on the leadership of Ms Batmanghelidjh cited in a larger 2013 report on the charity’s management.

Other studies by social work academics listed by Kids Company have also never been published or were focused on a very small cohort of clients, says Genevieve Maitland Hudson, a former Kids Company employee, now a director of Osca, a consultancy measuring the social impact of organisations.

“Kids Company was still making large claims on the basis of these reports prior to its closure, and has since relied on them in evidence to parliamentary committees,” said Dr Maitland Hudson, a former lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London.

In addition, the charity often drew “misleading” conclusions from the academic work, much of which remained unpublished, she added.

She also criticised the quality of some of the research associated with Kids Company. "Evaluations, particularly post hoc evaluations, are notoriously lacking in rigour, but even in that context some of the Kids Company reports were particularly poor," she said.

However, Dr Maitland Hudson said that many academics commissioned by Kids Company had been placed in a difficult position, particularly when their work was later misrepresented in the media.

“Academics are being encouraged to generate income via grants, so it’s quite hard to turn money down when it is offered,” she said.

“It was very much part of the culture at Kids Company to throw money around on research to create an impressive surface that didn’t actually add up to a great deal,” she added.

In a statement, a spokesman for Kids Company said that in his evidence to a Parliament, "Mr Yentob mentioned as examples, a number of institutions that Kids Company collaborated with. Out of these it was The Tavistock and Portman Trust and the London School of Economics that undertook and published academic evaluations of Kids Company's clinical work. Kids Company's research programme was never represented as a programme of evaluation.

"The charity's support of world-class developmental science researchers has furthered the understanding of the consequences of exposure to adversity in childhood with the aim that more effective clinical models can be developed to address the damage that child maltreatment can cause.

"This work is still in progress with data being analysed or with papers currently in peer review for publication. In addition to supporting research, Kids Company jointly organised conferences, most latterly in May 2015 with the University of Cambridge to raise awareness among child welfare professionals of the factors promoting adolescent resilience and recovery from childhood trauma.

"It is unfortunate when people do not recognise the value that research like this can have in creating new opportunities to better the way traumatised children and young people are supported."

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