Daniel Pelka – another victim in child abuse saga

30 Aug

I           The child the agencies failed

While our agencies have generally improved their policies and practices in safeguarding children, it appears that it is impossible for us to stem the tide of casualties because children suffer abuse at the hand of relatives and those who know them well, people who are supposed to love them.    Some of the most famous are Jasmine Beckford in Brent (1984), Victoria Climbié in Haringey (1999), Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham, Cambridgshire (2002) and Baby Peter Connolly in Haringey (2009).

And now we have Daniel Pelka, the four-year-old of Polish origin.  He suffered extreme privations at the hands of his mother, Magdelena Luczak (27), and her partner, Mariusz Krezolek (33), who were convicted of murdering him and sentenced to life imprisonment on 2 August 2013 to serve a minimum term of 30 years.

Daniel was the subject of such severe cruelty just prior to his death that his sibling felt it necessary to squirrel food away for him while he was being starved by these two.    Luczak and Krezolek force-fed him with salt, held him under water in a bath until unconscious and regularly beat him.  Daniel was also imprisoned in a box-room and died alone in the dark from a head injury in March 2013.

Daniel appeared to be a happy child when he started at Little Heath Primary School in Coventry.  However, teachers noticed that he became “thinner and thinner in front of their eyes” and observed that his uniform was “hanging off him”.  His lunch box frequently contained only half-a-sandwich. So hungry was he that he scooped up food from the school bins.  Daniel weighed just over a stone and a half at the time of his death.

His sibling, who can’t be identified, told the court that he often asked for extra food to give Daniel.  “I had my money I got from the bank….I used to go to a shop with my brother and buy things for him that Luczak (his mother’s partner) couldn’t see.   I had to make food for him.  I had to clean him up.”  He added that Daniel was not allowed to leave his bedroom to use the toilet and defecated in his bed.

Several agencies were involved in Daniel’s case, all of whom failed him spectacularly.  However, it would be premature to make judgements about particular professionals pending a case review which will be conducted by the Coventry Children’s Safeguarding Board.

Senior investigating officer, Detective Inspector Chris Hanson, from West Midlands Police said: “We’ll never understand why they (mother and partner) did what they did to Daniel.  They turned Daniel from a beautiful, bright-eyed little boy into a bag of bones basically and broke him in so many ways.” Hanson added that Daniel slept on a “very thin” mattress on the floor of the box-room in a small, rented terrace house. There was no furniture, no heating and there were no toys; “just some very thin, threadbare carpet, which was heavily urine-stained”. The door handle to the room had been removed to prevent the child from leaving off his own volition.

Teaching assistant, Amy Tokely, broke down in court stating that Daniel wanted to eat “muddy and dirty” pancakes which had been on the floor.

The family had been contacted by social workers, doctors, health visitors and the police.  Education officers investigating his poor school attendance went to his home but never saw him.  His mother claimed that he was being treated for a rare eating disorder and instructed staff not to feed him. Guess what: the staff members complied. She added that he had special needs, which were inherited from his father, Eryk Pelka.

Darren Clews, the headteacher of Little Heath Primary School at the time of Daniel’s death, remarked (following the sentencing of Luczak and Krezolek): “It’s not been a pleasant time for anyone.” This was probably the understatement of the year.  He had recorded in the school’s Concerns Book that Daniel had been stealing food from school bins and turning up with bruises on his face and neck.  However, there is no evidence that Daniel Clews took any action and report the matter to social services or the police.  Shortly after Daniel’s death, he quietly resigned from his post and took up a headship at another school.

The police visited Daniel’s home several times because Krezolek was a violent criminal who’d been jailed in the UK on three occasions.   He had been wanted in Poland by the police for criminal activity.  Yet, not only did social services not take Daniel into care but also closed the file on him.  The tabloid headlines screamed out that Colin Green, Director of Children’s Services in Coventry, continues to claim his “124,000-year salary”.

We will, undoubtedly, be apprised of the lessons to be learnt from this terrible saga after the case review that is conducted by Coventry’s Safeguarding Board.  For schools, three stand out for me already.

Firstly, schools ignore evidence of suspected child abuse – whether it is physical, sexual or emotional or neglect – at their peril.   They must report suspicions to social services and/or the police.

It is likely that at a time of financial straits, social services and the police are likely to lift the threshold in regard to taking matters further, because they don’t have the resources to do so.   It is not enough for schools to say: “We have done our job by reporting our concerns to the police and/or social services.”  So, secondly, schools should record that they have reported their suspicions of child abuse to these agencies.

Thirdly, if they continue to have serious concerns, they have to persist and not let matters lie until social services and/or the police do something about addressing these concerns, particularly if they are about vulnerable children.

II          Home Affair Committee’s Recommendations

Looking at the wider scene, in particular, the way in which vulnerable children were being targeted by predatory men in Oxfordshire, the Home Affairs Committee made a number of important recommendations in its second report, which was published on the 5 June 2013.   Some of the key ones were as follows.

(1)        The police, social services and the Crown Prosecution Service must bear responsibility for the way in which vulnerable children have been left unprotected by the system. The recent verdict in the Oxford trial demonstrates, contrary to ill-informed beliefs, that localised grooming is a crime confined to Northern cities.  In fact, no assumptions can be made about where child sexual exploitation takes place. This is a crime that can happen anywhere.

Belatedly, agencies have made positive steps to try and improve the situation but there is no doubt that both, in terms of support for victims and prosecution of offenders, a postcode lottery exists and agencies are still failing to work effectively together. Those cases of children at risk identified by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner must be monitored by local authorities who have overriding responsibility for the welfare of those children.

(2)        We recommend that the Government publish a timetable for implementation of the recommendations of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for its work in the area of child sexual exploitation and ensure they are in operation by January 2014.

(3)        Children have only one chance in their childhood. For too long, victims of child sexual exploitation have been deprived of that childhood without society challenging their abusers. Such a situation must never happen again.

(4)        All local authority Directors of Children’s Social Care should ensure that their staff members view troubled children who have been exploited as victims rather than collaborators in their own abuse.

(5)        Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) must collect data in a standard format so that it can be shared among them. Given the historic difficulty of LSCBs collecting comparable data, we recommend either that Boards form a network to ensure uniformity and promulgate best practice or, if that fails, the Government identify an appropriate body to produce central guidance.

(6)        The role of a Local Safeguarding Children’s Board is to scrutinise the effectiveness of its members, not protect them from criticism……. We recommend that Serious Case Reviews are published in full, subject to delay where it may compromise an ongoing investigation.

(7)        We recommend that the Government ensure that the details of all children up to the age of 16 who present at Accident and Emergency Departments are entered on the Child Protection – Information System rather than just those of younger children.

(8)        Teachers are more likely to see victims on a regular basis than almost any other professional. They will notice recurrent or prolonged absences and significant changes in behaviour. They are therefore critical in identifying children at risk at an early stage and, by raising concerns at an early stage.

III        How should schools protect our children?

It seems to me that, to protect our children, we need a three-pronged attack.

(a)        School staff members do a brilliant job promoting the welfare of children – as a consequence of the good training and the attention they pay to their growth, development and happiness.  Ofsted inspectors have commented favourably on the safeguarding arrangements of the vast majority of schools.  I recall how a number of years ago, a senior colleague in a London social services department remarked to me: “I can’t wait for the school holidays to start because that will mean that the referrals on child abuse cases will lessen substantially.”

However, as has been seen in the case of Daniel, there is always room for improvement.  While headteachers and staff members have to use their common sense about reporting their suspicions of child abuse to the police and social services, if there are compelling reasons to make referrals then they should be made.  And if the police and social workers fail to act on their suspicions because the cases don’t reach a threshold, schools must record the fact that they made these referrals and keep nagging until the police and/or social services act on their concerns, if the concerns persist.

(b)        While those who work in the police department, social services and education services are sensitised to safeguarding children, this is less the case with those who work in the courts – especially barristers and judges.   Given the adversarial nature of the work barristers do and the huge emphasis that the judges place in ensuring that both, the accuser and the accused, are treated even-handedly, victims of child abuse often suffer greatly.

During the summer of 2013, Neil Wilson was convicted at Snarebrook Crown Court in North East London of sexual activity with a child and two counts of making extreme pornographic images.  However, in defence of Wilson, Robert Colover, the defending barrister told the judge that the young victim was “sexually experienced” and “predatory in all her actions”.  The judge, Nigel Peters, added insult to injury when he commented that the 13-year-old girl “looked and behaved a little older” and was “egging on” the defendant.   Wilson was given an eighth-month suspended prison sentence.

The outcome is outrageous!  The perpetrator got off lightly and the victim suffered double jeopardy, first at the hands of the perpetrator and then by the court.   Fortunately, Keir Starmer, QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, ruled that Robert Colover would not be instructed in “ongoing or future” cases involving sexual offences pending a review by him.   Is there anything going to be done to sensitise the judges, such as Judge Nigel Peters?  It doesn’t look like it.

This is not an isolated incident.   In May 2013, Andrew Jefferies, QC, in his closing speech to an Old Bailey jury at the trial of a group of men from Oxford, five of whom are now serving life sentences for putting their victims through what a judge described as “years of sheer torture”, said about children who had been routinely abused in flats and houses by up to 10 men at a time that they  were “naughty girls” dressed in “short skirts, low tops, cleavage hanging out” and “went to party” with men for a bit of “waahay”.

In the same hearing, a defence barrister, Tracy Ayling, QC, sought permission to introduce the statement to show the jury that a girl (victim) was “used to manipulating male members of staff” in a care home.  Fortunately, Judge Peter Rook, QC, ruled that out of order.

Later in the trial, another barrister, Sally O’Neill, QC, told jurors that a girl, against whom defendants were later found guilty of multiple offences, including numerous rapes, was “thoroughly enjoying herself”.

What is so tragic about all this is the number of times children, who are victims, suffer abuse – first, at the hands of the abuser, second by giving witness and thus reliving their trauma, third when being cross-examined by adversarial barristers and finally by hearing the summing-up of barristers for the defence.

Is there a case for reforming our justice system to lessen, if not eliminate, this kind of child abuse?

(c)        Finally, children need to be better schooled in protecting and defending themselves against abusers and potential abusers.   Boys and girls are both abused.  However, it appears that recently, more girls, especially the teenagers, fall easier prey.   While the overwhelming number of abuses takes place in families, young people can be victimised in different milieus.   Sexual exploitation is common, as seen in the 2012 trial in Rochdale and the 2013 Old Bailey trial to do with the Oxford grooming ring.

And now we have cyber bullying.   Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old girl, hanged herself, when she was repeatedly bullied on the Ask.fm site by the trolls who subjected her to gratuitous cruelty.  Ask.fm promotes itself by stating that it protects the anonymity of those who post remarks, the good, bad and especially ugly.  The site was created and is being run by two young Latvian playboys.

While David Smith, Hannah’s father – a single parent, said that he had done what he could to prevent her from using her laptop, she used the website from her mobile phone and fell victim to the bullies who described her appearance in the cruelest terms.

Since that tragedy, we have been busily engaged in a blame-game. Websites are to fault, the Prime Minister is not doing enough and parents are not supervising their children sufficiently.   One area for enhancing protection appears to have been neglected, i.e. equipping children through teaching and training, to protect themselves, a gap in the “market” for schools, among other agencies, to plug.

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