In case you are not aware, a Serious Case Review is an inquiry conducted after the death of a child known to professionals, headed by an independent chair, with the aim being to look at what happened, whether anything went wrong and whether anything can be learned from the process.
The Serious Case Review is here http://www.coventrylscb.org.uk/files/SCR/FINAL%20Overview%20Report%20%20DP%20130913%20Publication%20version.pdf
Most of you will have heard of Daniel Pelka. The Serious Case Review summarises the tragic story like this:-
2.1 Daniel was murdered by his mother and stepfather in March 2012. For a period of at least six months prior to this, he had been starved, assaulted, neglected and abused. His older sister Anna was expected to explain away his injuries as accidental. His mother and stepfather acted together to inflict pain and suffering on him and were convicted of murder in August 2013, both sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment.
2.2 Daniel’s mother had relationships with 3 different partners whilst living in the UK. All of these relationships involved high consumption of alcohol and domestic abuse. The Police were called to the address on many occasions and in total there were 27 reported incidents of domestic abuse.
2.3 Daniel’s arm was broken at the beginning of 2011 and abuse was suspected but the medical evidence was inconclusive. A social worker carried out an assessment but no continuing need for intervention was identified.
2.4 In September 2011, Daniel commenced school. He spoke very little English and was generally seen as isolated though he was well behaved and joined in activities. As his time in school progressed, he began to present as always being hungry and took food at every opportunity, sometimes scavenging in bins. His mother was spoken to but told staff that he had health problems. As Daniel grew thinner his teachers became increasingly worried and along with the school nurse, help was sought from the GP and the community paediatrician.
2.5 Daniel also came to school with bruises and unexplained marks on him. Whilst these injuries were seen by different school staff members, these were not recorded nor were they linked to Daniel’s concerning behaviours regarding food. No onward referrals were made in respect of these injuries. At times, Daniel’s school attendance was poor and an education welfare officer was involved.
2.6 Daniel was seen in February 2012 by a community paediatrician, but his behaviours regarding food and low weight were linked to a likely medical condition. The potential for emotional abuse or neglect as possible causes was not considered when the circumstances required it. The paediatrician was unaware of the physical injuries that the school had witnessed.
2.7 Three weeks after the paediatric assessment Daniel died following a head injury. He was thin and gaunt. Overall, there had been a rapid deterioration in his circumstances and physical state during the last 6 months of his life.
Whilst one is tempted to cry that this is unique and will never happen again, and that the idea of a child being deliberately starved and this being allowed to happen is a once-in-a-lifetime case, we sadly know that it is not. We all know that it happened in Birmingham just a few years ago, and there’s a criminal trial ongoing on yet another infant that this happened to, right now.
Daniel’s mother and stepfather set out to deliberately harm him and to mislead and deceive professionals about what they were doing. They also involved Daniel’s sister Anna in their web of lies and primed her to explain his injuries as accidental.
A pattern of domestic abuse and violence, alongside excessive alcohol use by Ms Luczak and her male partners, continued for much of the period of time from November 2006 onwards, and despite interventions by the Police and Children’s Social Care, this pattern of behaviour changed little, with the child protection risks to the children in this volatile household not fully perceived or identified.
Missed opportunities to protect Daniel and potentially uncover the abuse he was suffering occurred:-
at the time of his broken arm in January 2011, which was too readily accepted by professionals as accidentally caused,
when the school began to see a pattern of injuries and marks on Daniel during the four months prior to his death, and these were not acted upon, and
at the paediatric appointment in February 2012 when Daniel’s weight loss was not recognised, and child abuse was not considered as a likely differential diagnosis for Daniel’s presenting problems.
At times, Daniel appeared to have been “invisible” as a needy child against the backdrop of his mother’s controlling behaviour. His poor language skills and isolated situation meant that there was often a lack of a child focus to interventions by professionals.
In this case, professionals needed to “think the unthinkable” and to believe and act upon what they saw in front of them, rather than accept parental versions of what was happening at home without robust challenge. Much of the detail which emerged from later witness statements and the criminal trial about the level of abuse which Daniel suffered was completely unknown to the professionals who were in contact with the family at the time.
A number of critical, significant lessons have been identified by this SCR, which are detailed later, and it is now of utmost importance that they are translated into action by front line professionals and adopted for inclusion within relevant child protection processes and systems and as part of the support and supervision that these professionals require in their day to day work with vulnerable children.
(Eileen Munro has made some interesting comments in the media over the last few days about the tendency of Serious Case Reviews and the media to work backwards from the known tragic and awful outcome to then look at things that in the light of that seem obvious indicators that a tragedy was imminent, without necessarily recognising that similar things do happen in families without such awful consequences. I think her interview is both timely and brave http://communitycare.rbiblogs.co.uk/childrens-services-blog/2013/09/eileen-munro-admits-i-cant-say-i-would-have-done-better-in-protecting-daniel-pelka/ . The natural human reaction when hearing a story like Daniel’s is that we MUST be able to prevent this sort of thing happening to a child and that if we didn’t then it MUST be due to a professional having screwed up. Sadly, it’s a bit more complicated than that. What Munro says about bruises here is very important – you can’t reverse-engineer back that each of those bruises ought to have prompted a reaction without considering what the prevalence of bruising is in children generally)
The information from the body of the report about Daniel’s experiences in that home are heart-rending
It is difficult to speculate what sort of feelings and physical effects Daniel experienced in terms of his issues about food – often referred to as his “obsession”. Certainly the eventual post mortem identified that he was very malnourished and had been subject to serious neglectful care. The school were clearly concerned about his weight and how thin he was, his deterioration since starting school, and of his habit of seeking out food at every opportunity, so much so that it was difficult to control. Daniel however never said he was hungry or spoke about his home life. In reality however no professional tried sufficiently hard enough to engage him to enable him to talk about his experiences at home. Additionally at the paediatric appointment three weeks before his death, he did not communicate in any way with the paediatrician. The injuries at the time of his death were evidence of the high level of trauma that Daniel must have suffered in the later stages of his life, and yet he still attended school on occasions and disclosed nothing of concern. Despite arriving at school with facial injuries on at least two, or more likely, three occasions in late 2011/early 2012, no arrangements were made to speak with him directly or formally about these in relation to any child protection concerns. Without proactive or consistent action by any professional to engage with him via an interpreter, then his lack of language and low confidence would likely have made it almost impossible for him to reveal the abuse he was suffering at home, potentially for fear of retribution if he did disclose anything.
5.11 Additional information gleaned from the range of evidence which became known to the SCR Panel and was then presented at the criminal proceedings, demonstrated that the children’s experience, especially for the period from autumn 2011 until Daniel’s death in early March 2012, was considerably more traumatic than was known to professionals at the time. From early October 2011 there was evidence that Daniel was on occasions locked in an upstairs “box room” in the house which had no furniture and smelt of urine, but had a damp carpet and floorboards. There was a mattress which was soiled and there was no heater or toys in the room. This was apparently used as a form of punishment which was referred to in text messages between Ms Luczak and Mr Krezolek. Although Daniel was also said to have usually slept with Anna in her room, which was appropriately clean and furnished, it was unclear how often Daniel was made to sleep or stay in the box room. It was later acknowledged by Ms Luczak that it was in this room that Daniel died.
5.12 It was evident that Daniel experienced a harsh degree of scapegoating and emotional abuse by Ms Luczak and Mr Krezolek and he was often the sole subject of physical abuse and neglect, which included deliberately depriving him of food, serious physical abuse, feeding him salt and putting him in a cold bath, on one occasion according to Ms Luczak at the time in early February 2012, leaving him temporarily unconscious because he had nearly drowned. There were further disclosures in the court that Mr Krezolek gave out punishments to Daniel which included making him do sit-ups for an hour, or stand in the corner, as well as do squats or running on the spot. What was most concerning was the apparent deliberate way that such punishments were planned in advance. In her statements and in her evidence at the criminal trial, Ms Luczak apportioned responsibility to Mr Krezolek for the abuse and neglect of Daniel saying that if it was found that Daniel had taken other food whilst at school, that Mr Krezolek would not allow him to be fed that evening or that he would be fed salt so as Daniel would vomit up the food that he had taken while at school. This must have been a most terrifying and dreadful ordeal for Daniel to face at the hands of those who should have been caring for him.
5.13 It is challenging to describe Daniel as being neglected physically or emotionally, in that this implies some passivity on the part of his abusers. It is apparent that everything done to Daniel was calculated and deliberate, even his non-school attendance. He did not suffer physical neglect in the ordinary use of the term as he went to school clean and well dressed with a packed lunch, albeit a very frugal one. He likely existed in a constant state of stress and anguish as a result of his terrible treatment at the hands of his mother and Mr Krezolek.
The pattern in the case seems to be one of each incident of concern having been treated in isolation, and of no professional collating and gathering the constellation of concerns and recognising that what was going on here was appalling abuse on a systematic level; despite Strategy Meetings and Core Assessments.
Overall, the “rule of optimism” appeared to have prevailed in the professional response to Daniel’s fracture and to his other bruises. This appeared to reflect a “tendency by social workers and health care workers towards rationalisation and under responsiveness in certain situations. In these conditions workers focus on adult’s strengths, rationalise evidence to the contrary and interpret data in the light of this optimistic view”23 . The explanation of the cause of this injury was too readily accepted as accidental and the initial concerns about the injury quickly downgraded – it remained the case that there was delayed presentation of the injury by a day, and that the medical view was that Daniel would have been in considerable pain, and additionally, that based on medical knowledge and research, the most likely cause of an oblique fracture was physical abuse.
It appeared that the medical diagnosis or evidence was deferred to as being the most significant to any assessment of whether abuse was a cause or not of the fracture. It was understandable that the medical opinion could not be certain of the causation, and once there was the comment from the doctor that the mother’s explanation could be plausible, this appeared to quickly reduce concerns and actions by the Police and CLYP. In fact there were some inconsistencies in the explanations given. What was missing from the Strategy Meeting was recognition that the medical view was not necessarily the most significant contribution to whether physical abuse had taken place. There were the social factors of family life to take into account, the parent/child relationships, the role of the male in the home etc. which all would have added to the overall understanding of whether there was the likelihood of physical abuse within the home.
On the majority of occasions in these sorts of situation, the medical evidence is inconclusive, as it was on this occasion, but to then have accepted this to mean that the injury was accidentally caused, without further robust enquiries, represented that the “rule of optimism”24 was at play in this situation. It might help to prevent this occurring in future similar situations, if the medical view was presented as saying that on the balance of probabilities, the injury was likely to be the result of abuse, (according to research), rather than to report that an accidental cause was plausible.
(This is perhaps the Eileen Munro point – whilst one can adopt a safety first, child preservation approach and that might have saved Daniel Pelka, there is fallout in adopting such an approach across the board, that one ends up intervening at too high a level in other families where things would not have played out as they did here. Whilst the press would have social workers save all children such as Daniel, they are also quick to criticise where action is taken – see the recent headlines as a result of Re J)
I think the SCR do try to take into account the difficult balancing act that has to be undertaken, particularly in this section
14.7 This was a complex case for a number of reasons and it would be too simplistic to identify failings by individual practitioners as the reasons why Daniel was not protected. No individual practitioner works in a vacuum and that was true for this case in that the actions or inactions by individuals was at least partly informed by the management support and advice they received, the efficiency of the systems and processes within which they were working, the training they received, and their workload and organisational context. Nevertheless for future learning, it is important to try to identify some of the reasons why Daniel’s abuse was not recognised and acted upon earlier by practitioners who came into contact with him. These were likely to have included:
- Ms Luczak presented as plausible in her concerns, presented on many occasions as a capable and caring parent (when not in the midst of domestic abuse incidents) and took an assertive stance with professionals. Her manipulation, avoidance of contact with practitioners, deceit and actions (as well as that of Mr Krezolek) were not recognised for what they were and her presenting image was too readily accepted.
- Ms Luczak’s male partners did not regularly present themselves to practitioners and were hardly ever the focus of proactive intervention or enquiry.
- There were no specific concerns about the care of either Anna or Adam; in fact at times they were viewed as well cared for. This did not fit with the pattern that neglect usually impacts upon all children in a family.
- It is relatively rare in cases of child abuse that one child is singled out and scapegoated in the way that Daniel was. The apparent good care of the other children appeared to give a false reassurance that Daniel’s problems were not related to abuse.
- Daniel’s presentation of scavenging for food and his excessive eating when he found any sort of food, as well as being linked to weight loss, was rare to see in a child, and assumptions were then too readily made that his problems were medically based.
- Compared to other forms of abuse, emotional abuse is the most difficult to detect.
- In these circumstances, the practitioners involved were not prepared to “think the unthinkable” and tried to rationalise the evidence in front of them that it did not relate to abuse. The words of a philosopher were particularly relevant in this case in which he says “we see things not as they are, but as we are”42. If practitioners were not prepared to accept that abuse existed for Daniel, then they would not see it.
- No concerns were expressed about the care of Daniel to CLYP or to the school by neighbours or the community. If there were, then these might have added weight to the mounting concerns.
- Neither Anna nor Daniel ever expressed any concern about their care at home.
- Multi agency child protection systems such as Joint Screening for domestic abuse, Strategy Meetings, recording requirements and assessment practice, sometimes failed to support effective coordinated interventions between organisations and practitioners.
14.8 The above list is not meant to explain away the lack of protection that Daniel was afforded by professional interventions, or to give excuses for such practice. It aims to give some possible insight into the way that a particular set of circumstances and dynamics can lead to referrals for child protection not being made and ineffective interventions undertaken which are not sufficiently child focussed, by practitioners who were otherwise committed in their wish to address Daniel’s needs and protect him. Unlike the UK, some countries have a process for mandatory reporting of child care concerns to government departments43, which raises the question that if it existed here, whether injuries seen upon Daniel would have been independently reported by individuals to the authorities
The Lessons Learned are interesting, but one can’t help but read them with a heavy heart, thinking how many times other such Serious Case Reviews or public inquiries have said that we have to learn these lessons.
Is it that workers on the ground aren’t implementing these lessons and taking them on board, or is it that in order to balance a system where the actions of unpredictable people have to be predicted and anticipated and where the State is urged simultaneously both to leave children at home and to remove them, sometimes things will go horrendously wrong?
15. Lessons Learned
15.1 When concerning childcare incidents take place or a crisis arises for a family, these provide key opportunities to intervene at a time when parents may be responsive to change, or children are able to speak of their experiences. To not take proactive interventions at such times will create missed opportunities to protect the children, which may not recur again in such circumstances. Each opportunity which presents itself to protect a child must be taken.
15.2 Reassurances by parents about domestic abuse ceasing and that the children are not affected, need to be robustly challenged and responded to with respectful uncertainty by professionals.
15.3 Sole reliance on a parent’s explanation of events and views about family relationships and associated risks to the children, must be balanced with the presenting objective information available or evidence sought to support or challenge parental assertions. To not do so will potentially leave children at continuing or un-assessed risk.
15.4 Domestic abuse/violence is always a child protection issue and must always be approached with this as the mind-set of professionals.
15.5 No assessment of risks within a family or to a particular child can ever be effective without direct engagement of that child as an integral part of the professional interventions, and in working hard to gain an understanding of their experiences, wishes and feelings. There must be a child focus to all interventions.
15.6 To focus on concerning incidents in isolation and only deal with the “here and now” will not make it possible to take a holistic approach and therefore consider other similar incidents or other concerns at the same time. To be too incident-focussed will mean that the ability to develop an understanding of patterns of behaviour and family lifestyle will be seriously compromised.
15.7 Professional accountability for record keeping, timely reports and recording of key actions from multi agency meetings, is central to professional childcare practice, and to fail to complete appropriate records will significantly compromise inter agency working and reduce the collective ability of agencies to protect children.
15.8 Any facial injuries to a child must be viewed with concern, with physical abuse needing to be actively considered as a possible cause, and clear records, interventions or referrals made accordingly. To have no efficient system to collect and collate details of such injuries and actions will compromise later attempts to protect a child.
15.9 Even small units of service delivery to children and families, such as small schools, require a robust system to ensure collation of child protection concerns and appropriate actions, rather than rely on informal forms of communication within a small staff group.
15.10 Whilst a prominent injury to a child will inevitably attract the greatest professional attention (as occurred with Daniel’s fractured arm), the injury must be seen in the context of any other injuries or bruises, however minor they may be, and for their causation to be separately and then collectively considered.
15.11 For professionals from Children’s Social Care or the Police to defer to medical staff for the provision of the primary evidence to confirm or otherwise whether an injury to a child was the result of abuse or not, could be unhelpful, particularly when no definitive view one way or the other can be given. To do so could lead to any following investigation being inappropriately downgraded and implies that other aspects of the child life are less significant for the purposes of assessing the existence of child abuse.
15.12 When faced with significant and complex concerns about a child‘s welfare, it is essential that professionals “think the unthinkable” and always give some consideration to child abuse as a potential cause of the presenting problems. To not do so would be a disservice to the child involved and potentially leave him/her at increasing levels of risk.
15.13 Professional optimism about a family and of their potential to change or improve their parenting must be supported by objective evidence and that any contra indicators have been fully considered prior to any optimistic stance being taken.
15.14 For any professional to make a decision about their own interventions based on assumptions about the actions or views of other professionals without checking these out, is professionally dangerous practice.