Dani Garavelli: Fatal mistakes

Could a new child protection system being introduced in Scotland prevent more tragedies like Daniel Pelka, asks Dani Garavelli

Daniel Pelka. Picture: PA
Daniel Pelka. Picture: PA
Daniel Pelka. Picture: PA

THEY are the most harrowing kind of before and after pictures. In the “before” shots the children, well-dressed and healthy-looking, have broken off from some activity – licking a lolly or playing with a toy car – to beam at the camera.

In the “after” ones they are dull-eyed and emaciated, the spirit knocked out of them by neglect and abuse. In the very worst cases the “after” shots aren’t photographs at all; they are computer-generated images of the children’s bodies with arrows pointing to the scores of injuries inflicted on them in the run-up to their brutal deaths.

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They were seen with Baby P; once a chubby toddler with a mop of blond hair, later a tiny punchbag who suffered a broken back, broken ribs and mutilated fingertips before his death in 2007. And they were seen again last week with Daniel Pelka, a once sparky boy who – by the time his heart stopped beating – weighed just 1 stone 9lb and had been reduced to scavenging in bins.

There is no hierarchy of child abuse, of course. But the details of Daniel’s suffering are almost unbearable even to those who believe they are hardened to such tales. Perhaps it is the CCTV footage which shows him – hours before his death – running to keep up with his mother as she marches out of the school gates; perhaps it’s the way his sibling tried to sneak scraps of food into his room. What set it apart from other tragedies, however, was the calculated way the abuse was carried out. This wasn’t a mother who lashed out because she couldn’t cope or who, in the grip of an addiction, put her need for alcohol or drugs above the needs of her child. As texts sent between Magdalena Luczak and her partner Mariusz Krezolek reveal, the couple planned their attacks; everything from feeding Daniel salt, to submerging him in a cold bath until he was unconscious to taking the handle off the door to his room (so his sibling couldn’t release him) was carefully calculated.

In another way, however, the case was all too familiar. An independent review has been set up, but it is already clear many opportunities to help Daniel were missed. In particular, information passed on by his teacher Lisa Godfrey, who cried in court as she likened his gaunt appearance to that of a leukaemia sufferer, were not acted on. It is true that many abusers are compelling liars – Luczak and Krezolek told the school he suffered from a rare genetic eating disorder which left him permanently hungry – yet no-one seems to have asked why, if that was so, it wasn’t documented in his medical records. It will therefore surprise no-one if this review, like the reviews into the deaths of Victoria Climbié in 2000 and Baby P in 2007, pinpoints a lack of information-sharing between agencies as one of the key failings. This will beg the question: if everyone knows a fragmented approach to child protection is the reason children such as Daniel fall through the net, why hasn’t something effective been done about it?

Scotland, too, has had its fair share of children killed by abusive carers. Three-year-old Kennedy McFarlane and 13-month-old Carla-Nicole Bone were killed by their mothers’ boyfriends in 2000 and 2001 respectively, but it was the death of 11-week-old Caleb Ness – one of 342 children then on Edinburgh City Council’s at-risk register – at the hands 
of his brain-damaged and violent father Alexander in 2003 that provoked the greatest outcry, because the subsequent report was so damning about the authority’s child protection procedures.

It was in the shadow of these tragedies that the Scottish Government’s GIRFEC (Getting It Right For Every Child) policy began to take shape. The essence of GIRFEC, which is currently going through the Scottish Parliament in the form of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill, is that an integrated approach should be taken towards the wellbeing of children. Controversially, it includes a proposal that every child should have a “named person”, generally a health visitor, teacher or head teacher, to act as a conduit for any concerns about the child’s wellbeing and to address them, either by helping parents access additional support or, if the child is deemed to be at risk, by getting other agencies or social services involved. If other agencies are called in, the bill says a “lead professional” will also be appointed to co-ordinate the response.

Submissions have been made by interested parties and, ironically, just as the full horror of the torture inflicted on Daniel Pelka was being revealed, many people were questioning if the concept of a named person was either ethical or workable.

Its critics include the Schoolhouse Home Education Association, which has warned it could undermine parents, and the Law Society of Scotland, which believes it might breach article eight of the European Convention of Human Rights. Article eight provides a right to a private and family life.

Reservations have also been expressed by organisations such as Children in Scotland and Children 1st, who fear the named person might be inundated with relatively minor concerns. “If the named person was to start getting all sorts of low-level information, you’d get what we in our response to the bill called white noise – and they’re not going to be able to pick out what’s significant,” says Anne Houston, chief executive of Children 1st. If too much of that information was passed on, social workers might find their already-stretched resources spread more thinly and diverted away from those at highest risk.

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And yet, as the death of toddler Declan Hainey in Paisley in 2010 showed – he was found mummified in his cot eight months after last being seen alive – Scottish children are still being failed. So is the Children and Young People Bill the answer to previous child protection failings or a Utopian dream that, in practice, could do more harm than good?

The logic behind the “named person” legislation is sound: at the moment, different authorities work in different ways and it is not always easy for people with concerns to know where to go with them. Having a named person for every child would make everything more clear-cut, both for those who want to pass on information and for those whose job it is to act upon it. Under the legislation, a teacher who was also a named person would have the authority to make sure their concerns were taken seriously, as Lisa Godfrey’s were not. In addition, those in favour of the concept say, the named person would be empowered to cut through red tape, ensuring children and families could access the support services they required more quickly.

Yet, with few details on how the idea will work in practice, many observers 
are worried it hasn’t been properly thought through. Mike Clancy, director of law reform at the Law Society of Scotland, says the bill fails to clarify exactly who would be eligible to become a named person or what qualifications, experience or training they would be expected to obtain to perform the role.

Meanwhile, Children 1st is worried that the emphasis on intervening before the child is actually at risk could lead to breaches of confidentiality. “We know that one of the things that almost always comes up when a child has died is the issue of information-sharing,” Houston says. “The bill is trying to deal with that, but it’s talking about information-sharing for anyone who has a concern about a child’s wellbeing – that’s a much lower level [than a concern about a child’s safety] and that could backfire.”

Children need to be able to access confidential services, and confidential services need to know at what point they need to pass something on. “It may be more organisationally convenient if you have a clear point of contact, but very careful thought has to be given about the balance between children’s best interests and their right to confidentiality,” says Marion Macleod, senior policy officer for Children in Scotland.

Even if such a balance could be struck, many professionals have doubts over the logistics of the named person policy. In particular, there are concerns over resourcing. How will training be funded at a time of savage cuts to frontline services? And how will professionals, who are struggling with their existing workload, cope with the extra responsibility? It is widely acknowledged that there are currently too few health visitors in Scotland, and teachers are in the middle of implementing the new Curriculum for Excellence. Certainly there is a feeling that the cuts in support services, such as anger management or parenting skills classes, make the early heading off of problems the bill envisages a challenge.

Stacked against these doubts are the experiences of Highland Council, which developed GIRFEC with the Scottish Government, introducing it in 2010. According to Bill Alexander, the authority’s director of health and social care, the system has empowered individuals who were already responsible for monitoring the wellbeing of children. Far from causing social work departments to become clogged up with new cases, the approach has led to a decrease in referrals as the individuals acting as a named person have gained in confidence and arranged support for troubled families at an earlier stage.

So great an impact has GIRFEC had that the number of “looked after” children (in care, foster homes, or in their own home but subject to a supervision order) in the Highland Council area has fallen from 518 to 466 in the last 12 months while the number of children under supervision 
orders in their own homes has fallen from 145 to 127. “The second set of figures is the critical one because it’s evidence that there is confidence in the system, confidence that children are being supported without the need for compulsory measures,” Alexander says.

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He cites the case of a mother who turned to her health visitor because her daughter was perceived to have behavioural difficulties as evidence of how the named person acts as a one-stop shop: the health visitor sought advice and the girl was found to have a problem with her hearing. “As the named person, she had the authority to call on people who were senior to her – consultants, social work staff or other specialists – and say: ‘This isn’t a behavioural issue, something else is going on here’,” he says.

There are still many areas of possible contention: for example, are teachers the best people to act as a named person when some of the country’s most vulnerable children have only sporadic contact with the education system? And what happens if a child needs support during the summer holidays? Those broadly in favour of the bill hope many of the problems or anomalies exposed by its critics will be resolved in the coming months.

As Luczak and Krezolek start their minimum 30-year jail sentences for Daniel’s murder, the need for society to find a better, and more consistent, way to protect children from familial abuse couldn’t be clearer. Every time another child dies at the hands of their carers, the cry goes up: “Never again”. Imagine if that promise – made and broken so many times – could one day be delivered on. «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1