The government has demanded Coventry Safeguarding Children Board undertake a deeper analysis into why four social care assessments failed to pick up on the risks posed to murdered schoolboy Daniel Pelka.
Children’s minister Edward Timpson made the demand, in a letter sent to the independent safeguarding board chair Amy Weir, on the same day that the serious case review (SCR) into the four-year-old’s death was published.
Daniel died in March 2012 from a blow to the head. His death followed months of physical and emotional abuse, including starvation, at the hands of his mother and step-father.
Deeper analysis into failings
Timpson said the SCR had set out where the failures occurred and he now wants a deeper analysis into why they occurred.
“The review suggests these failures could be related to the nature of management support and advice, efficiency of systems and processes, training, workload or organisational context. Its analysis, however, stops at that point,” Timpson wrote.
“Such an analysis is essential to ensure local agencies take the action necessary to address the root causes of the specific failures. I ask that you set out by the end of this week how, and to what timescale, you will deepen the analysis begun by the SCR.”
‘Rule of optimism dominated’
Although the first initial assessment, following domestic violence concerns, was of high quality, three later assessments, including a core assessment following a fracture to Daniel’s arm, were dominated by ‘the rule of optimism’.
The core assessment in particular placed far too much weight on a later admission by the paediatrician that the injury could have been accidentally caused, and not enough on the fact that doctors also felt it was likely to have been caused by abuse.
While no single professional could have predicted Daniel’s death, the review did detail numerous missed opportunities to investigate and challenge what life was like for Daniel and his siblings.
27 incidents of domestic violence
In particular, police were called to 27 separate incidents of domestic violence over the course of four years, which involved Daniel’s mother, Magdalena Luczak, with three different male partners.
This history alone should have warned social workers not to take at face value the mother’s assurances that domestic violence had ceased and she was able to protect her children, the review’s authors claimed.
Professionals also failed to properly investigate the impact of the ongoing domestic violence and alcohol abuse on the children and at no time was Daniel ever interviewed on his own by social workers. Despite Daniel being the focus of concern for all the practitioners, in reality he was rarely the focus of their interventions, the report concluded.
School and health criticised
Other professionals that should have safeguarded Daniel were also criticised, including his school for failing to act when the four-year-old presented with a succession of unexplained injuries. Health visitors should also have followed up domestic violence concerns and missed child health checks more rigorously, the review found.
However, the authors admitted that many of the failings were about applying procedures rather than the lack of them or any particular gaps in service. It noted some of this could be attributed to a severe shortage of health visitors in the Coventry area and high caseloads amongst the social work team.
The sheer volume of domestic abuse notifications and referrals were also cited as a potential contributing factor, while the authors recognised it was a complex and relatively rare abuse case where the mother was particularly convincing as a concerned parent, and Daniel was the focus of abuse and neglect while his two siblings were not.
‘Unrelenting focus on the child’
Jo Cleary, chair of the College of Social Work, said three significant themes arise from the review, which social workers and other professionals should read “very carefully”.
“Firstly, domestic violence and alcohol misuse by parents must always be taken seriously as a potential child protection issue. Secondly, professionals need to be ever mindful of the potential for some parents to deceive and manipulate them.
“Above all, everyone involved in working with children must be unrelenting in their focus on the child and their needs and on making sure that children’s voices are heard,” Cleary said.
NSPCC chief Peter Wanless called for a culture change, “from process driven box-ticking to child-aware curiosity; a willingness to question excuses; and a resolve to record and follow through with appropriate urgency whenever we see a child suffering”.
Isabelle Trowler, chief social worker for children and families, said: “Daniel’s story is deeply distressing and tragic. It is a stark reminder to the social work profession of the critical, and lead, role we play in protecting children.
“Meeting the complex needs of families requires sophistication and rigour backed by strong management and leadership. I want to drive the reform of services to enable the best social work to flourish.”