Daniel Pelka case shows why social workers and teachers must work together to combat child abuse

As Coventry LSCB prepares to publish a serious case review into the death of Daniel Pelka, Judy Cooper looks at the lessons that can already be learnt from the case, and finds out why many teachers feel ‘lost and isolated’ when it comes to child protection

The shocking death of four-year-old Daniel Pelka, starved and beaten by his parents in Coventry, has once again highlighted the importance of strong partnership working between child protection agencies – in particular, teachers and social workers.

According to court reports from his parents’ criminal trial, Daniel was only once the subject of a child protection investigation. The youngster was taken to hospital with a broken arm, but after one of his siblings corroborated a story about jumping off a couch, the investigation was closed.

When teachers noticed small injuries and Daniel’s increasing weight loss, his mother routinely lied to teachers and doctors, convincing them he had a rare genetic eating disorder. Both she and Daniel’s step-father were very aggressive when they felt they were being challenged, while their two other children appeared to be in good health.

Serious case review due this month

It is unclear if a common assessment framework (CAF) was in place, but a school nurse and an educational welfare officer did make visits to the family home. It is also unclear what happened after Daniel came to school with two apparent black eyes.

Answers should be found in the serious case review (SCR), due imminently, but Glynis Marsh, a help-desk expert at the College of Social Work, says: “It is bound to say what every review does – that opportunities were missed, there was not enough communication and the focus on the child was lost.”

She believes much closer working between teachers and social workers is needed, such as shadowing days and more observations in schools. However, she points out that capacity issues make it unlikely to become a reality at the moment.

Teachers and social workers make a ‘powerful’ team

“Social workers are so stretched with so many cases that they just don’t have time, while in some schools the class sizes are now so big, and the use of agency staff so widespread, that you are losing that key relationship between teacher and student.”

The same pressures mean many teachers are not getting the training they need in child protection. Often there will only be one person in the school who knows about child protection, as required by Ofsted, March points out. “But really every single teacher needs to have that knowledge – particularly in large schools.”

After all, teachers and social workers make a powerful team when combating child abuse. “The teacher sees the child every day and can note mood swings and changes in behaviour, while social workers have the power to go into someone’s house and challenge parents,” Marsh says.

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Teachers and children left vulnerable

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT – a union representing all teachers, including headmasters – agrees there are considerable pressures on schools, but also blames the government for hindering good partnership working.

“The seeds of good partnership working were there with children’s trusts and the ContactPoint database, which had real potential to be built upon. But this government has smashed it to pieces.”

While social workers have largely welcomed the reduction in child protection guidance, it has left teachers feeling isolated and unsure of what to do, Keates says. And the move to create academies and free schools has weakened the system still further.

For example, the legal ties between councils and schools did facilitate child protection training, but this now depends on the leadership and priorities within a school. “It leaves staff and children vulnerable and we are seriously concerned,” Keates says.

Winston Morson, a consultant child and family social worker, says: “Already with some [schools] you can tell they don’t really want to make an effort with a child who may be affecting their academic scores, attendance records or Ofsted report. You can tell they are looking for excuses to exclude the child rather than really trying to get to the root of the problem and provide whatever help they can.”

Teachers feel social care thresholds too high

Overall, he believes partnership working between schools and social care is working well, but agrees there are tensions. Social workers get irritated by teachers waiting until 3.30pm on a Friday or just before school holidays to make a referral, for example. In turn teachers get frustrated at feeling that social care thresholds are too high.

“I’ve spoken to teachers who almost anticipate the rejection of a referral so end up not passing on concerns,” Morson says. Instead, he feels all areas need a system for teachers to discuss concerns with a social worker or get feedback before making a referral. “It’s very time consuming to make a referral and often all they are looking for is some reassurance or advice,” he adds.

More children also fall into a category where their needs are too complex for teachers to cope with, but not serious enough for social care involvement. “In the past there would be more voluntary groups in that gap, like youth services, domestic violence or drug and alcohol services, but many are gone because of the cuts,” Morson says.

‘Every adult should feel responsible’

Chris Cloke, head of child protection awareness at the NSPCC, agrees that public sector funding cuts are leaving children increasingly vulnerable in some areas. But he warns against reading too much into the case of Daniel Pelka.

“These are cases of complex abuse involving active deceit, which are notoriously difficult to identify even for trained social workers, let alone teachers who, quite rightly, often feel they need to develop a good working relationship with parents.

“They hit the headlines because the consequences are horrifying, but they do not make up the bulk of neglect and abuse cases teachers see. If a teacher is convinced the parent is trying to meet the needs of the child and the siblings, as in this case, are both well and healthy, I don’t think we should be surprised that teachers may take longer to take action than otherwise,” he says.

Marsh believes every adult needs to feel a sense of responsibility. “Abused children are either living in fear or have closed down and they might only make one key relationship with an outside adult whom they trust,” she says.

“But once that relationship is made, even if it’s with the dinner lady, that adult needs to take responsibility to ensure the child’s voice is not lost; it may be the only opportunity to save the child.”

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