A SERIOUS case review this week has found that opportunities were missed to help four-year-old Daniel Pelka, who was murdered by his mother and her partner in Coventry.
The anger and frustration from those interviewed about the case, from reporters – and even including my own friends and family – was powerful and emotional.
While many are left thinking how unforgiveable it was that Daniel Pelka was so badly let down, I wanted to give an insight in to how I felt as another Council Leader, the Safeguarding Board Chair, Council Chief Executive and school head teacher all came under the media spotlight.
There but for the grace of God, go I.
As a council leader, cabinet member, or a professional involved in safeguarding children at risk the buck stops with you.
So, even if personally you feel you’ve done all you can when it comes to being called to account, you cannot escape the understandable need for those let down to have someone to answer for those failings.
Here in Oldham I chair the Corporate Safeguarding Accountability meetings. Put simply it enables me to understand what is happening on the front line and within our communities. I also give challenge and scrutiny to Oldham’s approach to children and adults at risk and ensure that Safeguarding arrangements are in place to address the key issues. That all sounds very technical and slightly boring, but it isn’t.
The question we always ask is: “What is in the best interests of the child?”.
The answer, on the face of it, is straightforward: To be safe, secure and well cared for and to ensure that young people are helped to make the right choices.
But the world isn’t black and white and we’re not dealing with people or situations that can be mechanistically controlled.
We are trying to work with very limited resources to meet the needs of hundreds of families and ensure that children are safeguarded. There is an overriding conflict which that very straightforward question poses.
You always have to weigh up the life changing decision to remove a child from their family to prevent harm or neglect with the realisation that this act alone can be traumatic and devastating to all parties – and may not always lead to a better outcome for the child.
In Oldham that decision was made for around 350 children who are currently in care. In addition about 290 young people are subject to a child protection plan living either at home or with families and friends.
I have spent time with frontline social workers through formal ‘meet and greet’ sessions to visiting staff in their offices. The job of a social worker can be a thankless task, but I pay tribute to the dedicated team we have in Oldham. They are real people trying hard to make a difference on the ground.
What stood out in the Daniel Pelka case for me were three key things.
The first is that even with the best systems and processes in place you will never have a system where no-one falls through the net. The scale of abuse and human judgement means that, however unsettling that truth is, unfortunately that’s the reality. That doesn’t mean you are being passive or making allowances. You don’t – you do everything you can to prevent serious harm to children.
The second was that in this case, as with others, professionals failed to see what was staring them in the face. School teachers failed to report, for example, and social workers didn’t speak to Daniel. Even without hindsight there have been enough serious case reviews where ‘lessons have been learnt’ to ensure this should not happen. We all have a duty to get this right.
Daniel was let down by the system and, ultimately, those closest to him.
As a councillor I attended safeguarding training just a few months ago where we talked though case studies and were trained on how to spot harm and when to report it.
The third key factor here is the human truth: Evil is calculated. This wasn’t a case of neglect where simply a lack of skills or an ability to parent let a child down. This was about deliberate and targeted abuse of the most evil kind.
It is human to be angry. Daniel Pelka was let down and it should not have happened.
I also know how this will be affecting those people involved in keeping children safe in Coventry. You have to be professional and make firm judgements based on facts, but it doesn’t mean that when something like this happens that you are not torn apart.
Those involved will be affected by this for years to come, if not for the rest of their lives. That isn’t to take away any failings, but it is a reality.
I will admit that the thought of this happening in Oldham does keep me awake at nights.
At times I’ve been left harrowed after learning the detail and scale of abuse in my own town. I can admit to being left emotional after learning about a very young child abused by his parents. It is odd that when you get home and see your own children healthy and enjoying life you then feel a strange sense of guilt, such is the weight of personal responsibility you feel for your town and its people.
Oldham is rated as ‘Good with many outstanding features’ for its Child Protection but we are not complacent – nor can we ever afford to be. We invest a great deal in partnership working and sharing information but we always seek ways to improve and challenge.
If it were not for those people working to protect children at risk we would hear of many, many more cases like this.
This is not a battle against a broken system; it is a battle of good people trying to protect children from evil. More often than not the ‘good guys’ win, but now and again we are all left feeling devastated.
Rest in peace Daniel.
Thanks for listening,