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MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Thu 12-Sep-13 10:09:25

Guest blog: "it must be mandatory for school staff to report suspected child abuse"

In August, the mother and stepfather of Daniel Pelka were given 30-year sentences for his murder (warning: distressing content). During the trial it emerged that school staff had noticed some of his injuries - but had not taken the actions necessary to save his life.

In this guest blog, Paula Barrow explains why she is campaigning for 'Daniel's Law', which would make it a legal requirement of anyone working with children in the UK to report suspected or known abuse to the local authority or the police.

Do you agree that reporting child abuse should be mandatory? Let us know what you think on the thread below.

Paula Barrow

Campaigner for 'Daniel's Law'

Posted on: Thu 12-Sep-13 10:09:25


Lead photo

Daniel Pelka was subjected to "a campaign of cruelty", according to Mrs Justice Cox

I first heard Daniel's story as it flickered across the news. I was making tea for my two children, aged 7 and 5; the radio was on in the kitchen and we were listening to Steve Wright when we heard the headline report. Wide-eyed, my little girl queried whether what she'd just heard could really be true... that a four-year-old school-boy had been starved and beaten, and was now dead. Before I could answer, she went on to ask why his teachers hadn't helped him.

I couldn't put Daniel's story out of my mind. I was shaken by the sketchy details I'd heard; it seemed impossible to believe that a child of school age - who was in regular contact with teachers, school staff and other adults - should have suffered in this way, over a period of months. But he did and the circumstances surrounding Daniel's harrowing story are disturbingly reminiscent of other appalling cases of child abuse in recent years, in which we learn that people in responsible positions could have intervened, but failed to take the necessary action to save a child's life.

I was perplexed by the nagging question of accountability - why did no one seem to be held responsible for not having helped Daniel? I wrote to opinion writers and editors, to my MP and other MPs, to government offices; I went right to the top and wrote to the Prime Minister. But no one replied to me except for an officer in the Department for Education who said I could be certain of a serious case review.

I think I probably assumed it was the law for people working with children to report abuse until the details of Daniel's case made it plain that it wasn't. Looking into it, I found that many countries do have such laws, particularly with regard to safeguarding children - Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the USA and now the Republic of Ireland (following a recent referendum), to name but a few - and that this number is growing all the time.

The circumstances surrounding Daniel's harrowing story are disturbingly reminiscent of other appalling cases of child abuse in recent years, in which we learn that people in responsible positions could have intervened, but failed to take the necessary action to save a child's life.

Those countries with mandatory reporting laws seldom prosecute anyone - but the deterrent or preventative effect is significant, as is the clarity of requirement. Current Department of Education guidance on how to deal with child abuse is 13 pages long, and full of the word should - leaving any final decision rather open to individual interpretation. In recent weeks, as part of my campaign research, I've seen letters from schools asking government for precise instruction (as opposed to guidance) so that staff have the confidence to take the action necessary to help a child in distress.

It's all very well talking about moral responsibility and professional duty of care, but teachers can find themselves in really difficult situations when confronted with child abuse; they need to be fully supported to press their worries home... no matter what the cost. Faced with an angry parent or a doubting colleague, staff can fail to act because they worry about being wrong, being ostracised, being put out of a job even. A new law requiring the mandatory reporting of child abuse would take away that burden of responsibility - anyone working with children would be obliged to report abuse by law. A subtle difference, perhaps, but one thing is certain sooner or later, another child's life will depend on it.

I launched my petition for Daniel's Law the night before Magdelena Luczak and Mariusz Krezolekwere were sentenced, when Daniel's name was trending in search engines and media interest was at a peak; The Coventry Telegraph ran a story almost immediately and there has been regional coverage in Manchester too (where I live); I was interviewed on BBC Radio Coventry & Warwickshires breakfast show earlier this week. I set up a Facebook page because people asked for one and I learned fast on Twitter - in fact, I was so keen at the beginning that I was almost struck off for too many unsolicited tweets (I'm still not entirely sure what I did, no one I asked had ever heard of such a thing!).

Most importantly, I now have the signatures and support of a number of MPs - a couple of whom are of Shadow Ministers - there will be a debate in the Commons on child protection this week in which parliamentary supporters intend speaking out for Daniel's Law and I will deliver my petition (currently approaching 15,000 signatures) to Downing Street around the time Daniel's serious case review reports.

Many people have lost faith in the serious case review process and we can only hope the Coventry serious report is bold enough to make some radical recommendations for future safeguarding, including mandatory reporting. In 2003, the Climbie Inquiry advised that teachers, doctors, other professionals must communicate concerns and share information - yet here we are 10 years later, considering once again how to make that vital communication happen. Making reporting child abuse the law for those who work with children has got to be a good place to start.

People signing this campaign include abuse lawyers and specialist charities, teachers, health workers and nurses who consider it would help both staff and children to make reporting abuse a legal obligation of course, lots of parents and other interested people are also supporting, many are shocked to discover such a law is not already in place.

Nick Clegg said at the time of Daniel's trial "Clearly people must have seen something was wrong with this boy, I think his death should be on all of our consciences."

There is a window of opportunity to campaign for change right now. If youd like to see a change in the law, please sign, tweet and share, tell everyone you know... do whatever you can to support the campaign for Daniel's Law.

By Paula Barrow

Twitter: @paulabarrow

nicoleno5 Thu 12-Sep-13 23:49:44

Nothing rang truer than the final comment that there is a window of opportunity to make these changes - and it is open right now. We owe it to both the children and those who work with them to make these essential shifts in attitude and change policy.

Offred Fri 13-Sep-13 06:58:52

There is plenty of evidence for an outright ban on physical punishment being the single most important thing in reducing child abuse. Our government has been urged numerous times to implement one and won't.

I'm not sure this would have made any difference to Daniel pelka because by all accounts the problem was that the staff didnt believe he was being abused on the whole, his mother had given credible cover stories. I think a law to report all suspected child abuse that caused all children with medical problems to have their families investigated would be horrendous.

Whatever the guidelines say, whatever the law says there are always going to be judgement calls involved in this and the services are always going to get it wrong. Particularly nasty and clever abusers will always get through whatever system there is. I simply don't see that there is any evidence to support this will do anything other than increase pressure on services and create suspicion amongst parents which will alienate them from seeking help at an early stage. It is a bad plan and there are better things.

Offred Fri 13-Sep-13 07:26:19

I think we need lots of changes btw, just not this one.

BlackberrySeason Fri 13-Sep-13 07:38:40

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Offred Fri 13-Sep-13 08:01:20

I mean we see threads all the time where people are already worrying about getting help from services which have increasingly become like police agencies as a result of what I feel is child abuse hysteria. What has happened as a consequence of this shift from support to police and a result of cuts in services and shifts in education, meaning staff are able to be less qualified, is simply that there is no no support and very little early intervention, that services are already overstretched and failing and I think it is this toxic combination we need to address as well as social attitudes to the raising of children and the economics of raising a family:

Claudiecat Fri 13-Sep-13 09:19:22

I've read the comments so far and again I'll reiterate - what makes you think that concerns aren't reported? Also I'm at a loss as to what the age of the headteacher has to do with the outcome. Is there a set age where you suddenly become more aware of signs of abuse? How do you know the headteacher's teaching background, career or training? Ludicrous!

TheFallenNinja Fri 13-Sep-13 09:29:06

I think the misunderstanding is that there is a safety net to slip through.

Currently only when concerns are raised through locally decided channels with dubious audit trails does anything actually begin to slowly happen.

Factor in the all too common and tired cry of overworked social workers then the net becomes smaller, add in the cry of personal privacy, the risk of misreporting and trial by media/blogger and forum it becomes smaller still.

Consider litigious parents, teachers, unions and professional bodies and again it gets smaller.

Throw in politicisation of all the above and what do we have? We have nothing.

There is no safety net and to believe otherwise is folly.

The obstacles in acting on the abusers are huge and presently insurmountable.

I'll bet my life that today, right now in this country there are teachers or doctors who absolutely know of a child who is being seriously abused but choose not to act upon it because of the above.

halfpint76 Fri 13-Sep-13 09:52:05

I've been following this case alot as it literally broke my heart to hear what Daniel suffered.

I spent a lot of time considering whether to sign this petition though as, like others, I wondered if the focus should have been elsewhere. I don't have direct experience of CP issues but I get a sense there is a need for improving child protection training (within schools, for SWs, health professionals, police etc); a need to make it easier to register concerns and for concerns to be communicated and accessible across these professional disciplines; campaigning for more resources so local authorities can better support SWs so that they don't have unmanageable case loads and basically less judicial bureacracy so that vulnerable children are the priority first and foremost.

I did sign the petition in the end because I hope if nothing else it will continue the dialogue about where we are failing. We obviously don't hear enough about when these cases are handled well and where children are properly protected. But, in Daniels case, something failed drastically, that's one too many and just not good enough.

I really hope Paula, you get alot of press coverage for this and that the government make tangible, effective changes to how we protect vulnerable children based on your campaign. I really admire what you are doing greatly. Good luck!

Offred Fri 13-Sep-13 12:02:59

There is a safety net, it is being scuppered by cuts and increasing mistrust due to the shift from support to policing.

Familes that need help should have been involved in the system for a long time before they get to this stage. They should be on a CAF and should have been pointed towards CAF or places like women's aid at a very early stage ideally before any abuse happens.

purpleroses Fri 13-Sep-13 12:08:51

My concern would be that a teacher or someone could be put off mentioning some (probably minor) concerns to another teacher, or the head of the school because of fears that once they've done that there would be no option but to report to social services. The teacher would therefore pretend they hadn't noticed something instead.

Many times, it would only be a combination of things (such as bruises, things the child has said, things the sibling has said, etc) that all add up to a need to raise a concern. But the people who know these different bits of information need to be able to speak to each other freely. In the large majority of cases the concerns might be alleviated by talking to others, and hence taken no further. A culture where people fear they'd be breaking the law by doing this could mean a culture where people fear to raise fears. Better to keep silent and then noone can accuse you of having not reported your concerns.

ItsAllGoingToBeFine Fri 13-Sep-13 12:19:12

I'm confused. OK, my child protection training was a while ago now, but I thought it was every adults responsibility (in law) to report abuse to the appropriate person.

How the feck do you prove someone did k ow something and didn't say?

hapivibe Fri 13-Sep-13 12:21:11

Hi there I think there are some valid points made in this discussion and my view is that I cannot believe that what is reported to have happened to Daniel happened in front of people's eyes. He was starving and the school did not check up on the reported eating disorder. They should have asked the parents for medical confirmation of this. A blind eye must have been turned and people must have thought that it would turn out ok and someone would do something about it. Everyone who notices something needs to be legally obliged to report it inorder to save lives of children. I really don't want anything like this to happen again but it will unless it is made the law to report abuse.

Offred Fri 13-Sep-13 12:22:38

Teachers have a duty of care to students etc it isn't quite the same as it being illegal not to report IYSWIM.

givemeaboost Fri 13-Sep-13 12:24:08

Communication between people is the absolute key here I believe and have direct experience of this both in the past and very recently.

when SS are called out to see a child, whatever the outcome- eg even if the case is then closed, the info should be shared as standard with school/dr and any others in contact with the child.

I had to report some serious abuse recently, SS went in, did initial assessment then promptly closed the case. as the family relocated im now left wondering whether to write an anon letter to the school as I suspect they have no idea about concerns for the child or that potentially the child is at risk.

I also think there needs to be more "surprise" when it comes to SS meetings- when abuse is suspected I don't believe making an appt to go see the child and parents is the way to go at all - any abuser with any sense will just clean the house and make sure the child is clean etc so no problems would be immediately visible, giving SS a false sense of this child is ok. Id like to see more follow up with children that have been seen by SS and then had their case closed, Id also like clearer guidelines/rules for putting children on the "at risk register"

Offred Fri 13-Sep-13 12:27:55

As far as I can see it is highly likely that Daniel Pelka would still have died no matter whether it was made a legal requirement or not. The mother was committed to both the abuse, which seems instigated and led by her partner, and to comprehensively manipulating the school. This would have happened no matter what the law was, a change in the law would simply change how she manipulated the law.

givemeaboost Fri 13-Sep-13 12:32:29

^ but the school made bad judgment calls- if they had checked with Drs when the mum had said about the eating disorder-and found that infact he did not have one, that may of been the simple call that could've saved his life- action (I hope) would have been taken once they realised she was starving him and would've prompted more thorough investigation.

Offred Fri 13-Sep-13 12:38:33

As I said before judgement calls will still be involved whether it is required that you report or not.

mamasin Fri 13-Sep-13 15:47:11

I support the call for change. Though I don't live in the UK, my experience is that just some school staff are appropriately aware of their responsibilities in recording, dealing and escalating issues. I echo the poster who said we all have a responsibility towards children, whether neighbours or professionals. Something, evenjust one thing positive must come out of beautiful Daniel's passing.

juneau Fri 13-Sep-13 17:34:09

Signed. Such an appalling, heart-breaking story. I find it incredible that this little boy, who was going to school five days a week, presumably doing PE and getting changed in front of his teachers, emaciated and bruised, rummaging in bins around the school for food, didn't arouse the alarm and suspicion of anyone who cared enough to report their worries. As we apparently live in a society where people have to be legally compelled to have compassion and to open their eyes, this petition is urgently needed. Bravo Paula Barrow for actually doing something, rather than just being appalled and feeling helpless, like me.

Havea0 Fri 13-Sep-13 19:21:26

Signed. Normally when I read threads of this sort of nature, I tend to back away.
And initially I did. But then I thought some more. You are talking about people who work with children. They should already be trained in this, so for them then not to report it is bad practice.
Obviously they should talk it their concerns with the boss or leader first. But if two or people agree, then it should be reported. It stops the looking the other way mentality, or the it is nothing to do with me mentality that is surprisingly rife in the general public.

MrsDeVere Fri 13-Sep-13 19:51:18

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

medhandthekiddiesvtheworld Fri 13-Sep-13 20:45:46

They did report, one of the teachers was so concerned she phoned SS and the GP, it was not the failure of the school that led to this,

As someone who has been involved with SS from a victim perspective, they couldnt have cared less about us - the abandoned us and hung us out to dry.

And why?? Because they are so bloody under resourced, they have no workers, they don't have the resource to care, they cannot cope with the cases they have.

Before we have a campaign like this, we need a campaign to make sure front line services are properly funded, because until they are - these things will continue to happen, over and over again.

medhandthekiddiesvtheworld Fri 13-Sep-13 20:46:52

You only need to read ALL the press reports to know his teachers tried, the mother told the school staff he had an eating disorder.

medhandthekiddiesvtheworld Fri 13-Sep-13 20:50:34

I'm sorry to make a third post, has anyone stopped to consider the impact on already over stretched services that extra reporting will bring. It wont work, because the back services are already not their, and that is why poor, poor Daniel died, not because his teachers did not care enough.

jjohnsonvanessa Sat 14-Sep-13 09:41:55

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