Daniel Pelka death shows how hard child protection can be

Daniel Pelka suffered horrific abuse at the hands of his parents. West Midlands Police/PA Wire

The horrific neglect and subsequent death of Daniel Pelka at the hands of his mother and step-father raises a number of questions about safeguarding procedures and practice.

We are told teachers were concerned about his significant physical deterioration and weight loss. Those responsible for his death were seen by different professionals but between them the parents were either threatening or had an “explanation”. Teachers were apparently told he had an eating disorder and mustn’t be given extra food. But we will only know if there were unavoidable mistakes after the serious case review report is published.

Child protection professionals are seen by large sections of society as poor decision-makers when it comes to recognising abuse and then protecting children. I’m confident, though, that if you were to take 100 hard-nosed decision-makers from any other field, gave them a crash course in child protection and then put them in a busy team for a month, they would look and act much the same as our pilloried safeguarding professionals (unless they took every child into care, and then they would be criticised for doing so).

But the reason professionals can look all at sea when it comes to protecting children is, in the main, not due to the people who do the work: it is down to our imperfect knowledge about the signs and causes of abuse and how we assess “risk”.

Some telling figures illustrate this imprecision: in the late 1980s it was estimated that in a population of 10,000 families we would accurately identify 33 children as “high risk” but we would miss seven and, stunningly, identify 1195 children incorrectly as being high risk when they were not. (The seven and the 1195 could place workers in the spotlight, but they will rarely be complimented on the 33).

The same is true today because, although we have a few more forms and a growing library of risk assessment tools, sometimes professionals are “looking at the wrong things in the wrong place”.

Of course professionals make mistakes, but these uncomfortably wide variations and imprecise levels of prediction are not primarily the fault of those doing the job. It’s that we simply do not know enough from research or practice wisdom about the connections between risk factors - such as parental mental ill-health, alcohol and substance-misuse or having a violent partner - and child maltreatment. They are strongly correlated but correlation is not the same as causation.

For example, we know that many abusers will have been maltreated as children. But it doesn’t work the other way round, because many parents who were abused as children don’t go on to harm their own. Take the example of sexual abuse: we know from many studies that while some boys are sexually abused, it is much more likely to happen to girls. Therefore if being sexually abused as a child was a predictor, then most abusers of children would be women, but they are not: sexual abuse is far more likely to be committed by men, many of whom will not have been sexually abused as children themselves. It is the state of mind of the parent and the child that holds the key to more confident child protection practice, not past childhood experience and/or current lifestyle in isolation.

Families are very private. When child protection professionals cross that threshold and bring the wrong children into the system, the “incompetent do-gooder” quickly becomes the interfering, busy-body of the nanny state (some readers may remember the Cleveland and Orkneys scandals where exactly that happened).

Since the deaths of Peter Connelly (Baby P) and Khyra Ishaq, referrals to child protection social workers have increased, some studies suggesting by around 30% a year. This means that they have an even more difficult job prioritising risk, and then distinguishing between families they can work with to keep a child safe and others who, from what we’ve heard about the appalling of circumstances of Daniel’s death, clearly had sadistic and malicious intentions all along but who seemed plausible when challenged.

This means that child protection professionals must gain access to all rooms in a household, as well as speak to children on their own (babies will need to be seen, including when awake). Threats or “disguised compliance” should be treated as suspicious. But doing all of this is easier said than done. This is why child protection is a such a demanding, and often such a thankless, job.