Lessons from the tortured life of Daniel Pelka

Such extreme cases of child abuse conform to a pattern that the safety net fails to catch


Ten days ago the country luxuriated in images of idealised parenthood, as the cameras showed the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge driving home with their newborn strapped safely into his car seat. Now, in a bleak counterpoint, we are presented with the opposite: two people who systematically starved and tormented a four-year-old out of existence. Daniel Pelka in his final months was a pitiful child, described before his death as a “bag of bones”.

New parents frequently remark upon the sudden, terrifying, realisation that they are now on their own; that the child they are transporting from the maternity ward is henceforward their responsibility. And it is perhaps remarkable that, in fact, the vast majority of children turn out all right. In the love and care lavished on them at home, they will be far closer to the privileged prince than to the sad little Polish child. But the regrettable truth is that, however few these extreme cases of child cruelty might be, they seem to conform to a pattern that our elaborate social safety net still finds hard to catch.

Perversely, one reason could reflect our better instincts – our tendency to believe the best, rather than the worst, of other people. Despite all the harrowing evidence to the contrary – Victoria Climbié (who died in 2000) and Baby Peter (2007) – even the professionals seem unwilling to countenance the depths of depravity to which some adults will sink. The Baby Peter inquiry recommended that social workers and others should show more scepticism. But the fictions of Daniel’s mother appear repeatedly to have been given the benefit of the doubt.

Accomplished parental lying is a common element in all these terrible cases. But it is not necessary to see through this deviousness to identify several more failings that the Pelka case shares with the others. We could start with the number of different agencies involved. There are abused children who are completely hidden from view, but these were not among them. The inquiry into Victoria Climbié’s death noted that among those harbouring suspicions were the police, the social services of more than one local authority, the NHS, the NSPCC and local churches. Yet their knowledge was not pooled, or if it was, to no useful effect. Better communication between agencies was a central proposal.

Seven years later, crossed wires between social services, the police and the NHS were found to have contributed to the failure to prevent the death of Baby Peter Connelly. Six years on, something similar appears to have left Daniel Pelka to the distinctly un-tender mercies of his mother and her partner. Those who made home visits often left without seeing him. The doctors who treated a broken arm were persuaded that it could have been an accident. Teachers who caught him trying to scavenge or steal food said they had tried to draw his bruised and emaciated state to the attention of social services, but if they did, the mother’s explanation about a food allergy was accepted and her instruction that he should not be fed obeyed. Although he was conspicuously below normal weight, no attempt seems to have been made to obtain an outside medical opinion: there appears to have been a marked reluctance to intrude upon a parent’s judgement.

Which connects to something else these cases have in common. Daniel’s parents, and his mother’s partner, were relatively recent Polish migrants, with – as the recorded phone calls show – barely adequate English. Daniel’s own poor English was one reason why, it was suggested, he might not have been able to confide in his teachers. Beyond this question of linguistic competence, though, was there perhaps something else – the ingrained reluctance of middle-class English professionals to challenge a lifestyle very different from their own?

At the time of her death, Victoria Climbié was living with her Francophone African aunt and her aunt’s boyfriend, and it was suggested that he saw her as being possessed by evil spirits. Baby Peter lived in what is sometimes called an unconventional household, with extended family and others coming and going much of the time. His mother, her new boyfriend and the boyfriend’s brother (the lodger) were all convicted of causing or allowing his death. Were doctors, social workers and others trying so hard not to be judgemental that they glossed over the multiple signs of cruelty before them?

Live and let live is an admirable sentiment, but there comes a point where a line has to be drawn. The abject failure of the UK authorities to bring anyone to book so far for the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation is another example of how we prefer to tiptoe around difference. Girls growing up in Britain are entitled to expect that they will not be subject to forced marriage or mutilated. So why do we not require annual medical examinations for all schoolchildren and apply more diligence to pursuing parents whose teenage girls suddenly vanish from school? This is something the French have got right. We need to show a bit more concern about what goes on in other people’s homes.

A third element that the cases of Victoria Climbié, Peter Connelly and Daniel Pelka have in common is the malign presence of a new male partner into the household. In each instance, it appears to be with the arrival of a new boyfriend in residence that the child’s victimisation really begins. From the torment and death of Maria Colwell at the hands of her stepfather in 1973, such an arrangement has long been recognised as a risk, but the dangers seem to be ignored time and again. We are not talking responsible stepfathers here, nor is this observation intended as an indictment of single mothers. But a new man sharing a home with someone else’s young children is something that should be taken into account.

As it happens, a US scientific study, published earlier this week, offered possible enlightenment on this front. It argued that monogamy had evolved among some mammals, including humans, as a way of keeping their progeny safe from malevolent male rivals. This research was reported by most UK papers, but not one was bold – or politically incorrect – enough to draw the obvious implications for real life or link it with the deaths of children, such as Baby Peter.

Daniel Pelka had the misfortune to live in a household that combined all these risks. Nor will he be the last child whose life will be cruelly cut short. So long as the home is treated as sacrosanct, even the most densely woven safety net will sometimes fail. In the end, it is those who perpetrated the fatal abuse who must accept their responsibility. Meanwhile, the rest of us should perhaps reflect that these tragic cases dominate the headlines not only because they are so harrowing, but because they are – still – few and far between.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Political Editor: Phone and data laws to be passed in haste

Andrew Grice
The first lesson of today is... don't treat women unequally?  

Yvette Cooper is right: The classroom is the best place to start teaching men about feminism

Chris Maume
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial