Daniel was killed by manipulative, lying, cruel, dangerous, drink and drug addled murderers. Nobody else. Let me get that obvious fact out of the way first. His own mum and her sadistic partner, the very people you would believe he would be the safest with. People ask: how could this happen? Haven’t we had countless reports and recommendations in the past which should have stopped this happening? And in there lies part of the answer.
I want to touch on a number of issues in this post. I want also to make some observations which I made to the Safeguarding Board at the time and come from a lay persons perspective – something which is too often missing in such cases. I often call it “Common Sense.” I don’t propose to go into detail on all the issues in the case as they have been dealt with elsewhere.
1. When did I know and what did I know
2. Domestic violence
3. Social workers and the job they do
4. Role of the local Authority
5. The future
1) I was first told of Daniels death on March 12th 2012. This was a Monday and I was at my regular weekly briefing. To hear of a child’s death in Coventry was not unusual. When one happened I was told. They happen far more regularly than the public realise but more often than not have rather tragic explanations which often could have been avoided. For example, a number of children have died in Coventry in the last few years because the parent took the baby into bed with them and in the night lay on top of them killing them. Tragic and avoidable but in the end not a criminal offence even though evidence showed the parents had been advised against the practice and drink was involved. To be clear, Daniel was not an ‘active’ case with Coventry Social Care. Even if the case was, it would have been unlikely that the Cabinet member would know about it anyway. There are close to 3,000 active cases in Coventry at any one time with children in and out of the authorities care. It is not possible for one person to know about them all and is anyway totally impractical.
Initially, Daniel’s death was seen as heart failure which though tragic was not unusual. Clearly, as the doctors investigated the truth began to emerge. A serious case review was ordered in line with the law. Police investigations began to unravel the horrible truth culminating in the conviction of his killers. The question everyone asks is: how did they get away with this undetected?
2) The truth is they were not undetected. Mum had a string of partners over the years including Daniel’s father. On 27 separate occasions going right back to 2006, police were called to the various properties both in Coventry and Warwickshire where they lived to deal with violence in the home. Alcohol abuse was a significant factor in these incidents often with a knife present in mum’s hand. Daniels Dad was to be prosecuted on one occasion but Mum refused to support the police. This is quite typical in domestic violence cases I’m afraid. It would appear from the evidence available that these call outs were treated as individual cases in isolation from one another. The children in the family are mentioned but it seems to be that the violent incident took priority and with the police you can see why. One question I have posed is this: what impact did the fact that the family were Polish have? Can you imagine the scenario? A call comes in to the local police station where police are dispatched to deal with another case from “that family” where they arrive to find them drunk and violent, shouting and screaming in Polish. Is it unreasonable to suggest a police reaction: not them again. Professional maybe not. Understandable though perhaps? The truth is the police deal with these sorts of cases day in and day out.
3) The job society asks Social Workers to do is onerous, emotional and at times almost impossible. Be clear though, I am not a so called apologist for social workers and have always expressed a healthy scepticism for the profession. In practice this meant I would and will constantly question and challenge until I felt able to both understand and explain decisions and practice. One of the things I learnt when I was Cabinet member in Coventry was the incredible number of cases relating to neglect and abuse social care is dealing with. The numbers and range of cases continually challenges both individually and collectively. I don’t want to upset readers by giving graphic details of horrific cases which would shock anybody in any part of the world, yet the real truth is social care make far more children safe than ever before yet the case load continues to grow. More and more, people are prepared to report concerns they may have. Understandably, following high profile cases, caution becomes the watch word. This is at a time of diminishing resources on the front line for social care from this Tory led government. Yet, at the same time we have a thriving industry in family law fighting big bad social services snatching children from the arms of their loving family, often supported by the same national newspapers who then lambast any social worker who apparently gets it wrong.
You might think this is just hearsay but I give you an example. In Coventry, social care had, for a number of years, concerns about a family and the children. On a number of occasions, following referrals, care orders were attempted for the children which were fought in the courts by well recompensed and aggressive lawyers. Social care got roundly criticised for their bad practice and had to pay compensation. Sometime later anti-terrorist police executed a warrant at the property which resulted in the charge of the parents of serious neglect. The children are now in the care of social services. Social care was right. And there are thousands of children out there who would say the same: saved from serious neglect and abuse by social workers for which we owe a debt both as individuals and as a community.
Yet, there is a problem which I can see. Social work is an incredibly complex and time consuming profession. It has changed over the years becoming heavily reliant on record keeping and note taking. It is of course much more than that and it is too easy to just label it bureaucracy. It is important that everyone knows what they are doing and why. It’s partly to do with information sharing in the event of needing to understand a case more thoroughly but also for politicians so they can hold public servants to account. This is a good thing but it has put them under pressure and means they spend more time filling in paper work than they do with families and children. As politicians, we ask for this transparency yet do not adequately understand the role nor fund it properly. Britain has a chronic lack of experienced social workers. It takes years to train one and then they have to develop and get experience before they can take on full case loads. This means others take the strain in the meantime. In Coventry, I was keen to do away with agency staff and instead recruit and train our own teams. This is the right policy for the long term but takes time to achieve.
Short sighted, ill-advised and ignorant criticisms of social care in the aftermath of Daniel’s killer’s trial by local politicians betray those trying to safeguard children. It turns caution into fright and it turns people away from wanting to stay in the role or take it up in the first place. It has the exact opposite effect of what I’m sure critics would want – children become less safe. Put this into the context too of continuous Ofsted inspections of Social Care over recent times showing Coventry being excellent or good whilst at the same time demanding Coventry reduce the numbers of children in its care, and you can see the complete and utter confusion, horror and worry those that work in the field must feel. I have no problem in professionals being held to account, but please understand the context they are working in and the constraints politicians place upon them. It’s often said: a little information can be dangerous. That’s been the case here.
That being said, I make a real observation again from a lay persons perspective. Social work has become highly skilled. You need a degree and professional training. They often work in an environment with manipulative and skilful liars who delight in obfuscation, confusion, sheer spite and wickedness. To deal with this, professional development and support is crucial. Training is everything. However, I do think it has got to the point that because of such a high level of training and the knowledge that they must record and do everything exactly by the book, they almost stop believing their own eyes. Training has taken over perhaps at the expense of their instinct. Believe in your training they are told. Have you noticed how quite often parents, at the slightest sign of something wrong will move heaven and earth to get something for their child. I remember seeing a dad whom I knew at the doctors one day with his child who was snivelling and had a cold. He demanded the doctor and was quite loud and insistent and I could see he was more emotional than his daughter. He had to wait like everyone else. I’m not suggesting everyone should over react but perhaps they should think: what would I do if it was my child?
I read a book some time ago called ‘A Child Called It.’ The author was the subject and it described in horrifying detail the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his own mother. It is a truly shocking read which would move the hardest of hearts. I advise anyone wanting to go into the social care arena to read it first. When I started to become aware of what Daniel’s mother and partner did to him, it is almost a carbon copy of the book. An abusive drunken mother who didn’t touch her other children, used starvation as a weapon, kept him in dreadful conditions whilst at the same time keeping up appearances to the outside world. The difference was, the boy in the book was saved by his teacher. The same cannot be said about Daniel.
4) Let me be clear. Things can always be done better. Lessons can always be learnt. As a local authority, over the near 6 years that various agencies, including the Council, dealt with Daniel’s family, there are elements where if someone could do a job again they would do it better next time. There are also things such as record sharing between organisations which might have helped, though it is worth saying this would potentially have meant breaching data protection legislation. Take a look at that guidance if you don’t believe me. Try asking your own GP for your records and the chances are he will charge you! Professionals probably were too optimistic in believing the explanations of mum yet she must have been pretty convincing considering how the police, health visitors, doctors, paediatricians, social workers and teachers all accepted the benefit of the doubt.
Never forget though, humans do make mistakes and we must understand that too. A central finding of the Serious Case Review was that ‘Daniel’s death could not have been predicted.’ If you find that hard to accept then consider this. At the murder trial, mum and her partner blamed each other. Even in the heat of a trial under the most intense of personal pressure, neither of the murderers could bring themselves to tell the truth. It was only the overwhelming evidence not available before to anyone else which finally nailed them.
5) People who have children sometimes do horrible and unimaginable things to their offspring. It’s not nice but it does happen. Society is opening up. Every day it seems another scandal is uncovered and not just in child abuse. I don’t believe this sort of thing is new but I do believe our attitude is. It cannot and will not be tolerated either in children or how we treat our elderly or disabled citizens. We must steel ourselves for more scandals and revelations and respond positively to them. That way, we will begin the long road to making this sort of abuse rarer still. We must support those that we ask to work in this field and not ridicule, isolate or scapegoat them. We must hold our nerve and take tough decisions to pay for and support this work. Throughout this horrible story, one fact which has been reported though not that widely: the UK has one of the best Child Protection systems in the world. It’s not good enough yet but if we have the will we can get better and improve it. We owe it to our children to do this. Be positive. Be bold. And we will get it right….most of the time.