Editor's Comment - A serious case for pastoral care

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ECJ Issue 3.6


In September, the Serious Case Review (SCR) into Daniel Pelka’s death in Coventry was published. It is the focus of two of our articles in this edition. It raises questions about safeguarding for all professionals with an interest in protecting children.

Ofsted define safeguarding as: ‘The process of protecting children from abuse or neglect, preventing impairment of their health and development, and ensuring they are growing up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care that enables children to have optimum life chances and enter adulthood successfully.’ This definition is a recognition that ‘protection’ cannot be separated from broader concepts of well being. The problem with ‘child protection’ was that it is too specific – it focuses too much on single issues of violence, neglect or abuse, rather than taking into account a broader narrative of a child’s life.

This is important. It reminds us that that preventing harm to children is everyone’s responsibility. That last statement sounds like a cliché these days, and like clichés, its meaning has been eroded by overuse. Yet we need to stick with it because it has important implications for schools. Daniel Pelka’s school’s safeguarding procedures were chaotic to the extent that it was unclear from their records how many of the injuries noted by staff had been reported.

The failure of Daniel’s school to join the dots of his various injuries meant that the danger he was in went unnoticed. They weren’t the only agency to fail to recognise signs of abuse. The police were called to Daniel’s house on 26 occasions in four years after reports of domestic violence and drunkenness. On two occasions, the police left the children with intoxicated parents. Health services failed to adhere to proper guidance when Daniel’s arm was broken although the manner and timing of the break should have raised great concern.

Most victims of child homicides are aged under 12 months, so schools are less likely to be involved. But it’s not always the case. On 4th October this year, Amanda Hutton was jailed after starving her four-year-old son to death and leaving his body in a cot for nearly two years. At the trial, she admitted cruelty to five of her other children who, according to the judge were ‘living in appalling squalor’. Yet none of the social services, the police or the education authorities had investigated her case sufficiently to discover that Hutton, a known alcoholic, had the corpse of a four-year-old in a cot in her house for all this time.


Risk factors

Yet the risk factors that are associated with violence against young children are clear. They include, in no particular order, poor housing, debt, alcohol or drug abuse, domestic violence and mental health problems, and reflect exactly the experiences of Daniel’s mother. We know that missed school and health appointments can be an attempt to cover up harm, then there are the obvious signs of violence – a broken limb, loss of weight, bruises and cuts (on the face in Daniel’s case). Finally, the fact that English is a second language should act as a reminder that more care, not less, should be taken with these children so that they can explain their experiences on their terms in a language that they have full command of. Daniel’s English was poor.

What does this mean for schools? It does question what we want from and what we mean by pastoral care. Schools, like other institutions, have a great deal to cope with, yet they need to take their role of pastoral care more seriously and understand the trends, the research and the signals of neglect and abuse. Pastoral care ought to provide the space for children who have troubles, or who are anxious, frightened or are simply unhappy to come forward in an environment in which a violent parent is less likely to exert control. But pastoral care is too often seen as woolly, and is ascribed no particular role or responsibility, nor any strategy to adopt a proactive approach to seek out those children who will most benefit from it.

Daniel’s case is particularly alarming because as a result of an earlier SCR in Coventry, a pilot was set up to promote awareness and understanding of domestic violence.


Failure to learn from domestic violence

In June 2008, an SCR conducted after the death of a six-month-old baby recommended that West Midlands Police Domestic Abuse Policy should acknowledge the additional risks which arise when a pregnant woman is a victim of domestic abuse. In the same month, an SCR on the murder of a mother of two by her husband recommended: ‘Work needs to be carried out (nationally and locally) to consider how professionals can engage the perpetrators in cases of domestic violence, assessing the risk they pose both to their partners and their children.’ It added: ‘Since this tragic death, there have been significant changes in the coordination of services and management of cases of domestic violence in Coventry. These changes have led to improved risk analysis and support for victims of domestic violence.’

In December 2012, an SCR carried out in Coventry into the death of child W recommended that all agencies needed to better understand the impact of domestic violence on children.

Domestic violence was the backdrop to Daniel’s life. The school was unaware of this because the information had not been shared with them. Yet basic safeguarding practices such as identifying Daniel’s injuries, noting his emaciated condition would have been a way into discovering more about the neglect and violence he suffered. That’s what safeguarding should do – ensure that at every step, reasons for concern about a child’s wellbeing are identified. Daniel’s case is an extreme one. But if such cases can be missed, it means that thousands of children must be suffering abuse, violence or unhappiness at home. It is time for the education to get serious about pastoral care.

Every Child Journal