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Monday, August 5, 2013

Child protection's inconvenient truth: Is Daniel Pelka an example?

Media in the United Kingdom are swarming around the death of Daniel Pelka. He was four years old at his death at the hands of his mother, Magdelena Liczak and step father, Mariusz Krezolek, . They have now been convicted of his murder. He was starved and treated cruelly for at least 6 months prior to dying.
Daniel Pelka

The media reports are slowly leaking into Canada, although they are not creating the sensation that even a casual reading of UK papers suggests is going on there.

There is a serious case review in the matter, but its publication has been delayed until next month. Apparently the SCR panel learned information in the trial that it must now consider. That, in itself, is a fascinating statement suggesting that those working on the case had information gaps. At this point, it is not clear the child protection had a significant, or even any role in the family. The case is, none the less, highly reminiscent of many cases such as Jeffrey Baldwin, Victoria Climbie, Khyra Ishaq, Logan Marr and so on. Here in Canada, we have another tragic case subject to a public review that has just finished up. This is the case of Phoenix Sinclair. It will be several months before we hear what the commissioner, Justice Ted Hughes has to say.

In all of these cases there are valuable lessons to be had on child protection practice. These cases highlight the ways in which case management and interventions can go wrong. They also help us to see the sorts of common errors that occur. It is those errors, in particular, that need avoidance.

Cases such as these raise the delicate balance between protecting children and preserving families. The challenge with these cases is that they inevitably result in several things:

  1. A scapegoat will be sought. In Daniel's case, the politicians are already doing this;
  2. In some fashion, a politician will also state that the protection of children is paramount and that they intend to get to the bottom of this so it will not happen again;
  3. New procedures will be introduced, manualized and bureaucratized; 
  4. New training will be recommended; 
  5. Social workers will become wary and fearful of making a mistake; and
  6. Another child will die.
I am reminded of the article by anthropologist  China Scherz in the United States who looked at how social workers try to put into place good judgement while also trying to manage that balance between protection and family. She looked at the introduction of actuarial tools to help better identify risk. Her article is well worth reading. What one concludes is that there is a real risk that we create what looks to be science (e.g. actuarial tools, structured decision making processes, formal assessment processes) which mask the reality of child protection in science. It is a false mask.

While I am a supporter of these various types of tools, there is still the reality that a front line worker is going to have to make decisions from that information - leave the child in the home? close the file? remove the child? offer services? Scherz's article shows that this still is a very individual decision that a worker must make, and that there can be a wide variance in the ways that workers see a case.

There is no way to remove the worker and the personal decision making from the work. Workers bring training, experience and, yes, beliefs into the day to day interaction with families. No matter how much structure and science you try to wrap around that, this truth remains.

Which leads to the inconvenient truth in child protection - mistakes will be made, children will be subject to further abuse and maltreatment that might have been avoided if a different decision was made, and a small number of children involved in child protection will die - but most will not.

To expect perfection in child protection is unrealistic. Let these tragic cases continue to serve as educational opportunities so that the common mistakes can be highlighted and the highly unusual errors can also be brought to light.


Scherz, C. (2011). Protecting children, preserving families: Moral conflict and actuarial science in a problem of contemporary governance. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 34 (1), 33-50.

1 comment:

  1. "Mistakes"? The loss of a human life should not be mundanely referred to as an error. I find the statement disrespectful and offensive. Human tragedies can be preventable, but what must first transpire is equal administrative justice. There must not be two sets of rules - one for the general public, the other for government employees - as this only distracts from accountability. Recommendations in the realm of child death prevention are plentiful and if policy was actually adhered to, would be much more successful than at present. In the absence of penalty for offences of abuse and negligence, there is little hope of prevention. Sincerely, Velvet Martin, Spokesperson for Protecting Canadian Children and Founder of SAMANTHA'S LAW (mother of victim, Samantha Martin.)