It was fear that killed Daniel

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_69883312_69883311My last blog, about the power of fear, received more responses than any blog I have ever written.  As I reflected on why that was, and about how I follow up a piece about something as obvious as children’s need of cuddles, news of the terrible death of 4-year-old Daniel Pelka filled our television screens.  This was, for me, another example of the power of fear.

We need to turn and look at the way fear has become woven into our professional practices, our politics, and our very culture.  If we cannot do that, then disturbing consequences will continue to flow.   More children will go without enough cuddles.  Some of those children will die.

If that seems too large a leap to take, too outrageous a claim to link cuddles and murder, that is because I believe we want to stay attached to believing these are separate phenomena.  They aren’t.  Our concerns about both of these issues arise out of a wish to protect children.  What is it that we think we are protecting them from?  Who do we think is responsible for enacting that protection?  And who should get the blame if there is a failure in that responsibility?

Blame is the key to it all.  Blame runs riot in our culture today.  It is already up and running in this case, with the MP for Coventry Northwest calling for the Children’s Services Director to “examine his conscience” and resign.  Blame fuels fear.  If someone else can get publicly roasted because they took a wrong decision, overlooked some important details, got too busy to do their job well, broke some rule – then I too might get blamed.  Once blame is running riot, then I know it is possible for me to perhaps become its target.  I live in fear of that and do all I can to prevent it.

If we want to stop the fear, then we have to stop the blame.

This is hard to do.  Blame feels good.  It lets me know who to point my finger at because I know who was ‘bad’.  You are the one!  You are a bad Children’s Services Manager; you should have had tighter policies.  You are a bad social worker; you should have paid more attention to the bruises.  You are a bad teacher; why did you not take his rummaging in the bins for food more seriously?  You are a bad mother; how could you have drowned your own child?   If you are the bad one, then I am not the bad one.  I am protected.  At least for the moment.

Blame also solves confusion.  Almost all of us will be dumbfounded as to how a mother could be party to drowning her own child.  “It must be because she is a bad mother.  Now I understand.  I would never do such a thing.  That makes me a good mother.”  How could a social worker, whose job it is to protect children, fail to take seriously reports of black eyes and broken arms?  “It must be because you were doing your job poorly.  Now I understand.  You are a bad social worker.”  If we can just get rid of the bad mothers and the poor social workers, then we won’t have any more murdered children.  Problem solved and punishment allocated.  Blame helps us to create a story for something that is unimaginably confusing for us.  Blame takes away our discomfort.

The traffic on Twitter is angry and disgusted and cynical.  Commentators are predicting that it will be ‘just like last time’.  There will be an enquiry, lessons will be learned, policies will be tightened – and in time, another child will die.  In fact, it is interesting to note that these high profile cases are only the tip of the iceberg.  Somewhere in the region of 50 -70 children die every year in the UK at the hands of the ‘bad people’ who were supposed to love them.

It could be different this time.  It really could.  The review process could yield lasting change.  If we can stand in the midst of discomfort.  Together.  Listening to each other’s stories. Not blaming.

BBC Newsnight had a discussion about Daniel’s case on 1st August (available online until the 8th August here).  The participants included Professor Ray Jones of Kingston University, who assists Ofsted in reviewing the procedures of councils who become embroiled in situations such as these.  I listened as Professor Jones discussed his thoughts about what had happened in this case.  I was increasingly hopeful as he talked about the pressure that teachers, social workers and government ministers are under.  He did not do any finger pointing at all.  He talked about the way the pressure is corrupting the capacity of our social services to serve.  When he got to the end of the interview, he explicitly stated that the key problem is our culture of blame.  I cheered.  He gets it.  More and more of us get it.  Who else wants to join up?

How do we do that?  How is it possible to listen to a story of a mother drowning her child and not blame? Answer: with great compassion.  This is what we must each personally explore:  how do I listen to such a story without feeling blame?  How do I shift from blame to compassion?  How do we do that as a society?

Answer:  we get curious.  We replace blame with curiosity.  We ask to hear more of the other person’s story.  If they aren’t there to do it in person, we imagine what that story might be.  The story will always begin to dissolve our confusion.  The story will give us a context that allows the unimaginable to become possible — perhaps even obvious.  We will gain some sort of understanding.  Look at the photographs of Daniel’s mother, now published all over the web.  Look at her hollow, glazed eyes.  The story begins there.  It will undoubtedly be a story of pain.  In my experience, it is always a story of pain that emerges. Unresolved pain yields harm.

Karyn McCluskey, Director of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit
Karyn McCluskey, Director of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit

The Scottish Violence Reduction Unit has for some years included ‘David’s Story’   within their public presentations.  David was captured on CCTV in Glasgow, committing murder as a 15 year old.  The SVRU sometimes show the actual footage:  we watch David make a casual stabbing motion, into the chest of a random man getting out of a taxi.  He looks down at the blood on his knife and makes a victory sign.  The random man – who turns out to have been a nice bloke on the way to meet his fiancé at the pictures – died before he got to hospital.  David got convicted and sent to jail.  Quite right too, for a murderous hooligan who should have known better?

In their presentation, the SVRU, who are as interested in babies as they are gang violence, take us back through David’s life.  He was born to a mother who drank and used drugs and got beat up by his father.  He was rehoused multiple times by the time he was 6, always to flats that were about to be demolished.  His extended family of aunts and uncles and grandmothers was full of men and women with criminal convictions for violence.  Knowing David’s story allows his actions to begin to make some sort of sense.  Terrible, gut-wrenching sense.  So, down the line of the road of life, a woman loses her fiancé because we didn’t get help to David’s drug-abusing, drinking, battered mother.  She’s clearly a bad mother, though, having failed to get her act together to protect her child.  Maybe we should blame her?  Maybe we should blame Glasgow City Council for not having put in place enough early intervention funding?  Maybe we should blame the social workers who didn’t remove David from the desolate care of his family?  Maybe we should blame…

That’s My Point!  (Yes, I’m shouting it.)  Blame does not solve the problem.  Blame means only that we made ourselves feel safe because we can fool ourselves into thinking we have solved the problem.  If we really want to solve the problem, we need to know more about it.  We need to hear people’s stories.  It is stories that give us understanding, compassion, solutions.  By the time an audience has finished hearing the presentation of David’s Story, there are often tears and understanding.  Yes, this young man killed another man.  The tears come because that outcome was so predictable, given his life story.  If we want fewer murders, we need fewer childhoods like David’s.

At the end of the BBC Newsnight interview, there was a plea for more family support, more early intervention, to help us prevent situations like Daniel Pelka’s. Yet since 2010, a total of 558 Surestart Centres have been closed in England. During the increased stress of a recession, we have cut services to families.  Apparently we think that family support is a luxury that we can live without, because it is one of the things we axe when money gets tight.  David’s story, and Daniel’s story, help us to understand that one of the things we are buying with those savings is death.

Is that too strong a statement?  No, I don’t think so.  I make it because I want us to be able to stand and look upon our societal choices.  It takes great courage for us to do that.  It is easier to look away.  It is easier for us to blame.  It is easier for us to recoil in horror or turn off the TV in grief.  It is easier for me to say none of this in public, because it makes me feel nervous to say it blatantly.  But I want us somehow to find the strength to accept what we are doing, entirely unintentionally — but nonetheless doing.  If we can acknowledge it, if we can look upon it even whilst our hearts and guts wrench, then we have a better chance of ceasing to do it.  We can finally find some real solutions.

One solution is to give more cuddles.  If all the contemporary reports of touch-restrictive policies in educational settings are correct, then Daniel’s teachers and social workers and other professionals are likely to have been working under such policies.  That means that while Daniel was scavenging in bins for food and propping up his broken arm on his desk, he was also cheated of kind human touch during his school day.  That will have occurred in the belief that physical distance helped to keep him safe from abusers.

Imagine the terrible grief and self-blame his teachers and social workers and doctors will now be feeling, knowing that a child in their care died because they couldn’t find a way of making someone listen.   Imagine the monumental guilt they will feel if it turns out to be themselves who failed to listen.  Imagine the depths of distress Daniel’s grandmother will be feeling, when she says that her daughter came from a nice Polish family and she can’t conceive of what happened. Imagine distress so deep that gives you a fatal heart attack, which is what it has already done to Daniel’s grandfather.

None of these people need our blame.  They need our help.  They need our forgiveness.

And the jurors need our gratitude.  Imagine their fortitude, as they sat through nine weeks of evidence, some of it so harrowing that, apparently, it could not be reported in the media.  We are treated to multiple acts of violence every day.  Every newscast is full of it!  What can be so bad that a society daily seduced by violence can’t hear?  We are unable to endure what 4-year-old Daniel endured.  So the jurors endured that on our behalf.  They deserve our gratitude.  They are the bearers of our deep, cultural hope that there is justice somewhere in this world. Their lives will be forever changed by their willingness to stand looking steadfastly into the face of horror.  They did that on our behalf.

Why would we not do everything we can to prevent any more jurors being asked to take on that mantle?  The next person to be called up to be a juror could be any person reading this blog.  That’s me.  That’s you.

Let’s do it differently this time.  Let’s have a review that doesn’t blame any of the professionals involved.  Let’s have a review that reeks of compassion for the stories of pain that will now need to be told.

3 thoughts on “It was fear that killed Daniel

  1. Thank you Suzanne…When I hear the stories of the vulnerable children we meet in our Nature Nurture early intervention project I have an inner battle not to fall into the trap of judging and blaming their carers for the damage done to these young lives. But then we meet the carers… and just as you describe, we meet the same fundamental need for nurturing, for understanding and for our compassion that we meet in their children. Then I am ashamed at those initial knee jerk reactions of judgement. I found this blog refreshingly honest and poignant, thank you.

  2. Thank you so much Suzanne for your honesty and straight talking and compassion .. everyone needs to read your articel … i am a health visitor and encounter the outcomes daily of cycles of abuse and emotional wounding that keeps repeating in families unless there is a chance for genuine non-judgemental support and healing of those wounds through understanding and compassion. When that is there then all the practical support services that are in place to support families will invariably be so much more effective and lead to real change and growth and healing …. i’ve seen again and again that there’s always a story behind any violence … and generally its more pain and violence, and as you say, there is no way we are ever going to stop that violence with blame ..and the blame effects us all … so thank you again for writing such a passionate and eloquent article and raising the vital questions that we all need to ask ourselves and be curious about … ITS URGENT WORK ..
    I would very much like to be part of some sort of group or petition or movement to keep this approach alive and bring it to the forefront of our services and planning of care … Anyone interested to join me?? Email me on

  3. Thank you for this Suzanne, it is powerful in bringing us to an awareness of what we need to understand and act upon, although nowhere does it talk about taking responsibility. You state that the difficult issues experienced by many people that takes them toward a life that is full of damaging behaviour and is in many ways predictable does not prevent us from identifying some of the profound societal causes of this. You yourself state that the Surestart support programme has been run down and or axed and this has played a substantial role in trying to mitigate what might be going on behind closed doors. I feel that we have to go beyond stating the obvious that something needs to change to prevent this happening. I agree that this does not reside in the individual or even in the collective policy or practice of a particular authority or part of a ‘multi-discipline’ response team. But we have to at some point identify a source of responsibility that is so fundamental to the capacity of society to expunge this kind of outcome given we can say it’s predictable. As far as I am concerned, it is not a question of not knowing what to do, we need the resources in place becasue there is an identified need and we know how to meet these needs by implementing a healthy holistic approach to well-being from birth and the support of adults who are finding it difficult to meet those needs because of their own psychological/physiological experiences; what we are not talking about is the obverse side of this dialectical dynamic and that is why this is proving to be impossible in practice, because we are living under a dominant economic and political system that IS JUST NOT INTERESTED in these matters and the proof is in their actions of those taking the decisions that could obviate the need for such discussions. No doubt we can perhaps encourage/cultivate an ethos of compassion to a certain extent in our communities of work colleagues, neighbourhoods and acknowledge the respect due to those who try and do these things, but we have to face the fact that we are dealing with a need, existing within an economic and political system, that ARE IRRECONCILABLE. Until we face that, our attempts can only ever be piecemeal and fall short of our compassion potential.

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