Guest blog: “It must be mandatory for school staff to report suspected child abuse”

In August, the mother and stepfather of Daniel Pelka were given 30-year sentences for his murder (warning: distressing content). During the trial it emerged that school staff had noticed some of his injuries – but had not taken the actions necessary to save his life. In this guest blog, Paula Barrow explains why she is campaigning for ‘Daniel’s Law’, which would make it a legal requirement of anyone working with children in the UK to report suspected or known abuse to the local authority or the police. Do you agree that reporting child abuse should be mandatory? Let us know what you think on the thread below.

I first heard Daniel’s story as it flickered across the news. I was making tea for my two children, aged 7 and 5; the radio was on in the kitchen and we were listening to Steve Wright when we heard the headline report. Wide-eyed, my little girl queried whether what she’d just heard could really be true… that a four-year-old school-boy had been starved and beaten, and was now dead. Before I could answer, she went on to ask why his teachers hadn’t helped him.

I couldn’t put Daniel’s story out of my mind. I was shaken by the sketchy details I’d heard; it seemed impossible to believe that a child of school age – who was in regular contact with teachers, school staff and other adults – should have suffered in this way, over a period of months. But he did and the circumstances surrounding Daniel’s harrowing story are disturbingly reminiscent of other appalling cases of child abuse in recent years, in which we learn that people in responsible positions could have intervened, but failed to take the necessary action to save a child’s life.

I was perplexed by the nagging question of accountability – why did no one seem to be held responsible for not having helped Daniel? I wrote to opinion writers and editors, to my MP and other MPs, to government offices; I went right to the top and wrote to the Prime Minister. But no one replied to me except for an officer in the Department for Education who said I could be certain of a serious case review.

I think I probably assumed it was the law for people working with children to report abuse until the details of Daniel’s case made it plain that it wasn’t. Looking into it, I found that many countries do have such laws, particularly with regard to safeguarding children – Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the USA and now the Republic of Ireland (following a recent referendum), to name but a few – and that this number is growing all the time.

“The circumstances surrounding Daniel’s harrowing story are disturbingly reminiscent of other appalling cases of child abuse in recent years, in which we learn that people in responsible positions could have intervened, but failed to take the necessary action to save a child’s life.”

Those countries with mandatory reporting laws seldom prosecute anyone – but the deterrent or preventative effect is significant, as is the clarity of requirement. Current Department of Education guidance on how to deal with child abuse is 13 pages long, and full of the word should – leaving any final decision rather open to individual interpretation. In recent weeks, as part of my campaign research, I’ve seen letters from schools asking government for precise instruction (as opposed to guidance) so that staff have the confidence to take the action necessary to help a child in distress.

It’s all very well talking about moral responsibility and professional duty of care, but teachers can find themselves in really difficult situations when confronted with child abuse; they need to be fully supported to press their worries home… no matter what the cost. Faced with an angry parent or a doubting colleague, staff can fail to act because they worry about being wrong, being ostracised, being put out of a job even. A new law requiring the mandatory reporting of child abuse would take away that burden of responsibility – anyone working with children would be obliged to report abuse by law. A subtle difference, perhaps, but one thing is certain sooner or later, another child’s life will depend on it.

I launched my petition for Daniel’s Law the night before Magdelena Luczak and Mariusz Krezolekwere were sentenced, when Daniel’s name was trending in search engines and media interest was at a peak; The Coventry Telegraph ran a story almost immediately and there has been regional coverage in Manchester too (where I live); I was interviewed on BBC Radio Coventry & Warwickshires breakfast show earlier this week. I set up a Facebook page because people asked for one and I learned fast on Twitter – in fact, I was so keen at the beginning that I was almost struck off for too many unsolicited tweets (I’m still not entirely sure what I did, no one I asked had ever heard of such a thing!).

Most importantly, I now have the signatures and support of a number of MPs – a couple of whom are of Shadow Ministers – there will be a debate in the Commons on child protection this week in which parliamentary supporters intend speaking out for Daniel’s Law and I will deliver my petition (currently approaching 15,000 signatures) to Downing Street around the time Daniel’s serious case review reports.

Many people have lost faith in the serious case review process and we can only hope the Coventry serious report is bold enough to make some radical recommendations for future safeguarding, including mandatory reporting. In 2003, the Climbie Inquiry advised that teachers, doctors, other professionals must communicate concerns and share information – yet here we are 10 years later, considering once again how to make that vital communication happen. Making reporting child abuse the law for those who work with children has got to be a good place to start.

People signing this campaign include abuse lawyers and specialist charities, teachers, health workers and nurses who consider it would help both staff and children to make reporting abuse a legal obligation of course, lots of parents and other interested people are also supporting, many are shocked to discover such a law is not already in place.

Nick Clegg said at the time of Daniel’s trial “Clearly people must have seen something was wrong with this boy, I think his death should be on all of our consciences.”

There is a window of opportunity to campaign for change right now. If youd like to see a change in the law, please sign, tweet and share, tell everyone you know… do whatever you can to support the campaign for Daniel’s Law.

By Paula Barrow

Twitter: @paulabarrow