(Warning: Some readers might find the content of this article disturbing)
At the risk of sounding like Helen Lovejoy from The Simpsons, a recent spate of high profile abuse and teen suicide cases make people question ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?’ Whether it is the justice system, social services or the internet, there appears to be serious gaps protecting the most vulnerable in society and it seems to be too late before any action is taken.
The case of Daniel Pelka highlights once again that there are children falling through the cracks, being abused behind closed doors. And it is not just Daniel, but thousands of others. These cases appear to pop up intermittently to remind the public that abuse is still widely occurring. According to figures from the NSPCC, there has been a year-on-year increase in the number of children under the charity’s protection plan. In 2008, there were 29,200 children suffering from neglect, physical, sexual, emotional and multiple types of abuse. While last year saw a dramatic rise, with 42,850 under the plan. But statistics fail to grasp the reality that these minors are enduring and that there may be many more than figures suggest.
Four-year-old Daniel was starved for at least six months before being beaten to death in March 2012. An autopsy performed on the child found 22 different injuries across his body. Ten of these injuries were to his head and included asubdural haematoma, a serious brain condition where blood collects between the skull and surface of the brain.
Daniel’s body was similarly damaged. He suffered extensive bruising across the back of his neck, his shoulders, his back, across both his buttocks, on both elbows and both knees and around his right ankle and left thigh. Since the conviction of his mother Magdelena Luczak and her boyfriend Mariusz Krezolek, MPs have been pointing the finger of blame over who could have let such a horrific crime go unnoticed.
Daniel’s father said that the life sentences handed out to Luczak and Krezolek were “severe enough”, but he only “wishes the same thing would happen to them, what happened to my son”. Eryk Pelka said:
I blame Magdalena and her partner. And also the social care and Daniel’s school that they haven’t reacted earlier – maybe this tragedy could have been omitted.
After the sentencing, the MP for Coventry North West Geoffrey Robinson added that Daniel had been “badly let down” not just by an “evil stepfather and indifferent and selfish mother” but also by his school, health professionals and social services.
Mr Robinson called for the director of children’s services Colin Green to step down now, rather than in September as planned, saying:
He takes with him the indelible stain of Daniel’s cruel death, which his department had failed to prevent.
What human being, with the slightest understanding of children, would not have been concerned enough to take action to set alarm bells ringing?
Those who failed Daniel must examine their own consciences, and conclude whether it is appropriate for them to remain in their posts.
But instead of shifting the blame, wishing for heads to roll after the death of a child, we must question why more isn’t being done beforehand. Images of other prolific cases of children failed by the system are immediately rehashed, such as Baby P and Victoria Climbie.
Sharon Shoesmith, former children’s services director at Haringey Council in north London, which was heavily criticised for failings over both deaths, said after the cases in 2009: “The very sad fact is that we can’t stop people who are determined to kill children.”
And the then Children’s Secretary Ed Balls reiterated this point:
The fact is this was a mother who did the most terrible things to her son and actively lied to cover up – in the end you can’t stop that from happening.
So what needs to change for children to stop being victimised? It is not just bureaucratic red tape at the top. It is the attitudes of every adult in society. Everyone is responsible. There appears to be a lack of support for people generally unable to defend themselves across the spectrum.
This has been rather apparent in a case of a judge who let a paedophile walk free this week after a prosecutor said the 13-year-old victim was “a sexual predator”. Prosecutor Robert Colover told judge Nigel Peters:
The girl is predatory in all her actions and she is sexually experienced.
She appeared to look around 14 or 15 and had the mental age of a 14 or 15 year old despite being younger than that.
There was sexual activity but it was not of Mr Wilson’s doing, you might say it was forced upon him despite being older and stronger than her.
The defendant Neil Wilson admitted engaging in sexual activity with a child and was still handed an eight-month suspended sentence at Snaresbrook Crown Court. Police also found images of child abuse and bestiality at Wilson’s home in Romford, Essex. Evidently, there has been massive failures in this case. Even from a legal stance, under the Sexual Offences Act it is deemed as a serious crime.
The law presumes that when a girl is under 13 she is not mature enough to consent to sex. So even if a 12-year-old girl willingly has intercourse, as far as the law is concerned, she has not “consented” to it because legally she is not able to. There is no defence to statutory rape – even if a man suggests the girl was willing or that he thought she was older than she was, it would not matter.
If found guilty of statutory rape, the maximum sentence is life, but average sentences for rape are between five and seven years. So why is it in this instance a 13-year-old girl was said to have “egged” the paedophile on? It is the fundamental attitude of people within the systems and within society that are creating the problems. It’s time for some serious re-education.
The Prime Minister said that it was right for the Crown Prosecution Service to criticise the comments and for the Attorney General to look at the sentence. But the damage has been done. As Angela Dobbs from Fentons Solicitors LLP said:
Although the number of cases being brought to court has increased and the conviction rate has improved, vulnerable victims are still being subjected to not only facing their abusers in court – effectively reliving the abuse – but also to overly aggressive questioning, often over a period of days.
Victims are subjected to further trauma as a result of the court process and the level of often unnecessary and lengthy questioning. This serves as a deterrent for victims in coming forward to report the abuse in the first place, let alone proceeding with a prosecution.
And if it isn’t a 13-year-old girl accused of being a ‘predator’, it’s a 14-year-old girl taking her own life because of endemic cyber-bullying. Hannah Smith died on Friday after receiving abusive messages on social networking site Ask.fm.
Launched in 2010, the social networking site invites users to pose questions which other users can respond to – often anonymously or with pictures and videos. According to the technology website CNET, the site has some 60 million users of which half are under the age of 18 and a portion under the age of 13. It reports that teenagers see the platform as “fun and dangerous” because of the option of staying anonymous and the common use of profanities.
Why is it only after deaths such as Hannah’s that people seem to pay attention to the dangers of teens and tweens being exposed to the online world? The perils of the World Wide Web have been ever-present since its inception. From chatrooms, messengers to Facebook and Twitter – there is nowhere to hide from the long arm of abusers and bullies. So it’s all well and good to show sympathy but it is too little too late for these young people.
And just as it is in the Daniel Pelka case, David Cameron’s reaction was to boycott “vile” cyber bullying sites to avoid further deaths. The father of Hannah said Mr Cameron is “passing the buck” on internet safety. He said:
I think he’s passing the buck like normal. He’s passing the buck onto the companies that do the websites and the websites aren’t going to do it.
So nothing’s ever going to change unless we get some regulations in to change the way websites are used. The internet needs regulating. It’s a waste of time going to the website people and saying they have to do it because they are not going to do it, because they are making too much money.
It’s up to the Government to now start regulating the internet and make the internet safe for children.
Mr Cameron has initiated legislation to put in filters to stop child abuse images from appearing on search engines. Meanwhile, thousands of people have backed a campaign calling on the law to be changed, which would make it illegal for teachers not to step in if they suspected a pupil was being mistreated named “Daniel’s Law”.
The Crown Prosecution Service is also to review the case of the 13-year-old girl, suspending the judge. Justice Minister Damian Green has already launched an investigation into aggressive courtroom cross-examination of vulnerable victims in June. This is all well and good. But similar measures were taken after the cases of Baby P and Climbie, with senior figures being sacked in the aftermath and yet it happened again.
So what’s the solution to these crimes? It’s time to pay attention and empathise at all times, not just when it’s too late. Otherwise we will see many more instances of Daniel Pelka and Hannah Smith.