In March 2012, four-year-old Daniel Pelka, having been beaten and starved for months by his mother Magdalena Luczak and her boyfriend Mariusz Krezolek, was left, as he always was, in the unheated box room of his Coventry home. And it was there, on his urine-stained mattress, that he spent the final 33 hours of his miserable, short life.
This week, following the life sentences dished out to Luczak and Krezolek in August, a serious case review of Pelka’s death was published. What emerges from that document, and the case in general, is a disturbing conclusion: a young boy died in plain sight. The starvation, the visible bruises, the broken bones - none of this happened behind the mythical ‘closed doors’ of endless child abuse-awareness-raising campaigns. No, it happened in full view of teachers, nurses and other adults. He was starving to death in public. And no one seemed to have the wherewithal even to give him some food.
Taken together, the indications that something was wrong should have prompted someone in his social milieu to do something. This was the boy who came to school with a broken arm one week, black eyes the next. This was the boy who had been caught scavenging for food by teachers. This was the boy who was seen pulling a muddy, grit-peppered pancake out of a school bin, the boy who was seen retrieving the remains of a pear from the playground and desperately gnawing on it, the boy who used to try to steal food from other children’s lunchboxes. This was the boy who had become so thin by February 2012 that, in the words of one teacher, his ‘clothes were hanging off him’. And yet despite the signs that something was seriously wrong with Pelka, the adults with whom he was coming into contact with at school and at home failed to respond spontaneously, intuitively. In the words of Peter Wanless, chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children: ‘No amount of training or form filling or processes in the world can replace the fact that when a grown adult, especially one in a position of trust… sees a skinny child scavenging for food in a bin, alarm bells need to ring and action needs to be taken. It’s simple common sense. But people didn’t trust their instincts…’
Wanless has it right: people did not trust their instincts. What should have been common sense – to see that there was a problem and help Pelka – was confounded. What should have been near enough spontaneous – to check what was wrong with the child eating sand – was stymied. And this indicates something rather profound: a breakdown in social solidarity. The adults here, from teachers to neighbours, were not responding to the sight of an emaciated child starving before their eyes, instinctively; they were not recognising their own humanity in a child who, it seems, was clearly suffering.
Instead, almost every adult who came into contact with Pelka appears to have had their instincts cauterised. That intergenerational responsibility, that common humanity, so keenly expressed in the old saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, appears to have been replaced by something approaching an intergenerational estrangement. Pelka seems to have been repeatedly passed off as someone else’s problem, someone else’s responsibility. The whole sad tale writes large the extent to which social solidarity has been usurped by social isolation, with adults always operating at a ‘safe’ distance from one another and, in this case, from the young.