Daniel Pelka’s murder shames Britain

Guilt lies with those who could have prevented it.

I cannot stop thinking about the suffering of Daniel Pelka, the four year old boy from Coventry who was abused, tortured and then murdered by his mother and her lover.

There is CCTV footage of Daniel on the final day of his life. His mother has arrived to collect him from primary school yet she dismissively walks ahead of the boy, her back turned to him. Daniel trails after her, a frail, emaciated figure, lost and bewildered. He hurries to catch up; he is hurrying towards death.

The Times today has published some of the texts about her son that Daniel’s mother, Magdelena Luczak, sent to her monstrous lover, Mariusz Krezolek. They provide a narrative of abuse:

"One of his hands is livid blue [because it has been repeatedly beaten] and what am I supposed to do now [sic]."

"Well now he’s unconscious because I nearly drowned him. He’s already in bed covered with the duvet and asleep and I am having some quiet."

"We’ll deal with Rudy [Daniel] after school, he won’t see grub at all."

Daniel’s mother delighted in starving her son – and then feeding him salt. At school he was seen scavenging in bins for food because he was so hungry. He would try to eat whatever scraps he could find. And he kept on losing weight. "He was disappearing in front of people’s eyes," Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC said. 

And yet no one intervened.

Luczak was devious and manipulative. Her son a few weeks before his death weighed little more than 2st, the weight of a toddler - but, said detective Superintendent Tim Bacon: "We are dealing with someone who was so plausible that she managed to convince paediatricians at the hospital that Daniel had an eating disorder."

Were we meant to believe that the broken bones, the bruised hands and black eyes were the result of the same eating disorder? How did his mother account for these and why was she believed? We will know more when the serious case review is published in September.

Daniel came from a Polish-speaking family and his English was poor. This terrified, humiliated boy was in effect voiceless. He could not speak of what he suffered. Nor could he trust anyone. But his suffering was written all over his body. His teachers and the authorities should have been able to read the signs of his suffering, read what his body was telling them. He should not have been allowed to suffer and to die alone, starved for at least six months.

Cases such as Daniel’s are mercifully rare, and all the more shocking because of their extremity. But children are being abused and beaten all the time by those who should be protecting them. For some children the home is a kind of medieval prison – and the torturers are the parents.

Teachers, doctors and nursery and care workers are on the frontline but so are relatives, friends and acquaintances. What is it that they refuse to see? "Clearly people must have seen something was wrong with this boy,” Nick Clegg said today. “I think his death should be on all of our consciences."

He’s right about that, up to a point. Those who should be feeling most guilt and regret are the friends of his mother, the teachers at the school he attended, the health workers who visited him at home in Coventry and the doctors who treated his injuries. His mother, after "nearly drowning" her son, spoke of how she could now get "some quiet".

Let us hope that, like Macbeth, she has murdered sleep and that she will never know peace or quiet again.

Jesus said: Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Pity Daniel, and pray for him – and curse those who were not there when he needed them or chose to look away or believe the wretched lies of his mother.

Daniel Pelka. Photograph: Press Association

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

Photo: Getty
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This is no time for civility towards Republicans – even John McCain

Appeals for compassion towards the cancer-stricken senator downplay the damage he and his party are doing on healthcare.

If it passes, the Republican health care bill currently being debated in the Senate will kill people. Over the past few months, the party has made several attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act passed under Obama, all of which share one key feature: they leave millions more people without healthcare.

Data indicates that every year, one in every 830 Americans who lack healthcare insurance will die unnecessarily. A report by the Congressional Budget Office suggests that the newest “skinny repeal” plan will leave an extra 16 million individuals uninsured. That’s an estimated annual body count of 19,277. Many more will be forced to live with treatable painful, chronic and debilitating conditions. Some will develop preventable but permanent disabilities and disfigurements - losing their sight, hearing or use of limbs.

This is upsetting to think about as an observer - thousands of miles across the Atlantic, in a country that has had universal, free at the point of delivery healthcare for almost seven decades. It is monstrously, unfathomably traumatic if you’re one of the millions of Americans who stand to be affected. If you’ve got loved ones who stand to be affected. If you’ve got an ongoing health condition and have no idea how you’ll afford treatment if this bill passes.

I’ve got friends who’re in this situation. They’re petrified, furious and increasingly exhausted. This process has been going on for months. Repeatedly, people have been forced to phone their elected representatives and beg for their lives. There is absolutely no ambiguity about consequences of the legislation. Every senator who supports the health care bill does so in the knowledge it will cost tens of thousands of lives - and having taken calls from its terrified potential victims.

They consider this justifiable because it will enable them to cut taxes for the rich. This might sound like an over simplistic or hyperbolic assertion, but it’s factually true. Past versions of the bill have included tax cuts for healthcare corporations and for individuals with incomes over $200,000 per year, or married couples making over $250,000. The current “skinny repeal” plan has dropped some of these changes, but does remove the employer mandate - which requires medium and large businesses to provide affordable health insurance for 95 per cent full-time employees.

On Tuesday, Senator John McCain took time out from state-funded brain cancer treatment to vote to aid a bill that will deny that same medical care to millions of poorer citizens. In response, ordinary US citizens cursed and insulted him and in some cases wished him dead. This backlash provoked a backlash of its own, with commentators in both the UK and US bemoaning the lack of civility in contemporary discourse. The conflict revealed a fundamental divide in the way we understand politics, cause and effect, and moral culpability.

Over 170 years ago, Engels coined the term “social murder” to describe the process by which societies place poor people in conditions which ensure “they inevitably meet a too early… death”. Morally, it’s hard to see what distinguishes voting to pass a healthcare bill you know will kill tens of thousands from shooting someone and stealing their wallet. The only difference seems to be scale and the number of steps involved. It’s not necessary to wield the weapon yourself to have blood on your hands.

In normal murder cases, few people would even begin to argue that killers deserve to be treated with respect. Most us would avoid lecturing victims’ on politeness and calm, rational debate, and would recognise any anger and hate they feel towards the perpetrator as legitimate emotion. We’d accept the existence of moral rights and wrongs. Even if we feel that two wrongs don’t make a right, we’d understand that when one wrong is vastly more abhorrent and consequential than the other, it should be the focus of our condemnation. Certainly, we wouldn’t pompously insist that a person who willingly took another’s life is “wrong, not evil”.

Knowing the sheer, frantic terror many of my friends in the US are currently experiencing, I’ve found it sickening to watch them be scolded about politeness by individuals with no skin in the game. If it’s not you our your family at risk, it’s far easier to remain cool and detached. Approaching policy debates as an intellectual exercise isn’t evidence of moral superiority - it’s a function of privilege.

Increasingly, I’m coming round to the idea that incivility isn’t merely justifiable, but actively necessary. Senators voted 51-50 in favour of debating a bill that will strip healthcare from millions of people. It’s unpleasant to wish that John McCain was dead—but is it illegitimate to note that, had he been unable to vote, legislation that will kill tens of thousands of others might have been blocked? Crude, visceral language can be a way to force people to acknowledge that this isn’t simply an abstract debate—it’s a matter of life and death.

As Democratic congressman Keith Ellison has argued, merely resisting efforts to cut healthcare isn’t enough. Millions of Americans already lack health insurance and tens of thousands die every year as a result. The Affordable Care Act was a step in the right direction, but the coalition of resistance that has been built to defend it must also push further, for universal coverage. Righteous anger is necessary fuel for that fight.