Dr Liz Yardley

Dr Liz Yardley

By Dr Liz Yardley, Deputy Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology

This week we have seen the trial relating to the death of 4 year-old Daniel Pelka conclude. Daniel’s mother Magdalena Luczak and his stepfather Mariusz Krezolek have both been found guilty of murder following a lengthy trial in which the court heard how Daniel was systematically starved and beaten before his death in March 2012. In light of these verdicts, coming just weeks after Rebecca Shuttleworth received an 18-year minimum sentence for the murder of her son Keanu Williams, we are yet again reminded that some families are the sites for systematic neglect and abuse. And indeed, every 10 days a child is killed by a parent in England and Wales.

Daniel is unlikely to be the last case – there are many children living in fear, afraid of the very people who should be there to care for them and make them feel safe. You might say ‘Shouldn’t the social workers be dealing with these cases?’. Well they might be, if they knew about them (and had the resources – but this point prompts a whole other debate in itself). Crucially – most children who are abused or neglected are NOT known to services. The NSPCC estimates that for every ONE child subject to a child protection plan or on a register, there are EIGHT others who have suffered maltreatment. What about these children? Are they invisible?

The key to understanding our approach towards abused and neglected children, whether or not they are known to services, is DENIAL. Criminologists have been particularly interested in denial in recent years, most notably the late Stanley Cohen in his 2001 book, ‘States of Denial’. Cohen identified three types or ‘states’ of denial: literal, interpretive and implicatory. His work is important in addressing the questions posed in the aftermath of child abuse and neglect. How could people NOT have known what was going on? Why didn’t people DO something?

  • Literal Denial: Not accepting the evidence and facts in front of us, literally denying that abuse and neglect are occurring, “My sister is not abusing my niece, don’t be ridiculous”. Literally denying abuse and neglect may stem from a genuine ignorance or a deliberate avoidance of the issue, either way – it very effectively protects us from the consequences of acceptance.
  • Interpretive Denial: Accepting the evidence and facts, but interpreting them in a way that justifies not acting on them, “Yes that child is always covered in bruises but as his father says, he is a very clumsy child so it’s no wonder really”.
  • Implicatory Denial: Here it is the implications that are being denied or minimized, playing down the significance of abuse and neglect or taking an indifferent stance, “They knock their kids about but I might make things worse if I say something – and anyway, I saw the kids playing in the garden yesterday so they must be ok”.

For anyone who has been following the Daniel Pelka case, it is not difficult to think of examples from the witness testimonies that chime with the above. We talk about the HIDDEN nature of child abuse and neglect but it is not hidden, it is DENIED. It may happen behind closed doors but the evidence presents itself to relatives, neighbours, friends, and those coming across abused and neglected children during the course of their work. Denial operates at an individual, official and cultural level. And it is not just about those involved in a single case – wider social factors enable individuals to deny. The concept of privacy is central to understanding denial. We value privacy as it gives us control over who we let into our family spaces and places and who has access to information about us and our families. However, privacy can also act as a barrier for meaningful critical debate about family life and as such, can prop up denial.

Cohen suggests diverting our gaze from those who deny to those who ACKNOWLEDGE, those who recognize abuse and neglect and act to challenge it. The acknowledgers are fewer in number; where denial is supported officially and culturally, it is difficult to do anything BUT deny. If we are to effectively tackle abuse and neglect we need to confront the void between what we know and what we do. Therefore it is time to meaningfully debate the boundaries between public and private. Only when we are enabled – individually, officially and culturally – to be more challenging of our own and other people’s behaviour around children can we begin to cast light on the dark side of the family.

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Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Reader in Criminology and Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University.