A father who murdered his baby just weeks after adopting her slipped under the radar because authorities viewed him through a “positive lens”, a report has found.
Matthew Scully-Hicks passed the “robust, detailed and comprehensive” adoption process with flying colours and professionals viewed his care of 18-month-old Elsie positively.
But on May 25 2016 the part-time fitness instructor, who had previously adopted another child along with his husband Craig, violently shook Elsie and threw her to the floor at their home in Llandaff, Cardiff.
She died in hospital four days later, and Scully-Hicks was convicted of her murder and jailed for life in November 2017, with a minimum sentence imposed of 18 years. The court was told Scully-Hicks had gripped Elsie around the ribcage and shaken her, and may have banged her head against a hard surface.
In the months before the fatal attack, the 32-year-old also inflicted a catalogue of injuries to Elsie including a large bruise to her face. The baby’s leg was also fractured in two places.
An extended child practice review on Thursday found that professionals saw Elsie’s injuries in isolation, lacked “professional curiosity” and had accepted the innocent explanations given by Scully-Hicks.
“There were opportunities to consider the pattern of the child’s injuries and accidents that were not explored,” the report by the Cardiff and Vale of Glamorgan Safeguarding Children Board states.
Lance Carver, director of social services at the Vale of Glamorgan Council, accepted the findings of the report and apologised for errors in Elsie’s case.
He told a press conference in Cardiff the “positive lens” authorities had viewed the family through meant that social services “were not looking in the way they should have been”.
“That’s something as an organisation that we should have recognised and taken that fully on board,” he said.
Carver said no disciplinary action had been taken against any members of staff as the report did not “indicate that it would be appropriate”.
Elsie was placed with Scully-Hicks and his husband in September 2015, aged 10 months. The couple presented a “positive and united front” to professionals working closely with them and never indicated any difficulties with parenting Elsie.
As a result, the report by Cardiff and Vale of Glamorgan Safeguarding Children Board states that those working with the child “did not either consider or raise the possibility that the child was being harmed by a parent” and viewed the adoption placement as “very successful”.
“The events in the child’s life were viewed through a ‘positive lens’. This is the case for the majority of children placed for adoption,” the report reads.
Despite Elsie presenting with a number of injuries during her time with Scully-Hicks, the report said, no safeguarding concerns were raised.
Her parents were seen as a “well-educated and articulate couple” who were “very well regarded by each of the agencies as good parents who had already successfully adopted”.
In November 2015, Elsie was referred to an orthopaedics outpatient clinic after suffering an injury to her leg and not weight-bearing for five days.
An X-ray was taken but this was not examined by a specialist paediatric radiologist. A registrar spotted a lower leg fracture but not an upper leg fracture.
“Had both fractures been recognised on the x-ray, this would have raised safeguarding concerns that would have instigated the child protection process,” the report noted, saying that it would be “highly unusual for two separate bones to be broken from one minor fall”.
A month later, Elsie suffered a large bruise to her forehead that lasted for eight weeks.
Two social workers and an independent reviewing officer from the Vale of Glamorgan Council saw the bruise during an adoption review at the Scully-Hicks’ home but failed to make anything of the injury.
It was not brought to the attention of the adoption court, along with concerns that Elsie was developing a squint, the report said.
Carver said it was difficult to “second-guess” what would have happened if that injury had been recorded, but admitted not doing so was “inadequate”.
He said the council had since looked at what improvements could be made to “ensure that the recommendations of this report are fully implemented”.
Wendy Rose, independent chair of the child practice review, said for the “vast majority” of children placed for adoption, the outcome is positive and they lead “healthy and well-nurtured lives with motivated and committed parents”.
“There was no indication that it would be any different for this child,” she said.
Rose described the review as “very thorough and independent”, and said improvements had already been implemented by the agencies involved.