Failure to challenge independent social worker report key error in case where dad beat daughter to death

Serious case review finds social workers and children's guardian put too much weight on court-ordered independent social worker report and felt daunted by court proceedings

child drawing of domestic violence
Photo: Chameleons Eye/REX Shutterstock

A failure to challenge an independent social worker’s report was a key error in a case where a father beat his four-year-old daughter to death after she was sent to live with him.

The serious case review into the murder of Alexa-Marie Quinn, called Sophie in the report, found social workers in Bedford were confused about the status and function of the court-ordered report and so did not challenge it.

Social workers also felt unable to delay the case when new concerns emerged because the care proceedings had already exceeded the 26-week target for cases to be decided.

Bedford Council put Quinn and her siblings into foster care in March 2012 due to their mother’s chaotic lifestyle, substance misuse and domestic violence at home.

When care proceedings began Quinn’s father, Carl Wheatley who lived in Hertfordshire, said he wanted to be his daughter’s carer. While assessments of his suitability took place, contact was established between him and his daughter for the first time since shortly after her birth.

Independent social worker

The court appointed an independent social worker to assess Wheatley’s parenting capacity.

But the letter of instruction for the independent social worker’s report did not include all the concerns raised in Bedford’s initial assessment of Wheatley despite being approved by social services and the Cafcass children’s guardian.

The serious case review found a “puzzling” consensus developed among the professionals involved in the case that the independent social worker’s report would be the definitive assessment and the one that would determine Quinn’s future.

However the report’s function was only to examine Wheatley’s parenting abilities, not his daughter’s needs. As a result no assessment of what Quinn needed from a carer took place.

Social workers also worried about trying to influence the report, fearing it would compromise its independence. “However,” the serious case review noted, “there is a difference between influencing the views of an independent expert and that of challenging the quality of a report or of taking a different viewpoint.”

Boundaries blurred

The status given to the report was such that boundaries been the case-holding and independent social workers became blurred. In August 2013 contact between Quinn and her father was extended following a meeting of the independent social worker and children’s guardian held without the case-holding social worker.

Her foster carers raised concerns about how Quinn’s behaviour became disturbed as contact between her and her father increased to include overnight stays, but the independent social worker put this down to reawakened trauma.

“Whilst this was possible,” said the serious case review, “it was an assumption and was not adequately investigated or challenged by any other professional.”

The resulting report, completed in September 2013, supported placing Quinn with her father but was largely based on Wheatley’s own assertions and observations of two together.

The serious case review also found that Bedford social workers’ unwillingness to challenge the report may have been due to a belief that the court would only reject a placement with a birth parent if there was overwhelming evidence against it.

26-week target

After the independent social worker report was submitted, a psychiatric report about Wheatley was given to the court.

The psychiatric report recounted a meeting with a psychiatrist where Wheatley became enraged when challenged about inconsistencies in his assertions. Wheatley became so enraged that a colleague who overheard the shouting, joined the meeting and it took the pair 45 minutes to calm him down.

But this aspect did not receive the attention it should have, found the serious case review, and the psychiatrist’s conclusion that there was a good prognosis for Wheatley’s mental health was misinterpreted as meaning there was a good prognosis for him as a suitable carer for his daughter.

Social workers also felt unable to delay the case any more because the 26-week target for proceedings had already been exceeded.

“It would appear that the legal process had a daunting effect on those involved; this can be positive to the extent it discourages drift, but should not have meant that the plan and the actual move was rushed and ignored significant and worrying new information that was emerging at the end,” said the serious case review.

Outdated beliefs about contact

With the support of Bedford children’s services and Cafcass, the court ordered Quinn to live with her father in Hertfordshire with support from Hertfordshire Council as a child in need. She moved with her father just after Christmas 2013.

In the run up to her moving in with her father, foster carers raised concerns with social workers that Wheatley had hit her during a contact session but following enquiries no further action was taken.

Bedford’s care plan included providing Quinn with contact with her siblings, who remained with her former foster carers, and – to a lesser extent – her mother but contact was not to start until she had settled.

This approach was based on outdated practice, said the serious case review: “This stems to a long standing (and flawed) belief within some social work teams and departments, now largely discontinued, that children would settle better with new carers if they had no contact with their previous carers until they are attached to their new carers”.

Wheatley ultimately canceled the first contact meeting, claiming Quinn had not settled yet. This should have prompted a check on Quinn’s welfare by social workers, the serious case review said.

Section 7 report

While this was on-going Wheatley was fighting for custody of a younger son he had with another woman in Hertfordshire.

Wheatley’s claims of abuse against Joe’s mother had led to his son being subject to a child protection plan in Hertfordshire and the court ordered a report under section 7 of the Children Act 1989, which lets judges ask social workers to assess the welfare of children involved in private law cases.

In February 2014 the section 7 report advised against Wheatley’s application for custody of his son. Wheatley responded by disputing the report and angrily making calls, leaving voicemails and sending emails to the social worker, who also overheard him verbally abusing his 18-month-old son during one call.

The social worker advised the son’s mother that she could stop the father having contact if she had concerns and arranged a meeting with Bedford to discuss Quinn in light of this but due to unavailability of the social workers this was set for 19 March.

On February 14, Quinn’s nursery broke up for half-term. She never returned. Her father contacted the nursery several times claiming they were on an extended holiday in Leeds, cancelled social work appointments and an unannounced home visit by social workers got no answer.

On March 12, Wheatley called the emergency services for assistance. Quinn was already dead having been subjected to 10 days of beating that including having her teeth smashed out, her eyes poked and left her with 66 bruises. Wheatley was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of release for 21 years.

Weak oversight

The serious case review recommended that Bedford Council establishes a clear framework for considering independent social worker reports in care proceedings and challenges them when appropriate.

It also criticised the quality of supervision which it said undermined social workers’ ability to reflect on the case and led to weak oversight of the planning process for Quinn’s move from Bedford to Hertfordshire.

The review also noted that the Cafcass children’s guardian in this case did not ensure Quinn’s interests were represented in the care proceedings.

It recommended that Hertfordshire Local Safeguarding Children Board asks Cafcass to demonstrate how it has improved supervision and management since the case and whether these improvements are working.

10 Responses to Failure to challenge independent social worker report key error in case where dad beat daughter to death

  1. Andrew May 13, 2016 at 11:33 am #

    I wonder if the report mentions the role of the judiciary in deciding to return Alexa-Marie home.

    Any thoughts about learning for them – and the pressure that the 26 week timetable, which the judiciary police rigorously and have no qualms abut berating social workers over – puts on sensible, reflective assessments.

  2. Tom J May 13, 2016 at 12:21 pm #

    Sad, sad , sad. very tragic.

    So many strands to this- Firstly I agree the can be a mind set of ‘we do not pay four grand to an independent social worker assessment so we can then spend time rubbishing what they’ve concluded’.

    It tends to be; we’ve spent four grand, so we will agree with what’s been said. Alongside this, if the independent social worker sits on the fence, we can get hugely annoyed saying ‘we didn’t pay you four grand to say that you not sure, chose a side’

    The biggest message though from this and other serious case reviews is that the standards of practice that are demanded (and children and families deserve) are so often unachievable with caseloads as they are. To achieve current expectations caseloads will need to be capped at 12-15 not 25-30 where they are at present.

    Tragic case.

  3. Anita Singh May 13, 2016 at 3:00 pm #

    In care proceedings independent experts such as psychiatrists, psychologists and independent social workers are more often than not given a good deal of weight and treated as having a greater degree of expertise than any local authority social worker. That is a commonly held assumption. If a social worker was to disagree or challenge as suggested in this article, the other parties often use such expert reports to discredit social workers’ views. Indeed, when I criticised a psychologist’s report in proceedings, an addendum report that was subsequently written by that psychologist, which then supported my position, was heavily criticised by the other parties’ legal counsel and the Judge.

    There seems to have been no consideration by this serious case review to ask what happened that the psychiatrist observed the father’s enraged state where it took forty five minutes to calm him down, but still concluded that there was a good prognosis for this man’s mental health? Any such conclusion would be considered in the light of his potential to care for his daughter.

    Yet again it seems that when there is any blame to be apportioned, the local authority social worker is the convenient scapegoat. What about the Court? If the social worker and guardian failed to be critical or see the information that was put before them, then what about the Judge, who is meant to preside over the case or are judges immune from criticism?

    I have been involved in plenty of proceedings where the Court has not agreed with either the Guardian or the Social Worker, so what happened in this case? In addition, I can think of a case where the judge declined to hear evidence and nothing was done by legal to challenge it, so it would seem that it is not only the social workers afraid to challenge issues, but also the solicitors or barristers representing them.

    What this case does is to provide a perfect example of how social workers have become so undervalued as a profession, that they feel paralysed to dare to criticise But somehow it is always the social worker’s fault. This Serious Case Review continues with this theme of devaluing and criticising social workers. There is no reference or criticism of how Courts heavily rely on independent experts as being somehow more reliable and knowledgeable than Social workers.

    Where does the above article refer to the Serious Case Review’s criticisms of the Independent Social Worker, the Expert Psychiatrist and the Judge’s handling of the case?

    • Bridget Doman May 22, 2016 at 3:41 am #

      Strikes me on reading this that none of the so-called professionals had any sense of any kind or the determination to ensure the child’s safety and should have challenged all reports regardless of what the repercussions might have been to them. Hopefully, although I doubt it, lessons will be learnt.

  4. Hels May 14, 2016 at 8:04 am #

    Legal advice, local authority solicitors, even with s7 reports a Sw can obtain legal advice, was any sought in this instance !!!!!

    • Anita Singh May 14, 2016 at 1:49 pm #

      And if it was sought, was appropriate advice and representation given?

  5. Andrea May 14, 2016 at 10:04 am #

    why was an independent social worker appointed?
    how can any assessment of parenting ability not be related to the child being considered for placement?
    local authority legal advice – are you serious?! – they go for any easy time in court and whatever won’t get the LA authority into difficulites
    The bottom line issue that is not being acknlowleged is Govt demands and social work values/tenets are incompatible.
    It also appears that the social workers involved were scared of this man – and whilst I can understand that, they simply shouldn’t be in social work if they are unable to stand up to aggressive people – the alternative is what happened, a child was left to and died.

  6. sssf3890 May 15, 2016 at 12:05 am #

    So when will we see courts recognise that the 26 week timescale is not helpful and is causing decisions for children to be rushed. The judiciary enforce 26 weeks and berate social workers that ask for more time. ISW reports get needlessly commissioned on the basis that the LA is basis when they have ruled out a parent for good reason. added to this the principal of “nothing else will do” and the case of Re: A has impacted hugely on decision making of courts, guardians and LA. ISW report no matter how limited and weak somehow trump the reports of workers who actually know the child. Guardians spend very little time with children and seem to be more about proving their worth by picking pointless holes in social workers and raising criticisms that have no baring on case outcomes or good decisions. … social workers are given no respect or value … It feels like we are everyone’s scape goat. What gets me is that we (bar the odd rotten Apple) are the ones that are paid the least, respected the least, listened to the least but no one seems to question why we do it … i don’t know any social workers that would want to mess up and have a child be harmed – but we are criticised for being too cautious, too negative and not valuing parents – but the child is our focus and it doesn’t feel like it’s everyone else’s. I’m so sad for this child – the case is devastating

  7. Ann Edwards May 20, 2016 at 10:07 am #

    This is one of the most upsetting cases I have come across. I hear what people are saying about the judiciary and the last contributor states that for social workers ‘the child is our focus’. But in this case sadly, the child was not the focus (collectively) of those responsible for her care and her needs were, as a result, overlooked. I wonder what training the allocated social worker and her manager had received on assessment in child protection, in court work and, crucially, in child development (including impact of neglect and abuse, separation and loss) Perhaps guidance and procedures were out of date. I cannot understand that the final plan contained no reference to details of a contact plan – dates etc or to multi agency meetings with names of who should be involved – after all a Supervision Order is a court order. How did the plan get by the people who signed it (or perhaps a Manager in this authority did not scrutinise such plans) let alone those involved in the court hearing – the Guardian and child’s solicitor for instance. Is it possible all of these professionals were out of their depth….Although the stance of the Judge seems to have been remarkably unchallenging, the time for criticism would be if he had ignored social work explanation of the need for further enquiries and why these were essential to the welfare of the child. And without a proactive legal team it is so hard for social workers to be assertive and proactive themselves when cases go to court.

  8. Safeguarding sw May 20, 2016 at 4:20 pm #

    Ann with all due respect it would be right to assume the social worker and her manager received the same training as any other social worker. My question is why this would be made an issue, there was more than enough evidence to show this man should never been given care of this child. As highlighted here section 7 clearly stated this, so why were all the warning signs ignored.