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.”
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.
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.
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.