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Social worker confusion contributed to death of four year-old

Confusion amongst social workers contributed to the death of a four year-old girl, a review has concluded.

‘Sophie’ was murdered by her father in March 2014. He was convicted and given a minimum life sentence of 21 years.

Sophie and her siblings had been removed from their mother’s care two years earlier, after social workers grew concerned about conditions in the home, which included drugs, domestic violence and a “chaotic lifestyle”.

The children were placed in foster care and care proceedings launched. At that point Sophie’s biological father came forward and said he wished to look after her. He had not seen his daughter since she was born.

Following an initial investigation he was allowed to visit her. Meanwhile, an independent social worker was hired to assess his abilities as a parent .

A serious case review has now concluded that the social workers overseeing Sophie’s case attached too much significance to the independent social worker’s report. It had not been accompanied by an assessment of the little girl’s needs. The review report notes:

“There was reliance by Bedford Borough Council on the independent social worker to address all aspects of social work with Sophie. This resulted in a significant gap in the overall assessment process from the start. “

They also worried excessively about “influencing” the independence of the report, thereby failing to make a distinction between influencing views and challenging the quality of a report’s conclusions.

The report continued:

“With hindsight one of the puzzling aspects of professional practice in this case was consensus within the professional network … that Sophie should move to live with her father permanently, despite the fact that she had not known him previously, and that there had been allegations against him of domestic violence …. Moreover, in the face of Sophie’s disturbed behaviour following contact, the lack of consideration of alternative options appears as difficult to comprehend.”

The child’s foster carers had reported she behaved in a disturbed way after returning from overnight stays with her father but the independent social worker believed this was due to traumatic memories, an assumption that was never challenged.

The report recommended that the girl be placed with her father, and the local authority social workers reportedly believed the courts would not accept any challenge to a recommended placement with a biological parent without very strong evidence.

A separate psychiatric report of Wheatley highlighted inconsistencies in his claims and an explosive outburst of temper during questioning, but little significance was attached to this.

The review also concluded that the supervising social workers had worried about the regulation 26 week timetable for care cases.

“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.”

The girl was placed with her father and beaten to death just months later.

The full serious case review is available here.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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  1. Vincent McGovern says:

    As a senior member of a shared parenting charity this is a sickening body blow. The Social Workers confusion did not cause the death of this innocent child. That fault is entirely the fathers and my sympathy to the mother and wider family. No amount of investigation can determine the future and we also have the case of the Italian mother who stabbed her two children to death in a refuge. Tragically some parents kill their children and in this case concerning Sophie there are no lessons to be learnt. But I suspect some decent fathers and their children will be further disadvantaged because of this criminal act.

  2. The Devil's Advocate says:

    Can you enlighten me that as you mentioned an “independent social worker”. Are not all social workers independent in their investigations. They have regulatory investigations to perform under the Section 7 and Section 8 of the Children’s Act of 1989. Surely this is enough to protect our children.

    • Cameron Paterson says:

      ‘Independent’ in the sense of not working for the local authority involved in the case

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