There was clear evidence that Elsie Scully-Hicks was being abused. But authorities refused to see it because they thought so highly of her adoptive parents.
As ITV News reports, Elsie was actually born “Shayla O'Brien.” Just days after her birth in November 2014, the infant was taken from her birth mother, who had a drug problem.
Elsie's grandmother hoped to regain guardianship of the baby, but it was not to be. At 10 months of age, Elsie was placed with Matthew Scully-Hicks and his husband, Craig. A part-time fitness instructor, Matthew lived in an upscale area of Cardiff, Wales. Social workers were so impressed by Matthew and Craig that they believed this would be a good home for Elsie.
The couple soon began the adoption process, which included multiple home visits and meetings with health professionals. However, no one appeared to notice that there was a dark side to Matthew's apparent affection for Elsie.
According to the Mirror, Craig spent much of the time away from home working. Care for Elsie fell on Matthew, who would refer to the baby as “psycho” and “Satan dressed up in a Baby grow.”
Soon, Elsie had accumulated a surprising number of unexplained injuries, all while being cared for by Matthew. On November 12, 2015, Elsie was taken to a doctor for an injury to her leg that prevented her from putting weight on it. An x-ray determined that she had broken her leg above the ankle.
What doctors didn't realize is that she had also broken her other leg above the knee — a fact that was not discovered until after her death. Matthew claimed that she had fallen from an activity table or injured herself falling from standing. However, according to the Mirror, an expert later told the court that two broken legs like Elsie's would come from a more serious cause:
“I have seen them in adults in more major traumas such as car accidents or falls from height.”
As the Sun reports, in December 2015, Elsie received a bad bruise on her forehead which lasted eight weeks and was described as a “real shiner.” Multiple social service workers noted the bruise, but none recorded it or followed up when Matthew lied about having a doctor see it.
In January 2016, Elsie had another large bruise on her head, which Matthew did not explain. No one followed up on the injury despite the fact that the couple was going through the adoption process.
In March 2016, Matthew called an ambulance for Elsie, explaining that she had fallen over a baby gate and down the stairs. The toddler was taken to the hospital, where staff decided her injuries were consistent with a fall and let her go home four hours later.
On May 12, 2016, Elsie was formally adopted by Matthew and Craig. Just two weeks later, Matthew called for an ambulance again. This time, he claimed Elsie had stopped breathing or moving while he was changing her diaper.
Four days later, Elsie was taken off the ventilator at the hospital. She was 18 months old when she died.
An autopsy later determined that Elsie had been violently shaken and her head banged against a hard surface. She suffered broken ribs, a fractured skull, and bleeding on the brain.
Matthew was tried for Elsie's murder and sentenced to 18 years in prison. His husband was exonerated of any failure to protect their daughter.
But the child's death raised questions about how social services professionals could have missed so many warning signs of abuse.
In a follow-up report, an investigation revealed that child workers were so favorably disposed to Matthew and Craig that they didn't see the indications that Elsie was in danger. According to the Telegraph, the investigation determined that social workers viewed Matthew and Craig as a “well-educated and articulate couple” who would be good parents.
The review found that the professionals who should have been evaluating the home lacked the “professional curiosity” to delve into Elsie's injury, simply accepting Matthew's excuses. It concluded:
“This family were perceived to be very positive parents for this child. Given how strongly this view was held, the injuries that the child sustained were never considered as anything other than childhood accidents.”
At a press conference, Lance Carver, the local director of social services apologized for the tunnel vision that cost Elsie's life:
“The findings do indicate that social workers and staff from all agencies saw the adoption as very positive. They perceived the adoptive family as a really positive solution for Elsie. The report identifies issues that 'that positive lens' meant that they were not looking in the way they should have been.”
Carver added that no disciplinary actions had been taken as a result of the report.
The admission was no comfort for Elsie's biological family. According to the Mirror, Elsie's grandmother said at trial that, “[W]e are numb with pain and hurt deep in the knowledge that Shayla was loved unconditionally by us all as a family and knowing that had she not been taken away from us, she would still be alive today.”