A former fitness instructor has been jailed for life with a minimum of 18 years after being found guilty of murdering his 18-month-old daughter less than a fortnight after he and his husband adopted her.
Matthew Scully-Hicks had gripped Elsie around the rib cage, shook her and may have banged her head against a hard surface.
He showed no emotion as the trial judge, Mrs Justice Nicola Davies, handed down the sentence.
An independent review is taking place that will consider whether social workers and health professionals missed chances to step in and protect Elsie before she was killed by Scully-Hicks, 31.
At least four social workers, a GP, a health visitor and hospital staff including a registrar saw or treated a series of injuries she suffered before the fatal attack.
The judge said Elsie’s fatal injuries were inflicted between meal time and bed time – a period when the infant was known to cry.
“It was Elsie’s behaviour, your frustration with it which turned to anger, which led you to inflict the serious injuries which swiftly led to her collapse,” Davies said. “The force which you used in gripping Elsie was sufficient to cause the fractures of the ribs, the shaking sufficient to cause severe brain and eye injury.
“In deliberately inflicting serious injuries upon your 18-month-old adoptive daughter you abused the trust which had been placed in you as Elsie’s adoptive father. It was a gross abuse of that trust.
“Your actions in killing Elsie have devastated three families – the birth family of Elsie, the family you had sought to build with Craig Scully-Hicks and your own birth family.
“You had, and were aware that you had, a predisposition to injure your adoptive daughter. You took no steps to prevent a recurrence of the earlier incidents when Elsie suffered injuries as a result of your actions,” the judge said, adding: “No remorse has been shown.”
Elsie’s birth family said she would still be alive today if she had not been removed from their care by social services. In a victim impact statement, which can now be reported following an application by the Press Association, Elsie’s natural family said they were “numb with pain”.
Elsie was named Shayla O’Brien by her birth family when she was born in November 2014. Speaking on behalf of the family, Elsie’s birth grandmother Sian O’Brien said: “I accept that at the time of giving birth my daughter was living a chaotic lifestyle and was not in a position to care for Shayla and she was removed from the hospital five days after birth by social services.
“As a family, we continued to have contact with Shayla whilst she was in the care of the foster family.”
O’Brien said all of Elsie’s family were “extremely attached to her and loved her very much”.
She said: “In January 2015, I started proceedings in the family court to become the legal guardian for Shayla. I wanted to bring her up in a happy, healthy and warm family environment, that was all taken away from me when social services and the family court decided I would not be able to cope.”
A decision was made that Elsie, who was renamed by her future adoptive parents, would be put up for adoption in May 2015.
The statement continued: “We all continue to fight on even though every day we 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.”
Scully-Hicks described Elsie as “a psycho”, “the exorcist” and “Satan dressed up in a Babygro” in text messages, but the judge said he had not told his husband how much he was struggling.
The judge referred to the messages when she said: “In more than one text you describe Elsie as having a ‘diva strop’, you refer to Elsie in strong and derogatory language. The texts demonstrate your frustration at what you described as Elsie’s attitude, her crying and her strops.
“To those who saw you regularly, be it healthcare professionals, social workers or friends and family you were a loving and caring father. The difficult times were when you were alone with Elsie or with her and her adoptive sibling. You deny being unable to cope with two children, but the texts indicate otherwise.”
Scully-Hicks, who denied murder, gasped and wept as jurors at Cardiff crown court unanimously convicted him on their fourth day of deliberations.
The injuries suffered by Elsie before the murder included bruises to her forehead and a broken leg and she also fell down the stairs.
During this period, Vale of Glamorgan council in south Wales shared parental responsibility for Elsie with the couple. A child practice review has been commissioned into the “tragic circumstances” of Elsie’s death, a spokesman for the Cardiff and Vale of Glamorgan regional safeguarding children board said.
Elsie was formally adopted by the couple on 12 May last year and suffered fatal injuries at their home in Llandaff, Cardiff, on 25 May.
Hours before the attack, Matthew Scully-Hicks had taken her shopping at Marks & Spencer for an outfit to wear at a party to celebrate her adoption.
Scully-Hicks insisted he had never harmed Elsie but the jury rejected his account after hearing from 12 medical experts and six doctors who treated her.