A review into the death of Fife toddler Liam Fee has found that child protection officials “missed opportunities” to intervene.
The Significant Case Review was launched after the two-and-a-half year old’s mother Rachel Fee and her partner Nyomi Fee were convicted of murder.
He was killed at his home in Thornton, near Glenrothes, Fife, in March 2014.
The report said his carers were “manipulative, devious and hindered services”.
It said they used “disguised compliance” to play one professional against another.
Independent chair of Fife’s Child Protection Committee Alan Small said: “Rachel Trelfa (Fee) and Nyomi Fee not only took the life of their child, but did their best to hinder the services that were there to help him.
“We deeply regret that our services did not do more to support Liam, and potentially prevent the tragic outcome of this case.”
He said the review painted a picture of services that struggled to see through the actions of “devious and manipulative parents”.
“There were missed opportunities across services to intervene and provide support to the family and services are aware that they could have done better to support Liam.
“It’s clear that professionals who were making strenuous efforts to act in Liam’s interests were drawn in by the demands and needs of Liam’s mother and her partner who were adept at playing the system, using ‘disguised compliance’ to play one professional against another.”
Rachel Fee, or Trelfa, now 32, and her civil partner Nyomi Fee, 31, had denied killing Liam, blaming his death on one of two other young boys also in their care.
They were convicted of murder and a catalogue of abuse towards Liam and other children, including imprisoning one in a home-made cage and tying another naked to a chair in a dark room with snakes and rats.
During a seven-week trial last year, a number of witnesses told the High Court in Livingston they had raised concerns about the toddler’s health and wellbeing with social services.
His nursery alerted social services, worried by a change in Liam, and the fact that he was losing weight and had a number of injuries.
Liam’s childminder had also made her concerns known.
The court also heard from Patricia Smith, who used the same childminder. Ms Smith told the jury she phoned Fife Social Work department after meeting the Fees in the street.
‘Off the radar’
Liam was in his buggy but she told the court she didn’t know if he was drugged or dead.
A senior Fife social worker admitted in court that Liam “fell off their radar.”
A member of staff had gone off sick, no-one else was assigned and Liam’s case was not reviewed until further concerns were raised.
Liam Fee timeline
August 2011 – Liam Fee is born in Ryton, about eight miles west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
December 2011 – His mother Rachel Trelfa, as she was then, and Nyomi Fee move after Rachel leaves baby Liam’s father.
Early 2012 – The couple stay in a Travelodge at first and then move to a house at Thornton near Glenrothes.
June 2012 – The pair enter into a civil partnership, with Rachel taking her partner’s name
January 2013 – Liam is assigned a case worker at Fife social work after reports from his nursery on numerous injuries. A police officer and a social worker visit the family and accept Trelfa and Fee’s “plausible explanation” that he bumped his head.
April 2013 – Liam’s case worker goes off sick and no-one else is assigned to monitor the family.
June 2013 – Social work become involved again when a childminder raises concerns about Liam “pinching himself”. Police and social work take the view that they are not adult marks, but there are still “concerns”.
22 March 2014 – Liam dies in a bedroom of the family home
During the trial, childminder Heather Farmer, who looked after Liam at her home in Fife from July 2012 until January the following year, said she had called the Scottish Childminding Association and the Care Inspectorate over fears the toddler was being hurt by someone.
Liam started at the Sunshine Nursery in Kirkcaldy in March 2013 but staff noticed injuries and by June had contacted social services with their concerns.
Patricia Smith, who knew the couple, said she contacted social workers after seeing them outside a shop in Fife in September 2013 and noting that the toddler looked ”deathly”.
The court also heard from Karen Pedder, a team manager with child protection at Fife Council, who dealt with concerns about Liam in 2013 and admitted he had dropped ”off the radar”.
A social worker and police officer were sent to the couple’s home in January that year but a ”plausible” explanation was given that Liam had ”bumped his head”.
The social worker dealing with the case then went off sick in April and it was not looked at again until there was a contact made by the nursery in June.
After the trial, in September 2016, a social worker involved in the Liam Fee case was struck off after being found guilty of misconduct by professional watchdog, the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC).
It upheld 12 charges against former Fife social worker Lesley Bate, involving Liam and 14 other children.
In a number of cases, including Liam, the panel found her failings amounted to neglect of the children.
The social worker was said to be “disorganised and chaotic”.
Panel members were told Mrs Bate showed “no regard for vulnerable groups”.
She had failed to carry out risk assessments and she had not kept clear and accurate records.
The panel was told the misconduct was of the most serious kind over a sustained period of time.
Liam was found dead at his home near Glenrothes on 22 March 2014 with heart injuries similar to those found on road crash victims after a severe blunt force trauma to his chest and abdomen.
Pathologists found more than 30 external injuries on the toddler’s body and fractures to his upper arm and thigh.
Child Protection Committees Scotland (CPCS) said the review was a stark reminder that inter-agency communications and reporting systems may not always link up or talk to each other effectively to assess and manage risk.
However, David Cumming of the CPCS said abusive parents or carers could be “manipulative, devious and covert” which made the job of child protection officials very difficult.
He said: “Failures within child protection systems may be compounded in cases where a child’s parents or carers go to great lengths to conceal the abuse of the children in their care, or provide seemingly valid reasons for things like injury, unusual behaviour or weight loss.
“This misreporting and concealment is what we call ‘disguised compliance’, and it can be very difficult for professionals from different agencies to join the dots when abusive parents are very clever at hiding or explaining away their actions.”