Safeguarding review published after bath ‘torture’ murder of nine-year-old

A review of social services and police contact with a nine-year-old boy before he was killed by his mother and stepfather has found he was classed as “safe and well” after home visits when he was not spoken to.

Alfie Steele (pictured), of Droitwich, Worcestershire, died in February 2021 after his head was repeatedly held under the water in a bath, following months of cruelty which left him with more than 50 injuries.

A trial at Coventry Crown Court was told 999 calls made by neighbours in April, May and August 2020 had supplied details of Alfie’s ordeal, including a call saying it sounded like he was “being hit and held under the water”.

Alfie’s mother Carla Scott was jailed in June last year for 27 years for manslaughter, and her partner Dirk Howell was ordered to serve life with a minimum term of 32 years for murder.

A Child Safeguarding Practice Review, published on Friday by the Worcestershire Safeguarding Children Partnership (WSCP), said professionals had placed too much reliance on Alfie himself to share “concerns and evidence that he was being abused and harmed”.

Conducted by independent reviewer Jane Wiffin, the report made eight recommendations to agencies including the WSCP and the Probation Service.

The recommendations include a call for practitioners to be provided with guidance to strengthen child protection plans by supporting family members and neighbours who report concerns.

It found that the professionals who worked with Alfie were hard working, showed care and commitment to him and the family, but were “often hampered by two adults who sought to deliberately lie, mislead and cover up what was happening.”

The report stated: “From the start of the review period there was concern about Dirk Howell and his history of violence and criminality.

“He was subject to bail conditions in relation to a burglary where firearms had been stolen in August 2019.”

Between May 2019 and January 2020 Howell was subject to post-release supervision by the Probation Service, but the service was unaware he had threatened neighbours with reprisals for reporting concerns about Alfie, a “clear breach” of his supervision requirements.

The 23-page review said: “There were six known incidents of concern raised with the police or children’s services about neighbours or school staff concerns about physical abuse or Dirk Howell’s harsh and cruel practices to Alfie.

“Each incident would be followed up by a police or social worker visit. There was inconsistency when Alfie was spoken to, made complicated by his age and on some occasions the lateness in the day of the visit.

“Too often he was described as ‘safe and well’ when he had not been spoken to.

“The police did not always follow through on injuries noted to Alfie. There were always causal explanations given by Alfie or Carla Scott, but given the context, there should have been more thought given to ensuring that injuries were checked through medical examination.

“These incidents should have led to a strategy discussion and consideration of the need for child protection medicals.

“This review has found that friends, neighbours and people in the community took great risks to ensure that Alfie could be safe, and abuse and neglect addressed.

“The review would like to thank them for all that they did, with the risk of violence and retribution from Dirk Howell.

“When Dirk Howell threatened the neighbours with violence and arson, they said they did not want to pursue a complaint because they were worried about repercussions. More could have been done to support them through a discussion of bail conditions and protective action.

“In the period under review there was an over-reliance on Alfie to share concerns and evidence that he was being abused and harmed. He was consistently asked if he had any worries, whether he liked Dirk Howell and what had happened in the context of allegations of abuse and aggression.

“Throughout the review process there was an absence of discussion of Alfie’s lived experience and reflection on the contrast between what was known about what life was like and what he said about it.”

An investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct is ongoing into the contact West Mercia Police had with Alfie, Scott and Howell, prior to the killing.

The couple’s six-week trial was told Alfie was denied food as an act of cruelty and routinely subjected to other “sinister” punishments, including being locked outside his Vashon Drive home in cold weather.

Scott, 35, and Howell, 41, were told at their sentencing hearing that what they had done amounted to the “torture” of Alfie.

The evidence that secured their conviction included testimony from neighbours who raised concerns with the police.

The material included a video filmed by a neighbour in August 2019, recording Alfie’s voice as he pleaded to be allowed back into his home for around 25 minutes, and a call six months before the boy’s death related to apparent abuse in a bathtub.

The female caller told an operator: “It sounds like my neighbours are doing something bad to their kid in the bath. Like they are really hurting them.”

In further 999 calls in 2020 a concerned resident told the operator “something strange is going on”, while another call reported that a family known to police had “got a young lad outside” and “had him in the garden standing like a statue.”

West Mercia Police Assistant Chief Constable Rachel Jones said the force fully supported the findings of the WSCP review.

ACC Jones said: “We continue to extend our deepest condolences to those who knew Alfie, who will forever miss his warm infectious smile and sense of humour. The loss his family has experienced is immeasurable.

“In the immediate aftermath of Alfie’s murder, we carried out an initial review of West Mercia Police’s involvement with the family.

“As a direct result, enhanced training has been put in place for our frontline officers and staff to ensure they fully understand the signs of vulnerability, that they are professionally curious and don’t take information on face value.

“It is with the greatest sadness that we will never be able to undo the dreadful abuse Alfie suffered. Our thoughts remain with all those who knew and loved Alfie.”

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