Social services and police were alerted more than 60 times to concerns over the welfare of a nine-year-old boy in the years of “torture” before he was brutally killed by his mother and stepfather.
Alfie Steele, 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 Child Safeguarding Practice Review, published on Friday by the Worcestershire Safeguarding Children Partnership (WSCP), highlighted a catalogue of missed opportunities by authorities, including that the boy was classed as “safe and well” after home visits when he was not spoken to.
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”.
Freedom of Information requests by the BBC revealed on Friday that professionals were in fact contacted by people concerned about the boy’s welfare as many as 64 times between 2018 and 2020. Of those referrals, 36 were made to Worcestershire County Council and 28 were made to West Mercia Police.
Alfie's grandparents, Paul and Alaina Scott, told the broadcaster they are “living in a nightmare” following the tragic death of their beloved grandson.
Speaking about the 64 referrals, an “angry” and “upset” Mr Scott said: “Every single one of them times is a time they could have stopped my grandson from dying. That’s not just a number to me.”
He added: “[At times,] social services acted like it was our fault [with] the way that they were fighting us.”
After reading Friday’s devastating report, which stated that Alfie was subject to a child protection plan for neglect in 2018, Mr Scott said: “It just makes me want to cry the amount of time it shows in here that Alfie didn't have to die.”
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.
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.
By August 2019, the review states concerns were being raised by family members and neighbours about Howell’s criminal history, his “aggression”, including shouting at Alfie, and his drug use – triggering a safeguarding strategy discussion.
At the time, Howell was under investigation for a burglary of an elderly man where firearms were stolen. 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.
Mr Scott said family members had told social workers of Howell’s criminal past, adding: “We reported Howell again and again to social services and nothing was done. Nobody joined the dots; so many chances were missed. They know they let Alfie down.”
Mrs Scott said: “We used to report bruises, we reported the little things, the niggles. We were just dismissed.”
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.
Conducted by independent reviewer Jane Wiffin, the report said professionals had placed too much reliance on Alfie himself to share “concerns and evidence that he was being abused and harmed”.
It found that the professionals who worked with Alfie were hard-working, and showed care and commitment to him and the family, but they were “often hampered by two adults who sought to deliberately lie, mislead and cover up what was happening”.
The 23-page review 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.
Commending the “great risks” taken by the community to ensure the boy’s safety, the report 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.”
While each incident would be followed up by a visit from professionals, there was “inconsistency” when Alifie was spoken to, it said, and police did not always follow through on injuries noted to the nine-year-old.
The review concluded: “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.”
It added: “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.”
The evidence that secured Scott’s and Howell’s convictions included testimony from neighbours who raised concerns with the police.
The material heard at the couple’s trial 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.”