Ministers order care shake-up over death of Rikki

I have rarely come across such persistent and systematic cruelty to young children, says judge
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The Independent Online
Ministers yesterday ordered a social services "hit squad" into Cambridgeshire to shake up child protection procedures after Ruth Neave was cleared of killing her six-year-old son Rikki but convicted of "appalling ill- treatment and neglect".

Two social workers responsible for Rikki's welfare were suspended yesterday, as a jury at Northampton Crown Court found Mrs Neave not guilty of the murder or manslaughter of her son. His strangled body had been found in a small copse near his home on the Welland estate in November 1994.

The jurors later saw Neave, 28, convicted and jailed for seven years for cruelty towards her children and being involved in the supply of amphetamine and one count of burglary. Mr Justice Popplewell said he had "rarely come across a case of such persistent and systematic cruelty to young children".

The team of social services inspectors will look at why social workers failed to take Rikki into care, despite his mother's threats to harm him, and will remove "serious weaknesses" from the system, said the health minister, Simon Burns. He added that he had been "very concerned" by the case.

Last night, social workers' leaders called for a public inquiry into child protection services and Rikki's father, Trevor Harvey, said he was planning legal action against Cambridgeshire County Council.

Announcing the suspension of two social workers, the social services department admitted last night that police had been called in after files relating to Rikki Neave's case went missing, and that social workers had persisted too long in their strategy of keeping the family together without establishing a "comprehensive picture of what life was like in the Neave household".

Mrs Neave had subjected her children to "appalling ill-treatment and neglect", said Christopher Metcalfe for the prosecution. Describing Mrs Neave as a "Jekyll and Hyde" character, he said that neighbours had been driven to report Mrs Neave to social services, after becoming frightened for the safety of one of her daughters. Mrs Neave would hit the girl in her face with enough force to knock her down.

On one occasion, she brushed one of her daughters' hair so roughly that she screamed, then hit her so hard that the brush broke in two.

As for Rikki, Mr Metcalfe told the court: "Even when as young as three, he was allowed to roam the streets . . . She handled him very roughly, dragging him along the streets, screaming at him. If he annoyed her, she would hit him so hard that she would knock him to the floor."

In sentencing Mrs Neave Mr Justice Popplewell said: "You are plainly an inadequate person and wholly unfit to be a mother . . . The harm that was done to these children . . . was incalculable and I believe it will have a scarring effect on the two children who survived."

Unison, which represents local government staff in Cambridgeshire, said it had been raising concerns about the organisation of the social services department's East Team since 1992. Joanne Kaye-Smith, Unison's senior regional officer, said: "The department was told time and time again about the intolerable workloads carried by staff and about our concerns over the use of unqualified or inexperienced staff to deal with child protection cases.

"Their response so far seems to have been to brand staff raising concerns as troublemakers and to look for convenient scapegoats, and we believe that they have still failed to take our concerns seriously."

In a statement released through her solicitor yesterday, Mrs Neave said: "I have always maintained my innocence. Many people who lived near to me were quick to condemn me without having heard a word of evidence. I have had to wait for this moment now to be able to say to them that I am not guilty of killing my own child. I hope that the police will now redouble their efforts to find the true killers of Rikki."

A spokesman for Cambridgeshire police said: "We are satisfied that all available evidence has been put quite properly before the jury. Should any new evidence come to light, naturally it will be investigated thoroughly."