The boy who was left out in the cold

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The Independent Online
At three years old, Rikki Neave was already being turned out of his house at midnight, in his pyjamas, barefoot, and left to cry until social services were called. Neighbours told of his mother Ruth dangling him screaming over a bridge by his legs, writing "idiot" in green felt-tip pen on his forehead and squirting washing-up liquid in his mouth.

Before his body was found, strangled, in a copse near his home in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, two years ago, Rikki's six-year life was marked by repeated acts of cruelty by his mother.

At a trial last autumn, she was found not guilty of his murder but was sentenced to seven years for the "appalling ill-treatment and neglect" she had shown to Rikki and her daughters which caused the judge, Mr Justice Popplewell, to say he had "rarely come across a case of such persistent and systematic cruelty to young children".

The trial also raised questions about the failure of social services to deal with the family.

Ruth Neave's problems were well known. She had shown signs of being disturbed from an early age, and had been in and out of foster homes since the age of two, rejected by her parents, who killed themselves in a suicide pact when she was 24.

Addiction to amphetamines further destabilised her and she became increasingly preoccupied with the occult.

It was an unstable atmosphere for any child. Described by neighbours as a "little bugger" and a "real hardknock", Rikki had seen father figures come and go. He and his stepfather, Dean Neave, with whom his mother was besotted, hated each other, and Rikki became the butt of much of Ruth Neave's cruelty. She kicked her son "like a football", picked him up by the throat, punched him and sent him out at night to fetch drugs.

In a series of letters to Dean, Ruth Neave wrote: "I have burnt [Rikki] with a match ... I have punched his little face in. I just want to kill him ... but I cannot."

Neave's everyday actions should have proved more worrying to social services. But the Peterborough East team which covered the Welland estate, with its high unemployment and many single-parent households, was said by insiders to be "close to collapse" in the months before Rikki died. Morale was low as staff complained of huge workloads, many of them handling 15 cases at a time.

"They felt overworked and under-resourced and were going from day to day by the seat of their pants," said one council official. "No one ever got hold of it."

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