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Hanif Sutton never had a chance.

His father was in jail. His mother had taken in a convicted drug addict who allegedly forced her into prostitution. Neighbors, who suspected Hanif was being beaten, didn't speak up. And a state social worker didn't detect any danger during repeated visits with the boy and his mother.Hanif died last week at the age of 31/2.

Randolph Scott, who was living with Hanif and his mother, Rosalyn Rochester, has been charged with the child's murder.

"I personally haven't ever handled anything so gruesome," said Lowell Police Inspector David Tousignant. "And all the veteran detectives who have been here awhile, they say this is one of the most horrifying cases they've seen."

Investigators say that Scott, 38, left prison in late January and moved in with Rochester a short time later, forcing her into prostitution to support his heroin habit, as he had done with several women in the past.

They shared a cramped, ramshackle house with four other families in this former mill town of 90,000 just south of the New Hampshire border.

As time went on, authorities say, Scott's violence toward the boy and his mother escalated. By the time of Hanif's death, police said, the boy's back looked like leather from repeated beatings and burns, and there were three big bruises on his face.

Scott told investigators that he hit the boy because he was "wetting his pants and . . . he was lazy," Tousignant said.

Why didn't the 23-year-old mother get help? "She was in total fear of Scott, almost a paralyzing fear," said Tousignant.

Tousignant said he found the case frustrating because so many people had a chance to speak up and didn't.

The only ones who tried were an anonymous tipster who complained to authorities that the boy was not getting needed medical care, and Hanif's 5-year-old cousin, who lived in the same building and was Hanif's best friend.

"My son came running to me when I got home, crying `Mommy, mommy, my cousin's getting hit too much!"' said the 5-year-old's mother.

"He got hit with a belt buckle and a shoe," the boy said.

The boy's warning to his mother came April 28, when the woman returned home from a three-week jail term. The boy had stayed with Hanif and his mother for two weeks while his own mother was in jail.

That same day, another neighbor also saw Hanif's bruises. Rochester told her that the boy fell out of bed. The woman said she wanted to tell authorities about the beating but was afraid of Scott.

"It would have caused a lot of problems for me and my kids," she said. "So I just told my boyfriend that I was going to mind my own problems."

Actually, authorities already had been alerted about Hanif. The state Department of Social Services had been checking on him since February, after an anonymous tipster claimed the boy wasn't receiving proper attention for an ear infection.

A social worker first met with Rochester on Feb. 17 and reported that she was making an effort to care for Hanif and that the boy had visited a doctor. The social worker met with Hanif and his mother six times, and the mother separately three times, according to DSS spokeswoman Lorraine Carli.

Rochester missed an appointment April 21. The social worker went to her home April 27, but no one was home. By last weekend, it was too late. Hanif was taken to the hospital at about 4:30 a.m. April 30 and died the following day.

The autopsy showed Hanif died of blunt trauma to the head, according to Tousignant.

The DSS was aware of Scott's drug use and had unverified information about Rochester being a prostitute. Carli said the department was concerned that Scott may have been abusing Rochester but had no indication that Hanif was being harmed except for possibly being neglected.

"It's a very difficult dilemma on what's appropriate when you're dealing with a family," Carli said.

Things seem more simple to Hanif's young cousin and his mother.

"I just say, `Thank God my kid got out of there,' " the mother said.