A foster mother raised the alarm after hearing how a four-year-old boy had tried to mutilate himself, a court heard.

The boy's adoptive mother told Annette Cover how John Smith had used a pair of scissors on his penis.

Mrs Cover, a children's nurse for 25 years and a foster parent for 20 years, said she was alarmed.

She told adoptive mother Michelle McWilliam to take John straight to a doctor and to inform social services.

Mrs Cover was so worried she called John's social worker, the jury was told.

Two days later Michelle McWilliam telephoned her to say the whole thing had been a "childish prank".

McWilliam and her husband Simon, of Gardner Road, Fishersgate, Southwick, deny cruelty.

John died from head injuries on Christmas Eve, 1999.

More than 50 injuries and four adult bite marks were found on his body.

The McWilliams insist he was self harming.

Mrs Cover told Lewes Crown Court she visited the McWilliams and had noticed a physical and emotional change in John.

She said: "He looked pathetic. There were very dark rings under his eyes.

"He was not as outgoing, just a pathetic little boy."

Mrs Cover said the McWilliams told her he was self-harming and was vomiting but she saw neither problem when she visited.

Michelle McWilliam claimed the problems started before they had taken the boy in and that they had been covered up by his previous foster parents, she said.

On one visit she noticed bruises on John's forearm and forehead.

The court heard earlier how John had apparently suffered facial bruising from his school friend Ryan while playing.

Ryan's mother Joanne McCulloch, from Lancing, said yesterday she never saw her son being rough with John on the two occasions she witnessed them playing.

Maria Griggs, John's teacher at St Peter's Primary School, Shoreham, said she regularly saw bruises on the boy and one day he told her how he had hurt his penis with scissors in bed.

Earlier, health visitor Denissa Phillips was shown photographs of John in hospital before he died.

The boy was on life support and a breathing tube was attached to his mouth. There were bruises round his face.

She said she had not seen such injuries on him when she had visited the McWilliams four days before the pictures were taken.

During that visit Michelle McWilliam told her John had been self harming.

Mrs Phillips said John had bruising on his left cheek.

There was no bruising on his forehead, round the eye, jaw and other side of his face as seen in the photographs, she said.

John was sat on a chair by a fire, showing her his wrapped presents under a Christmas tree. He appeared calm and relaxed, she said.

Cross examined by Lord Thomas, she said she stayed longer in the house than planned to see how John related to his adoptive parents.

She said a child would often shrink back from a parent who had abused them.

Mrs Phillips said John related well to Michelle McWilliam and did not shy away from either parent, adding: "He was not frightened of Simon."

She said she was reassured there were no child protection issues.

The trial resumes on Monday.