Report highlights missed chances to help murdered schoolgirl Lucy McHugh

Social services and police missed a number of chances to help murdered schoolgirl Lucy McHugh in the months before her death, according to a new report.

Stephen Nicholson, 25, was jailed for life with a minimum term of 33 years at Winchester Crown Court in July 2019 for the murder and rape of the 13-year-old.

A report by the Southampton Safeguarding Children Partnership has highlighted failures by children’s social care in Southampton to act upon concerns raised by Lucy’s schools that she was being sexually exploited by an older boyfriend.

Nicholson’s trial heard the defendant had been a lodger at Lucy’s family home and had been sexually abusing her.

Lead reviewer Moira Murray said social workers considered the concerns had “no foundation” because they were given “assurances” by Lucy’s mother, Stacey White.

Stephen Nicholson court case
Stephen Nicholson court case

Ms Murray states these concerns “did not progress further than the ‘Front Door’ to the Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH), which resulted in no multi-agency sharing of information held by police, the school and children’s social care.”

She said this was a “missed opportunity” as it could have led to the referrals being treated as a case of child protection and officials looking at the risk Nicholson posed to Lucy.

Ms Murray goes on to criticise the children’s social care team for allowing Ms White to “influence professional judgment” by being “defensive, controlling, aggressive and intimidating”.

Ms Murray wrote: “Such behaviour should not be allowed to detract from the need to focus on the safety and wellbeing of children.

“Thus, professionals need to be aware of disguised compliance, be resilient when faced with hostility, and confident in understanding when to escalate their concerns.”

Ms Murray adds that both police and children’s social care failed to take into account Nicholson’s previous convictions, which included theft, battery, criminal damage, domestic violence and possession of cannabis.

She also states the Public Law Outline (PLO) – the local authority’s protocol for investigating child welfare concerns – was “allowed to drift” for “many months”.

She said: “This can only be described as poor practice.”

Rob Henderson, executive director for wellbeing (children and learning) at Southampton City Council, apologised for its failings, and said: “We remain deeply saddened by this tragic case, and on behalf of the council I would like to apologise to the victim’s family, friends, and all who knew her, for the council’s shortcomings identified in the report.

Lucy McHugh death
Lucy McHugh death

“We have already made changes in a number of the areas highlighted.”

He said measures taken include “quicker and more effective sharing of information” between agencies, and speeding up child protection referrals.

Superintendent Kelly Whiting, of Hampshire police, said: “We have been working closely with our partners to identify improvements following this tragic death.

“We have taken action to improve the way referrals are made to our partners and have set up a multi-agency police protection safeguarding notification scrutiny panel.”

Nicholson, described by police as a “predatory paedophile”, lured Lucy to woodland at the outdoor Southampton Sports Centre on July 25, 2018, where he stabbed her 27 times in the neck and upper body.

He carried out the “premeditated” murder to silence Lucy who had threatened to reveal his year-long sexual abuse of her, his trial heard.