January 15, 2021

HJ Talks About Abuse: Multi Agency Failure

A 13-year-old girl’s death hit the headlines in November of last year after she was raped and murdered by her family’s 25-year-old house lodger, Stephen Nicholson.

Lucy McHugh was lured to local woodlands in Southampton in 2018. She was then raped and stabbed 27 times resulting in her death.

The police inquiry into Lucy's death became one of the largest murder inquiries in criminal history with over 200 officers involved, spending over 1500 hours trawling through CCTV footage in the search for her killer.

At trial, jurors heard Nicholson murdered Lucy after she threatened to reveal he had been sexually abusing her.

Nicholson is now serving a 33-year prison sentence following his conviction for murdering Lucy and three counts of raping her when she was just 12 years old. He was also found guilty of one count of sexual activity with another girl, who was 14 years old.

Following Lucy’s death, an independent report was commissioned by the Southampton Safeguarding Children Partnership. The report is heavily critical of both social services and the police for missing several chances to help Lucy. 

Nicholson had past convictions for both battery and domestic violence. He then stole £1,000 while holding a blade to a female resident's throat and made off in a staff member's car, before being caught by police. While serving two years in a youth detention centre for that incident, he and two fellow inmates barricaded themselves in a canteen before he again armed himself with a knife and tried to stab a prison guard.

The report found social services did not do enough to act on concerns raised by Lucy's school that she was being sexually exploited by an older boyfriend. Lead reviewer Moira Murray said social workers considered the concerns had “no foundation” because they were given “assurances” by Lucy’s mother.

Ms Murray said a lack of information sharing between the council's Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (police, school and children's social care) was a "missed opportunity" and meant Lucy's case was not treated as one of child protection.

The service, which is intended to 'protect the most vulnerable children from harm, neglect and abuse', upon receipt of a referral should identify 'the needs, and the child or family will be referred or signposted to the relevant contact or information'. However, the report says this did not happen and schools concerns, which were raised by teachers, did not pass the first stages of the referral.

It was also revealed that the city council's Children's Social Care team was aware of Nicholson's convictions, but this information was neither acted upon, nor shared.

Sadly, if the safeguarding processes were followed, they may have unearthed details of Nicholson's relationship with Lucy and potentially prevented her death.

Hampshire Police's Supt Kelly Whiting, district commander for Southampton, said the force was 'identifying improvements following this tragic death'. He added: 'The training of officers reflects the need to understand the complex impact of adverse childhood experiences. As part of this, we are already developing a trauma informed approach to dealing with all incidents involving children. 'We will continue to work with our safeguarding partners to further improve the way we protect vulnerable children.'

The city council's executive director of children's wellbeing, Rob Henderson, said the authority 'remains deeply saddened by this tragic case'. He added: '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. We accept the findings and its recommendations. We have already made changes in a number of the areas highlighted. ‘Independent reviews of the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) and the Public Law Outline process have already taken place and their recommendations have been implemented'. 'We are determined to keep improving, with the new senior leadership team overseeing the delivery of a comprehensive Improvement Plan for our Children and Learning service'.

It is disappointing that once again due to failures in communications with multi agencies and following of processes, concerns were not followed up in this case which could have prevented Lucy’s death. It is clear the report has highlighted the need for change and it is hoped that this will be implemented not just in Southampton but further reaching to other local authorities and multi agency bodies to prevent this tragedy happening again.

If you are concerned about the welfare of a minor there are a number of organisations you can talk to in addition to the police, social services and agencies that you may contact:

  • Victim Support Line - Offering emotional and practical support for anyone who has been a victim of crime. Telephone: 0808 1689 111
  • NSPCC - 0808 800 5000
  • Child Line
  • Respond - Support for people with learning disabilities and/or autism who have experienced trauma and abuse. Telephone: 0207 3830 700 /admin@respond.org.uk

We encourage anyone who has concerns about sexual abuse to get in touch. You can contact Alan Collins at Alan.collins@hughjames.com or Danielle Vincent at Danielle.vincent@hughjames.com.

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