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Vulnerable 38-year-old woman lay dead in social housing flat for more than three years

Laura Winham

Iftikhar Manzoor

Team Leader & Senior Litigation Executive

10 min read time
26 Jan 2023

The family of a vulnerable 38-year-old woman who lay dead in her social housing flat for more than three-and-a-half years say a catalogue of failings caused her to be ‘abandoned and left to die.’

Laura Winham’s relatives found themselves in a ‘heart-breaking’ situation and unable to maintain contact after years of her schizophrenia caused her to believe they would harm her, the situation only worsening when they tried to reassure and help her.

They eventually stepped back and respected her wishes to not be in contact, believing she was being cared for by local adult care services and mental health teams in Woking.

However, they say various bodies and organisations then ‘washed their hands of her’, leading to Laura being left alone and without the means or mental capacity to look after herself.

When Laura’s body was discovered by her brother in May 2021, it became apparent nobody had seen her for more than three-and-a-half years. She only had a small amount of spare change to her name.

It was also subsequently discovered that many opportunities to spot her spiralling struggles, and help her, had been missed.

In 2014, a staff member of a housing association which managed Laura’s flat for Surrey County Council, made a referral to Woking Community Mental Health Recovery and her GP, flagging that she appeared to have ‘untreated mental health issues’, was unwell, quite thin, and had said she had no friends and believed people were watching her. 

This referral was not followed up.

In 2016, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) wrote to Laura several times to say her Disability Living Allowance (DLA) would be ending and she would need to apply for Personal Independence Payment (PIP). Checks were not carried out to see if she had been able to decide for herself not to reapply, and the payments were stopped.

Then, officers from Surrey Police – probably the last to see her alive – also reported concerns to Surrey County Council in October 2017 after visiting her flat over a minor issue. They reported that she had been self-neglecting, had little food and appeared unaware of how to access local services for help.

Despite also informing the council her phone was not working, the adult social care teams tried to call her, and then simply wrote to her providing details of local food banks and contact details for support teams. 

When no response was forthcoming, her case was closed on the system after two weeks, without any contact ever being made. 

It is believed Laura died a few weeks later in November 2017, as the markings she had made on her calendar stopped – shortly after she had written that she needed help.

Her rent continued to be paid through housing benefits, and a gas safety check was even registered as having been carried out by contractors in January 2018.

Nobody ever physically checked on her, despite her having been known to both her local adult social care services and community mental health team for many years, having been sectioned twice, firstly in 2006, and despite the housing association receiving no response to repeated calls, text messages and even house visits between November 2018 and January 2021, when seeking access to the property to carry out gas safety inspections. 

The gas supply to her property was cut off in January 2019.

Laura’s body was eventually found by her brother Roy. The family had been visiting her flat in Woking to tell her that their father was not well and then later had subsequently passed away. 

On the last visit Roy, with his Mother Marilyn, decided to go back just for “one last look through the letterbox” following no reply, and this time managed to notice something under a blanket which resembled a foot, leading him to discover the decomposed body of his sister. 

He called the police, who forced entry and found her in a ‘mummified almost skeletal state’. There was a large mound of post which had built up over the years, and opened letters, including from creditors, indicating financial struggles.

She was identified by her dental records, but the cause of her death was unestablished.

 ‘There were so many warning signs, but everyone turned a blind eye’

Laura’s family are now preparing for an inquest into her death, with a Pre-Inquest Review to be held at Surrey Coroner’s Court on Monday, January 30. They are represented by Hudgell Solicitors.

Through the inquest process, they intend to demand answers as to how somebody who was known to various bodies as being vulnerable, and of poor mental health, could be ‘abandoned’.

Laura had been born with Golden Hars Syndrome, which affected one side of her body and caused curvature of the spine. She had a major heart operation when she was 18 and had mental health issues from her teenage years.

In 2006 she was detained under the Mental Health Act and in 2007 she moved into her flat in Devonshire Avenue, Sheerwater.

At the time she was noted to be being supported by Woking Community Mental Health Team. She had been entitled to disability living allowance due to her physical disability from an early age.

“Laura has been so badly let down. It’s just heart-breaking to think of how she lived in her last few years, unable to ask for help, without anyone there for her, it’s just tragic” said her sister Nicky.

 “Her journey with mental health has been incredibly tough. She grew up in a loving, supportive family, she had worked so hard to overcome her deafness and went to mainstream school, she attended college and gained a degree at university. She was sociable, had friends and worked part-time.

“But then our very much-loved younger sister completely changed in front of our own eyes. And it’s something I would not wish on any other family

“She believed all these voices in her head which were turning her against us, her own family. It put us in this terribly sad position of not knowing what to do for the best. 

“And it was frightening. We couldn’t get through to her, each time we tried she seemed to get worse and would disappear in her car driving round the country, we did not know where she was. She was very clearly suffering from hallucinations and feelings of being persecuted.

“After we managed to get her first sectioned in 2006, we believed she would get the help she needed and normal life would resume, but it never did, on leaving hospital she refused to move back home and refused contact with my parents. My brother and I managed to maintain some contact in the first few years after, but it was inconsistent, tense and fragile. 

“Contact with us seemed to put her under enormous strain and we always worried could make her worse again. We would try but it always had to be on her terms and slowly over the years the contact lessoned and eventually stopped.

“As a family we weren’t given any help to deal with her illness, she refused to see us and, in the end, we very sadly had to respect her wishes and leave her to professionals who support people like her every day.

“We felt reassured that she had been given her own home, she was entitled to benefits, she had her own car and some part-time work, a few friends and we believed she would be supported by her mental health team and others moving forward.

“But that hasn’t happened and quite clearly there has been a huge break down in Surrey County Council’s system and services when caring for a vulnerable person with both physical and mental health disabilities. 

“We just can’t understand how such a vulnerable person like Laura was left without any community mental health support and without a key worker to help support her with her daily living – given her disabilities she should have been housed in assisted living accommodation and not in the totally inadequate social housing we found her in.

“There were so many warning signs, from the social care and mental health teams to her landlords, yet everyone seems to have turned a blind eye. For three years and seven months nobody from the council checked the internal state and condition of her flat and at no point during this time were annual gas checks carried out. 

“Everybody who was in contact with Laura and had a duty to her at some stage simply wiped their hands of her and forgot her. She was abandoned and left to die.

“The fact that she was dead for so long suggests failures all round to meet her basic human needs. 

“We always hoped she would get better with professional help and that one day our contact would resume. We never believed for one second, we would end up finding her dead on her floor having laid there for so long without anyone knowing.

“Sadly, none of the investigations nor the inquest will bring Laura back, but it may prevent it happening again, and stop further avoidable deaths like this happening. 

“You need people to be there for your loved ones when you can’t be, and at the sign of worsening problems at least contact their next of kin so they are aware.

“No one should have to suffer the way Laura did due to the lack of support given to her mental health. We now must live with the devastating sadness of what has happened, and we are sharing our story because we do not want any other families to suffer in this way.”

Legal team says ‘missed opportunities’

Iftikhar Manzoor, of Hudgell Solicitors acting for the family, says there were ‘so many red flags missed’. 

He has written to the Coroner calling for an Article 2 Inquest to be held, which would widen the scope to consider whether correct procedures were followed.

“This is a hugely tragic and sad case. It is a life of a vulnerable person lost, because she was lost in a failing system,” he said.

“Laura was referred to adult social care teams twice, firstly in 2014 and then by the police in October 2017. Assessments of her needs were not carried out. Without doubt these were clear missed opportunities to intervene and carry out a welfare check.

“This simple step – which is actually what policies say should have happened – could have ensured measures were put in place which could have prevented her death. From the police visit onwards there were also so many other red flags, indicating that something was wrong, which were missed. 

“Laura should never have been alone in a block of boarded up flats. Given her disabilities and needs, she should have been placed in assisted living accommodation. Her family made many attempts to contact her.

“Social isolation of vulnerable people is a huge issue at present, and probably something only worsened in the aftermath of the pandemic, where we now see so much work done remotely. How many more people are being abandoned in this way?”

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Vulnerable 38-year-old woman lay dead in social housing flat for more than three years

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