A severely mentally ill woman whose dead body lay in her home unnoticed for more than three years was effectively “abandoned and left to die” by NHS and social services who missed repeated chances to save her, her family has alleged.
Laura Winham, 38, had schizophrenia, struggled to look after herself, and had become estranged from her family. She was found in a “mummified, almost skeletal state” at her social housing flat in Woking, Surrey, by police and relatives in May 2021.
Her family said welfare and care services had not only failed to act on clear signs of Winham’s deteriorating health in the months and years before her death, but had subsequently neglected to carry out routine checks that would have led to the discovery of her body.
During the three-and-a-half years in which her body lay undisturbed, no determined attempts to establish her wellbeing were made, despite her disability benefits being stopped and her gas cut off, and her repeated failure to reply to letters, phone calls and texts, or answer the door.
Winham’s sister Nicky accused social care, mental health services and Laura’s social landlords of “turning a blind eye” to multiple warning signs of her plight. “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,” she said.
She added: “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.”
The family spoke before a pre-inquest hearing into Winham’s death due to be held on Monday 30 January to establish the scope of the inquest, which the family argues should examine whether various care and welfare services acted appropriately, and how she became “lost in the system”.
Her family described how Winham had overcome physical disability, deafness, heart problems and teenage mental health issues to do well at school and graduate from university. She had been sociable and had friends, her family said, until her mental health took a drastic turn for the worse.
In 2006 she was sectioned for a period under the Mental Health Act, but subsequently became progressively more erratic, hearing voices and experiencing hallucinations which the family said led her to aggressively reject them. Over the following years they became almost entirely estranged from her.
Winham is believed to have died in November 2017, just weeks after police officers who visited the flat over a minor issue reported concerns to social services about her clear self-neglect, the lack of food in the flat and her seeming unawareness of access to local care services
Despite being informed by the police that Winham’s phone was not working, adult social care teams tried to call her. They subsequently wrote to her with details of local food banks and contact details for support organisations. The case was closed after two weeks, with no welfare check made.
Winham’s family believe agencies missed at least two earlier potential chances to intervene.
In 2016 the Department for Work and Pensions wrote to her several times to warn that her disability living allowance was ending and she would have to re-apply for its replacement, personal independence payment. When she did not respond or re-apply, they cut off benefits without carrying out welfare checks.
In 2014, a housing association staff member referred Winham to local community mental health services, reporting that she appeared to have “untreated mental health issues” was physically very thin, said she had no friends and believed she was being watched by people. The referral seemingly did not lead to meaningful action.
Winham’s body was found in May 2021, when the family visited her to inform her her father had died. They called police after her brother Roy, taking “one last look” through the letter box of her flat, saw what he thought was a foot poking out from under a blanket.
The police forced entry, finding a pile of unopened letters, as well as opened letters containing bills from creditors. Markings made on her calendar had stopped in November 2017, not long after she had written on it “I need help”. She was identified by her dental records.
A Surrey county council spokesperson said: “This is a truly tragic case and our sympathies and deepest condolences are with Laura’s family and friends. It’s important that every aspect of this complex case is reviewed and we’re committed to participating fully in the inquest process. This will include providing any information that is needed to support the coroner’s enquiries.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “This is a tragic case and our sincere condolences are with Ms Winham’s family.”