Vulnerable woman dead in her flat for four years ‘abandoned’ by social services

Laura Winham death social care Surrey mental health
Laura Winham death social care Surrey mental health

A vulnerable woman lay dead in her home for four years after social services failed to check on her welfare, despite warnings from the police.

Laura Winham was only discovered by her brother when he went to check on her and spotted through the letterbox what appeared to be her body under a blanket.

But by then, numerous warning signs which could have saved the 38-year-old had been missed by Surrey County Council’s social services department, according to the family’s solicitors.

Roy and Nicky Winham, Laura’s brother and sister, are now demanding answers over how a woman known to be at risk from mental health issues could be “abandoned” by those responsible for her care.

Laura’s family had been unable to maintain contact with her after years of severe schizophrenia led her to become convinced they would harm her, forcing Roy and Nicky to step back and leave the matter in the hands of social care and mental health professionals.

However, they said these same bodies “washed their hands of her”, leading to Laura being left alone without the ability or mental capacity to look after herself.

Roy Winham told The Telegraph: “We want to know why my sister wasn’t looked after more carefully by Surrey social services. It’s been very distressing for all of us and we want answers.”

Laura Winham death Surrey mental health social care
Laura Winham death Surrey mental health social care

On Monday, a pre-inquest review at Surrey coroner’s court will be told that Laura was born with Goldenhar syndrome, which caused the curvature of her spine, and had suffered mental health problems since her teenage years.

After being detained under the Mental Health Act in 2006, she moved into a council flat in Sheerwater whilst being placed under the care of the Woking community mental health team (CMHT).

In 2014, a member of staff of the housing association managing Laura’s flat made a referral to the CMHT and her GP, warning that she appeared to have “untreated mental health issues”, was unwell and painfully thin, had no friends and was convinced people were watching her.

Hudgell Solicitors, which is acting on behalf of her family, said this referral was not followed up.

In 2016, the Department for Work and Pensions stopped Laura’s disability benefit payments when she failed to respond to their letters, but did not carry out checks to see if she was in a position to decide for herself not to continue claiming.

Then in Oct 2017, Surrey Police officers reported their concerns to Surrey social services after visiting the flat over a minor issue. Officers found that Winham had been neglecting herself, had little food and appeared unaware of how to access local services for help.

Despite officers telling the council that Laura’s telephone was not working, Surrey’s adult social care team tried to call her, but failed to make direct contact and closed her case after two weeks.

‘Clear missed opportunities’

Iftikhar Manzoor, of Hudgell Solicitors, said: “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.”

It is believed that Laura died a few weeks later, in Nov 2017, shortly after writing a last pitiful message on her calendar, reading: “I need help.”

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

But nobody physically checked on her, said Mr Manzoor, “despite her having been known to both her local adult social care services and community mental health team for many years”.

He added: “So many red flags were missed. It is a hugely tragic and sad case. It is a life of a vulnerable person lost because she was lost in a failing system.”

In May 2021, Laura was found in a mummified, almost skeletal state, when her brother went to her flat with their mother Marylin, by which point she had not been seen by anyone for more than three-and-a-half years.

‘Laura has been so badly let down’

Laura’s family said she should have been placed in assisted living accommodation rather than being left to live alone in a block of flats, many of which were boarded up.

Nicky Winham said: “Laura has been so badly let down. It’s just heartbreaking to think of how she lived in her last few years.

“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. 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.”

Concerns over social care standards

The case came after Liz Bruce, Surrey’s director of adult social care, who was appointed last year, said that she wanted people to access social care and health “in a smooth way”.

A 2019 audit of the council’s children’s services found social workers at times had no idea where vulnerable children were. It also found that the process of tracking a child through the care system was not followed correctly because many staff had not been trained in using IT support systems properly.

A spokesman for Surrey County Council 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.”