Family found ‘mummified’ woman says privacy laws kept them in the dark | Psychological health
The family of a severely mentally ill woman who lay dead and undetected in her apartment for more than three years said they were unable to contact her because of privacy laws.
Laura Wenham, 38, had schizophrenia, struggled to take care of herself and became estranged from her family, who she believed were trying to harm her.
She was found in a “semi-skeletal mummified state” at her social housing flat in Woking, Surrey, by police and relatives in May 2021 but is believed to have died in November 2017.
The marks on her calendar stopped shortly after she wrote the words, “I need help.”
Wenham’s body lay undisturbed and no resolute efforts were made to validate it, despite her disability benefits being discontinued and her gas outages. She also failed to respond to messages, phone calls, text messages, or answer the door.
Her family said the Nursing and Care Services did not act on clear signs Wenham’s health had deteriorated in the months and years leading up to her death and neglected to perform routine examinations that would have led to the discovery of her body.
Although the family believed Wenham had a care plan, they said they could not obtain information due to privacy laws.
“She didn’t want to contact us,” her sister Nikki told BBC Radio 4. She refused contact from her family’s mental health team, which she was allowed to do, preventing doctors from talking to us or hospitals.
“Laura thought we were going to hurt her. She thought from the beginning she was probably broken up until her death, which made it very difficult for us to keep in touch with her.
“And we tried. In the end, we didn’t have personal contact but we did send letters, cards and text messages but the relationship over the years became very strained.”
She added that the family “didn’t know how she eventually became ill.”
“We’d do anything for her. We know what it’s like: We didn’t seem to care, and we did.”
Wenham attended school and university, her siblings said, and grew up in a loving family.
But she struggled with mental health issues and never returned home after being partitioned for the first time in 2006.
The family said they made the “very difficult decision” to limit their contact with her because it put her under “enormous pressure.”
When their father fell ill, they tried to call again, but to no avail.
When he died they continued to visit her apartment.
Wenham’s brother Roy remembers how he discovered her body.
He said they were about to leave when he decided to check again. He peered through the mailbox and saw his sister.
“When I looked through the letterbox it looked like there were blankets, but when I looked down I thought I saw a foot,” he said.
After getting a better angle through the letterbox, he said “You can see the face and the body…”
He told the ambulance service that he thought she had been “dead for a while”.
He added, “Maybe I should have found it, I don’t know, but something kept me going back up the stairs that day. But unfortunately it left me with something that haunted me for a long time.”
The family said they are speaking out to try to prevent similar cases from happening.
Nikki had previously said: “We always hoped she would get better with professional help and that one day our contact would resume.
“We never thought we’d find her dead on her floor for a second and she just lay there for so long without anyone knowing.
“We’re sharing our story because we don’t want any other families to suffer in this way.”
Wenham’s mother, Marilyn, said: “We didn’t think it was going to be real. We never thought we’d find it like this. You’d never think someone would be there for that long.”
The family said it was “unbelievable”.
Nicky said they wanted to know “how this happened” and how their “sister slipped through the net”.
Her mother added, “Why did you leave for so long?”
A pre-investigation review is scheduled for Monday.
A Surrey County Council spokesperson said: “This is a truly tragic case, and our sympathy and deepest condolences go out to Laura’s family and friends. It is important to review every aspect of this complex case and we are committed to being fully involved in the investigation process. This will include providing any information needed to support the coroner’s inquiries.” .
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “This is a tragic case and our condolences go out to Ms Wenham’s family.”