A disabled woman whose body was found in her flat months after all her benefits had been removed had been hounded for years by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and repeatedly failed by other public bodies, documents have shown.
Sophia Yuferev, a talented artist who lived with significant mental distress, had been living on a sandwich a day for the last few months of her life after both her employment and support allowance (ESA) and her personal independence payment (PIP) had been stopped.
Her body was discovered by police in her flat in Hornchurch, Essex, in November last year, weeks after she had died.
Her electricity had been cut off months earlier for non-payment of bills.
Two months before she died, Havering council sent her a summons for non-payment of council tax, and the previous year she had faced eviction by her housing association for non-payment of rent.
Although her family alerted her mental health team to the financial problems caused by DWP cutting off her benefits, they say nothing was done to help her.
DWP told Disability News Service (DNS) this week that it has carried out an internal process review (IPR) into the circumstances surrounding Sophia’s death and her benefit claims, although – as with all IPRs – this will be kept secret and not shared with her family.
The details surrounding Sophia’s death are being published by DNS just two days after work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey was promoted to deputy prime minister and health and social care secretary by her close friend, the new prime minister, Liz Truss.
DNS also learned this week that, due to the evidence of failures by several local agencies, a statutory safeguarding adults review (SAR) is likely to take place into her death.
The Care Act 2014 states that there should be an SAR if there is concern over the way local agencies worked together to safeguard an adult who died due to abuse or neglect.
Sophia’s is the latest of countless deaths over the last decade to have been linked to DWP’s actions and its failure to ensure the safety of its benefit claimants.
An inquest in July concluded that her death was due to ketoacidosis of “unknown” cause, but DWP was not asked to give evidence to the inquest.
The inquest had heard that one of the causes of ketoacidosis is starvation, and Sophia (pictured) had told her mother that she had been living throughout the last summer of her life on one sandwich a day from a local café.
She dreamed of buying a rundown bungalow in Cornwall, so did everything she could to protect the small amount of savings she had, particularly as she was living in constant fear of DWP stopping her benefits.
After her death, her family discovered documents that showed how DWP had hounded Sophia over her benefit claims for several years, with the first documented removal of her ESA dating back to 2014, and evidence of a PIP removal in July 2017.
Although they have only been able to piece together a small part of her interactions with DWP, the documents her family have collected show both her PIP and ESA were repeatedly removed and then eventually reinstated.
DWP should have been aware of her significant mental distress, history of suicide attempts and detentions under the Mental Health Act.
Sophia had been sectioned on numerous occasions, including on 27 November 2019, just 10 days after DWP wrote to tell her that her PIP was ending because she had failed to return a review form on time.
Three months later, Swan Housing Association threatened her with eviction because of non-payment of rent.
It is believed this was because her ESA had again been stopped by DWP.
Documents suggest that her PIP was eventually reinstated in January 2020, and her ESA later that year, but her PIP was then removed again in February 2021 and her ESA removed again in April 2021.
Days after she is believed to have died, last October, DWP wrote to her to say that it was reinstating her PIP.
Months later, in March this year, Jobcentre Plus wrote to her mother to tell her that it would be making a back-payment for ESA from 17 April 2021 to 16 November 2021, the day Sophia’s dead body was discovered by police.
Sophia, who was 37 when she died, had a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, and during her frequent periods of psychosis she would turn on her mother, who lived nearby, accusing her of collaborating with the police.
On several occasions she had run away – to local woodland, where she had lived for several months, to Siberia, in the middle of winter, and to Israel – to escape those she believed were conspiring against her.
Because of her paranoia, she had no television, rarely used her computer, and would often throw away her mobile phone and change her number because she thought it was being bugged.
Her family say she was forced to keep a phone by her mental health team so they could keep in contact with her.
During 2019, Sophia had accused her mother and female neighbours of being witches, and once accused a woman walking her dog of sending messages to the police.
She would turn up outside her mother’s house at 7am, screaming abuse, and threatening to burn the house down, and at one stage tried to climb the telegraph pole outside her house.
She was unable to shop or cook, and shopping online was difficult because she did not like to use the computer and was scared to open the door to deliveries.
Despite her enduring and significant mental distress, and inability to cope with day-to-day life, her benefits were still repeatedly stopped and then reinstated by DWP.
After living with her mother and step-father for many years, she had moved into nearby sheltered accommodation for two years, but was moved to a housing association flat without – her family say – any assessment of her needs being carried out by the local mental health trust, North East London Foundation NHS Trust (NELFT).
Despite attempting to take her own life several times when she was younger, and reporting how a “demon” in her head was telling her to take her own life, she was given a new flat yards from the A127 dual carriageway.
Her family say the flat was “uninhabitable” when she moved in: “very dirty”, with no working appliances, “full of rubbish and filth and with huge holes in the floor”.
They say it was completely unsuitable for someone with her levels of mental distress and instability, with the dual carriageway in front of the windows.
Her mother, Maria Stockdale, who is also disabled and unable to work, said her daughter had visited her regularly during the summer of 2021, and told her she was surviving on a sandwich and a cup of coffee a day because all her benefits had been removed by DWP.
Her mother would always feed Sophia when she visited, but the family believe the rapid fluctuations in her blood sugar levels caused by periods of near-starvation were linked to her death.
She was being given injections of flupenthixol – a powerful anti-psychotic, which is linked to an increased risk of diabetes – every two weeks, but the trust had failed for two years to ensure she received the three-monthly blood tests she needed, the family say.
They believe that the rapid fluctuations in her blood sugar levels, caused by not having enough money for a proper diet after her benefits were cut, led to the ketoacidosis and caused her death.
Her mother says Sophia had been complaining of extreme fatigue for the last year of her life – a symptom of diabetes – and had not had an in-person appointment with the psychiatrist who prescribed the flupenthixol for two years.
In late September 2021, Sophia had another psychotic episode and again cut off contact with her mother.
After 3 October, when she told Sophia that her grandmother had died, there was no reply to further messages, but NELFT refused to respond to her mother’s repeated calls raising concerns about her daughter.
The inquest heard that the trust had been significantly under-staffed, and the family believe that, because of staff sickness, Sophia did not have anyone acting as her care coordinator for months, with the trust relying on temporary staff who did not know the details of her case.
Her mother, who was unable to attend the inquest because she was in hospital, says NELFT had failed repeatedly to provide proper care for her daughter since the family moved to the area in about 2010.
The trust had failed to note her non-appearance for a fortnightly anti-psychotic injection on 26 October until a new coordinator examined her file on 8 November, tried unsuccessfully to contact her, and alerted the police a week later.
The coroner concluded, in a narrative verdict, that it “was not recognised” that she had failed to attend the 26 October appointment due to “Covid related work loads and staff sickness” but that it was “not possible to say if earlier follow up would have altered the outcome”.
Sophia’s mother, Maria, told DNS: “Every single one contributed to her death: DWP, the council, the housing association, the mental health trust, everyone. They all failed her.
“All of them contributed to killing my daughter, piece by piece. It is 10 months now, but still I can’t accept it.
“Everyone carries on working, everyone carries on getting wages. I am just crying every day.
“I lost my daughter. I have only tears and the graveyard.”
She provided permission for DWP, and the other agencies, to discuss Sophia’s case with DNS.
DWP confirmed that it has carried out an IPR into the circumstances surrounding Sophia’s benefit claims and would work with other public authorities to learn from the case.
It stressed that its decision to carry out an IPR did not mean that it had been found culpable in the circumstances or events leading to Sophia’s death.
It claimed that it did not have a statutory duty of care, although it said that this did not mean that it did not care about claimants, and that it recognised that engaging with other public authorities can help the department gather and share information about claimants who may be in vulnerable situations.
But DWP refused to answer other questions about the case, including how it justified repeatedly removing Sophia’s benefits; whether she was marked on its system as “vulnerable”; how many times it had removed and then reinstated Sophia’s PIP and ESA in the last five years of her life; whether it had been aware of her history of mental distress; and whether it accepted that her ESA and PIP had been wrongly removed in the last months of her life.
A DWP spokesperson said in a statement: “This is an incredibly sad and complex case, and our condolences are with Ms Yuferev’s family.”
NELFT also refused to answer questions about Sophia’s death, and its alleged failings.
Instead, a NELFT spokesperson said: “We would like to offer our sincere condolences to Sophia’s family and will continue to provide ongoing support and access to family liaison.
“The trust provided evidence of the care provided to Sophia at an inquest in July 2022 and have accepted the coroner’s conclusion.
“As per our trust’s serious incident process, we have undertaken a review of the care delivered and are implementing learning as a result of this review.”
Havering council said it had been unaware of Sophia’s “vulnerability”, and that she had not been known to the council’s adult social care community team.
It suggested that a safeguarding adults review would now take place.
The council accepted that it sent Sophia a summons for unpaid council tax on 16 August 2021 as a payment had not been received since June 2019, but that a payment was made on 26 August 2021.
It had failed by noon today (Thursday) to clarify who made this payment and what other action it took.
A council spokesperson said: “We send our heartfelt sympathies to Sophia’s family and friends following her tragic death.
“Had we been aware of Sophia’s vulnerability, we would have acted accordingly to stop the normal council tax recovery process.
“Sophia was not known to the council’s adult social care community team, she was receiving support from the integrated mental health service and social care team managed by the North East London NHS Foundation Trust (NELFT).
“We have taken on board the coroner’s conclusions and the outcomes of the inquest and will support NELFT colleagues with their serious incident review learning and action plan.”
Swan Housing Association refused to answer a series of questions about Sophia’s case, including why it sent letters threatening to evict her; whether it was aware of her history of mental distress; whether there was any contact with Sophia from its welfare officer in the last year of her life; if it carried out a proper assessment of her needs before she moved into the flat; and whether it had carried out an internal investigation into her death.
Instead, it released a statement stating what should have happened rather than what did happen.
Ian Haworth, Swan’s director of communities and home ownership, said: “We were deeply saddened to learn of Sophia’s death and our thoughts remain with her family.
“We are unable to comment specifically on individual cases, however, when our customers are allocated to us by local authorities, we review the customer information they provide and inspect the home to ensure it is of a good standard and meets their needs.
“When customers first receive a Swan home, and should they at any point fall into arrears, they are offered help and advice from our dedicated welfare benefits team.
“This specialist team can support Swan customers with budgeting and ensure that they are claiming all the state benefits that they are entitled to, as well as signposting them to specialised debt support services.
“They can also support customers who are struggling to pay their energy bills if the resident makes us aware of this issue; unfortunately Swan will not be informed of any issues by energy suppliers.
“Although we are required to inform customers that not paying their rent could eventually, as a last resort, lead to eviction, we will always work with customers who do fall behind in their rent to set up an affordable repayment plan.”
*The following organisations are among those that could be able to offer support if you have been affected by the issues raised in this article: Samaritans, Papyrus, Mind, SOS Silence of Suicide and Rethink