Housing association Peabody sorry after woman's body goes undiscovered in Peckham flat for two years

ITV News London reporter Rags Martel speaks to Sheila Seleoane's neighbours after her body was first discovered.

A housing association has apologised after a woman's body went undiscovered for two years after she died in her south east London flat.

Sheila Seleoane, 58, was discovered dead in her Peckham flat long after she was believed to have died, despite the 'model tenant's' rent payments suddenly stopping.

Concerns were raised a number of times about the welfare of the retired medical secretary - including by neighbours who noticed post piling up and a foul smell.

But her severely decomposed body was not discovered for two-and-a-half years, an inquest heard this week.

Ms Seleoane was finally found by police officers after they forced entry into her third-storey home on 18 February, 2022.

Her skeletal remains were in the “recovery position” and clad in blue pyjamas and a white top at her home in The Lords Court, run by the Peabody housing association, the inquest was told.

Due to the dates on prescribed medications found at the property and the expiry date of a half-eaten dessert in the fridge, it was determined that she had died at some point around August 2019.

Peabody has now apologised, after the inquest into Ms Seloane's death heard of multiple missed opportunities to find her body.

Peabody chief executive Ian McDermott said in a statement: "We are devastated at what has happened. We are so sorry for our part in this and apologise to Sheila, her family, and everyone living at Lord’s Court." 

Peabody commissioned an independent report into what went wrong and released it in full on Friday.

The report confirmed she paid her rent regularly, and that the alarm should have been raised when she suddenly stopped paying.

It also found that neighbours' reports of a foul smell and maggots and reports of her overflowing post scattered around the mail area were not properly investigated.

Despite dozens of failed attempts to contact Sheila, Peabody didn’t “join the dots” and realise something was wrong, Mr McDermott said. 

The report also said a forced entry to undertake gas safety checks would ordinarily have taken place, but such processes had been paused during the Covid lockdown period.

However Peabody admitted there was a six-month period before the lockdown began where this could have taken place, and that while Covid had contributed to Peabody's communications breakdowns - it was not the cause.

Letters piling up in the letterbox outside the flat in Peckham Credit: BPM Media

Peabody intervened to take her rent directly from her benefits, and her gas was shut off after she stopped responding to requests for annual checks.

Ms Seleoane's body was eventually discovered after the neighbour in the flat below contacted the police.

She had noticed the balcony door was banging once again in the wind, and upon checking Ms Seleoane's mailbox, noticed that there were several letters that were unopened.

Police decided to force entry, and discovered Ms Seleoane in her living room.

Due to the advanced state of decomposition, a post-mortem could not produce a full examination and her medical cause of death was given as unascertained.

In the months leading up to Ms Seleoane's death, she had been suffering from a bout of ill-health, and had been taking medication, the inquest heard.

Sheila Seloane's body lay undiscovered in her Peckham, south east, London flat for two years. Credit: BPM Media

Speaking at Southwark Coroner’s Court, Coroner Julian Morris said that her death was “difficult to fathom” in 2022, and cricitised Peabody, saying: "It is clear from the evidence provided by the trust that something went wrong and there was a delay in raising any flags.

"There was, on the evidence provided, no real communication between the rent, gas and neighbourhood management teams."

He continued: "The lack of rent payments, non communication with all three departments and the necessity to cap off her gas supply did not trigger any suspicion that something was wrong.

"However for the avoidance of any doubt, I do not consider on the balance, those actions or inactions had any effect on Ms Seleoane’s clinical status or could have saved her life, as I’ve stated and I’ve said on balance, she was already dead."

The independent report commissioned by Peabody found that in this case - while staff followed processes and made 89 attempted contacts with Ms Seleoane , its teams worked in 'silos' and operated independently of each other.

Most of the attempted contacts were from rent arrears services and the gas servicing contractor, the report said.

There was one 'proactive' visit from the housing association, which was followed by a complaint from neighbours the next day of a "smell like a dead body."

This led to a police welfare check being requested, but an inquest heard officers did not find indications that they warranted forcibly enter the apartment.

On the second occasion police visited, officers reported back to Peabody that they had spoken to Sheila and that she was "safe and well."Peabody's report said the housing association had followed up with police about that since more details of Ms Seleoane's fate emerged, but had not heard back by the time of publication.

The inquest heard that there had been “confusion” on the second visit by the operator reading the police computer system as to whether the officer had seen and spoken to Sheila.

A Met Police officer told the inquest that the tapes had been referred to the borough commander and a number of recommendations had been made to the procedure following a review.

Mr McDermott apologised over Peabody's handling of the incident, and said policy changes were underway at the housing association.

He said: "When taking action in this case, we didn’t ask the most fundamental question – is Sheila ok?  

"Tenants have a right to peaceful enjoyment of their home, and landlords do not have the right to enter someone’s home without the police or going through a legal process. But by connecting all the information that was available to us, we could have done much more to support residents in raising concerns with the police at an earlier stage. 

He continued: "We have already made changes to some policies and are actively addressing all the recommendations in the report. We are determined to be a more responsive, locally focused and connected organisation in the future. Our new ways of working will invest in customer-facing teams, break down silos, and put our values into practice. 

"We will also develop new partnerships that focus on addressing social isolation, supporting good mental health and wellbeing through our community work, and we’ll work with residents and others to find an appropriate way of commemorating Sheila to make sure she is never forgotten. 

Mr McDermott added: "Once again, and on behalf of everyone at Peabody, I am so sorry this happened. I am sorry that Sheila was so isolated, and we didn’t see, and I’m sorry that we didn’t support residents enough. We need to do better, and I am determined that we will."

The independent report concluded by making 37 recommendations across seven different areas, including a change in the gas-capping process and an increase in the number of neighbourhood managers.

Ms Seleoane’s remains were flown to South Africa by Peabody, where she has been laid to rest at her half-sister’s family plot.

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