Inquest highlights Redbridge social services failure after woman choked on charcoal fumes

A Redbridge woman choked to death on charcoal she was burning to stay warm after her gas and electricity were cut off.

Helena Opuku, 67, died on April 4, just a few months after Redbridge Council’s social services team was first warned she might be vulnerable

Despite the alert raised by hospital staff on January 7, the council did not assign Helena a social worker until April 1 and no contact was made before her death.

Writing to Redbridge social services after her inquest concluded this month, east London coroner Graeme Irvine said he feared “future deaths could occur unless action is taken”.

He wrote: “During January to March, the Redbridge… adult social care team in Cranbrook and Loxford were unable to properly investigate all but the most acute safeguarding referrals made to them .

“During the same period the team was unable to appoint social workers to vulnerable persons within a reasonable time frame or carry out assessments of
the suitability of the homes of vulnerable residents.”

The social care team was alerted that Helena seemed to be neglecting herself by hospital staff, who were treating her for injuries she received in a car accident.

She spent a week in hospital after the crash but, coroner Irvine notes, following her discharge on January 14 “social services neither assessed Mrs Opoku, nor her home”.

The inquest discovered that, when she returned home, Helena used charcoal to for heat and cooking food because her gas and electricity were switched off.

A post-mortem discovered she died after inhaling carbon monoxide produced by burning charcoal in a poorly ventilated place.

Coroner Irvine concluded her inquest on October 8 and sent a “report to prevent future deaths” to Redbridge Council a few days later.

The council’s social care team has until December 8 to respond explaining what action it will take to prevent similar deaths in the future.

A spokesperson for Redbridge Council offered its sincere condolences to Mrs Opoku’s family.

They added: “At the time the safeguarding referral was received, the council was responding to a significant increase in demand for its adult social care services caused by the COVID-19 pandemic which impacted on the council’s staffing capacity.”

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Josh Mellor

Local Democracy Reporter