The woman detained for decades for stealing £5

Earlier this week several newspapers, and the BBC, carried this story about an old woman who was detained in a mental hospital, aged 15, in 1937, after being wrongly accused of stealing a sum of money worth less than £5 in today’s money. She was pronounced “feeble-minded” and certified, and there was no appeal then. Recently she was reunited with her two brothers, who had not even been born then but whom she had seen a couple of times before losing touch with her entire family. This almost didn’t happen; the brothers received a questionnaire from the care home she was living in, and they almost threw it out, thinking it marketing junk mail, when they saw their sister’s name on it. They had presumed that she was dead.

It’s a story it’s difficult to react to, other than to say “what a terrible waste of an innocent life”, as others have said on the comments boxes. She cannot even be compensated now; she is 85 and suffered a stroke shortly after her meeting with her two brothers, and is unlikely to live to see the benefit of it. The question is, how many other old people - particularly old women, as they were the usual victims, sometimes for the same reasons that prompt “honour killings” in some places, sometimes because they had post-natal depression or other genuine illness - are still in institutions as a result of wrongful certifications, or when they ceased to be ill? One imagines that they are now living in care homes, as many of the long-stay institutions were closed down in the 1990s, the positive result of the much-derided “care in the community” campaign. However, surely some of them have brothers and sisters, or even nephews and nieces they knew when they were young. Perhaps a campaign should be launched to bring about family reunions.

I noticed one or two comments calling for the doctor responsible to be named and shamed, the authors having forgotten that the doctor was in all probability nobody of great note and can be safely be assumed to have died a long time ago - assuming that this doctor is solely responsible for her ordeal. I’ve also seen people using this case as an excuse for a bit of Brit-bashing, as if similar things didn’t happen in Europe or the USA. I’m sure similar things happened there as people’s attitudes weren’t that different.

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