Two deaths and a closed legal case

Marta Pajarón's family says she refused help for her disabled daughter. Both died alone at home Social workers claim that they have no power to force the issue

Carmen Morán Breña
Marta Pajarón and daughter María del Mar.
Marta Pajarón and daughter María del Mar.EL PAÍS

To just about everyone María del Mar Viñolo was known as the "little girl" even though she was about to turn 53. At least to her mother - who gave birth to her out of wedlock when it was considered a sin and took care of her in a way she believed no one else could - she was indeed her little girl.

Society is usually reserved when it comes to these situations, especially when a family member is mentally handicapped; people usually respect their privacy. Maybe this was the main reason no one took any notice when the mother and daughter disappeared from sight. They both died alone at their home in Astorga, León province, sometime between the end of October and the beginning of November.

Police found the 78-year-old mother, Marta Pajarón, dead on the kitchen floor. Marimar, as her daughter was called, was also found dead in her room.

There were no indications of foul play or suicide. It appears that the mother collapsed and the daughter, who needed special attention and had a terminal illness and severe vision problems, died sometime afterwards. Until the results of the autopsies are concluded, the exact causes of the two deaths remain a mystery.

In Spain, some 20 percent of people over the age of 65 live alone, according to Inserso, the state observatory for seniors. Most lonely deaths, according to news reports, are women, and often they are only discovered when neighbors report a foul smell coming out of their apartments. Generally they are people who don't have family members they can rely on and have little contact with friends or neighbors.

Since last summer, the mother had been taking her daughter to different hospitals in León because of her illness. In October, healthcare workers at the Altollano Hospital detected that Pajarón was unable to care for the daughter. They sent a report to the local court asking that Marimar be taken from the mother because, among other things, Pajarón suffered from depression. Legal proceedings to wrest guardianship from the mother began and Pajarón greatly feared that her "little girl" would be taken away from her.

Legal proceedings aimed at wresting guardianship from the mother began

This wasn't the first time the mother had to deal with this issue. Her nieces and nephews had suggested in the past that Marimar be put in a home where she could receive better care. But this would only make Pajarón angry.

"Social services, which had jurisdiction over María del Mar Viñolo, should have acted way before the hospital did - they could have done it and should have done it," says Gustavo García Herrero, a member of the State Association of Social Services Directors and Managers, who is in charge of a convalescent home in Zaragoza.

"Social services are charged with deciding on different situations that require special needs, and can channel the necessary resources. To determine whether a certain person is at risk, it needs to go before a judge who will make that final evaluation."

But in Marimar's case this didn't happen. Officials at the last home that she was in didn't file any legal report after the mother decided to pull her out in January of this year.

We cannot hold anyone against their will so we did the most logical thing"

"We cannot hold anyone against their will so we did the most logical thing," said Francisco Garrorte, the manager of Asprosub, a residence for the disabled located in Benavente, Zamora province. Spaces at this center are paid for with public money so when Marimar was pulled from the residence, management merely informed the district director that a vacancy had become available.

The mother's mental health took a turn for the worse during the last few months of her life and she probably needed professional care. But only her daughter had medical records on file.

"There is no excuse not to attend to someone just because a family member opposes it or is irrational. It is for that reason that there are a lot of mental health patients who are without care," argues García Herrero. "Once this woman was removed from the convalescent center, officials should have followed up on her case."

Nevertheless, the case was caught up in bureaucratic befuddlement. The home said that it had alerted the district director, who in turn said he had reported the matter to the municipal commissioner for family services. Municipal officials said that it was a matter for the provincial administrator, which in turn placed the responsibility back on family services. With the mother and daughter back home, Pajarón tried to apply for public aid to take care of Marimar but the applications were declined on several occasions.

The mother wasn't an easy person. "One day she would invite you to her home for coffee and when you arrived, she would open the door angrily, waiting for you to leave," recalls one niece. Sometimes she would step out to buy apples and would return hours later after visiting neighbors, who she would repeatedly tell: "Oh I have to go. I have the little girl at home alone."

Any type of help or legal decision that was in the process of being resolved would have come too late for Pajarón. But then no one thought that the mother would be the first to die.

She was facing two legal proceedings at the time of her death: an eviction action for non-payment of rent and the guardianship case. Court letters were sent to Pajarón's home but they went unanswered. Reportedly, the police passed by on several occasions but received no answer at the door.

Pajarón owned a home in Madrid where she had lived with her husband, who died seven years ago, so mother and daughter would spend their time between the Spanish capital and Astorga. The letters piled up in the mailbox.

After several visits in late October by local doctors who had attended to Marimar and with no answer at the door, the police, armed with a court order, entered the home on November 9 and found the two bodies.

The family believes everything that could have been done had been done. They wanted to help her but Pajarón wouldn't allow them. And people in Spain are not accustomed to filing complaints against family members in these types of cases.

"Marta was a victim of her own doing and she brought down her daughter with her," said her niece.

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