Acting on an anonymous tip, police discovered that a woman had been held in her family home in Santa Maria Capua Vetere, near Naples, for the last eighteen years of her liife due to the stigma associated with her psychiatric problems and her out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
Maria Monaco, now 47 years of age, spent the last 18 years of her locked in a bare room and watched over by her elderly mother and siblings as she slept in a filthy bed. Experts say this is only one recent example of a widespread stigma attached to mental and physical disability in many backward parts of Italy.
Monaco, in addigtion to her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, had a history of psychiatric problems when her family decided to lock her up. Investigating police found the woman in the room with a bed with soiled sheets, a filthy toilet and sink, as well as plastic bottles of water and a metal dog bowl used to feed her.
The woman's brother, a farmhand, and sister, have been arrested and her 80-year-old mother is under house arrest. They are being investigated on suspicion of mistreatment and kidnapping.
Monaco's now 17-year-old son grew up with relatives and knew she was his mother, though he was told that she was too sick for visits, said prosecutor Antonio Ricci. The same was told to inquisitive neighbors or distant relatives.
"This is a particularly horrible case," the prosecutor told The Associated Press by telephone. "But this measure is often taken with the mentally ill, also because there is little access to health care in the most isolated areas."
They are also probing why authorities were not alerted earlier. The woman has been receiving a monthly disability check since the late 1980s and should have been paid occasional calls by health officials, the prosecutor said.
A lawyer for Monaco's family denied that the woman was locked up because of the pregnancy and maintained that her "deplorable" condition was due to refusal to let anyone wash her or change her. He blamed the family's refusal to call in professional help on "ignorance and shame."
Similar cases have been reported in recent years across Italy including a case of a woman in Pescara, central Italy, who lived for 30 years in the bathroom of the home of her mother and stepfather because she was mentally retarded and was born from a previous relationship.
Elvira Reale, a psychologist and director of a women's mental health center in Naples, said the stigma of disability can mask prejudice against women who display behavior considered too bold in the country's more conservative backwaters. Women who behave unconventionally, particularly sexually, can be branded as mentally ill.
Until the late 1970s, it was common for such women to end up spending their lives in a mental institutions upon doctor's orders, she said. A 1978 reform shut down mental institutions, and hospitalization in psychiatric wards must be limited in time. Monaco's case appears to conform to this age-old pattern, Reale said.
"Since the family could not have her committed, they created their own little madhouse at home," the psychologist said.