Sisters of Gaia Pope: ‘We felt helpless. She felt she wasn’t listened to’

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The Guardian

The wonderful memories of Gaia Pope come easily and vividly to her twin, Maya Pope-Sutherland, and older sister Clara Pope-Sutherland.

“We never spent a moment apart when we were younger, we were so close, we had a real bond,” Maya, 24, told the Guardian. “There was a spirituality about Gaia. Her name means ‘Mother Earth’ and she felt a connection with the trees, the sky, animals. She was altruistic and caring, a great listener.”

Clara, 25, said: “Gaia commanded a room. She was so energetic and bright and full of laughter, a whirlwind of good.” The girls grew up on the Isle of Purbeck and loved exploring the Dorset peninsula’s cliffs, beaches and woods as children. “We were in our own little world,” Clara said.

But the terrible memories tumble out too. In the two years before Gaia died in November 2017 at the age of 19 after going missing from the seaside town of Swanage, her family believe she failed to receive the care and support she was entitled to as a survivor of sexual violence whose complex needs crossed neurology, mental health and social support. They blame institutional misogyny and disastrous breakdowns in services because of austerity.

“We were always digging our heels in trying to get something done,” said Maya. “We felt helpless; she felt she wasn’t listened to. I was worried about how much longer I would have with her. It did often cross my mind we would lose her.”

Clara said: “There should be systems in place that provide long-term mental health support for victims. She should have been made to feel safe and protected. Long-term trauma-informed support is needed. She was living in fear constantly.”

When she vanished in November 2017 without her phone or vital epilepsy medication, Dorset police, by officers’ own admissions, made a string of errors before finding her body 11 days later. Maya believes she could have been alive for days, a terrible notion for the family. “I felt she was alive for a while,” said Maya. “I felt I had a spiritual experience where I felt Gaia was passing away days later. It’s difficult to come to terms with the idea she was suffering. She was let down so many times.”

Her sisters said Gaia’s epilepsy was noticed when she was 13 or 14 but her condition became much more severe after she was allegedly drugged and raped in 2014 when she was 16 by a man in his early 20s, Connor Hayes.

Gaia and Maya as children. Maya said that as her twin she saw Gaia change after she was raped aged 16, becoming ‘fearful and depressed’.

She told no one for months and ended up in hospital in December 2015 having a major mental health crisis. “She was coming up with memories of dark things,” said Clara. She eventually managed to explain what had happened. Hayes was arrested but officers told Gaia he was not going to be prosecuted and advised her that going to court would be traumatic.

“I don’t think the police believed her, simple as that,” said Clara. “Very few people do believe women who report sexual assault. Here was a young woman with mental health issues. The attitude was: ‘She’s not been raped, she’s imagining things.’ That’s how they treated her. She didn’t feel heard.

“She went from bright, bubbly Gaia who believed she would be helped to: ‘What’s the point?’ She was seeking justice and felt heartbroken and unsafe.”

As her twin, Maya saw the change close up. “She was fearful and depressed. Her seizures began to get worse. She would hallucinate, start fitting and turn blue.”

In April 2017, Hayes was jailed for taking an indecent moving image of a child, possession of indecent images of a child and paying for the sexual services of a child. Gaia’s family told the inquest that a Facebook post about his jailing had prompted hundreds of comments from people saying he had harassed them or their children.

His conviction did not make it easier. She feared that once he was released, Hayes would harm her or her family because she had reported him. She was diagnosed as having PTSD.

The missed chances to help Gaia were many. A string of professionals who appeared at her 12-week inquest in Bournemouth spelled out the gaps in services, the failures to communicate, the lack of resources.

To take just one episode, in February 2017 when Gaia was being treated in St Ann’s hospital in Poole a male patient on a mixed psychiatric ward sexually harassed her but no safeguarding referral was made – which a consultant psychiatrist admits should have been done. Gaia’s family believe this is just one example of professionals not protecting survivors of sexual violence.

The consultant did decide to refer her to a community therapy service called Steps2Wellbeing – but omitted to send the referral letter. He couldn’t say why. He also failed to speak to neurologists who were working with Gaia for her epilepsy. Matthew Walker, a professor of neurology at University College London, said there was a “failure of communication” within the NHS.

During the latter part of 2017, Gaia became increasingly distressed at the prospect of Hayes leaving prison. “She was living in fear constantly. She didn’t really want to leave the house,” said Clara. Maya contacted social services about her twin three weeks before she vanished but by the time she died no full assessment had been carried out.

Shortly before she vanished, Gaia was sent indecent images by another man, which triggered her PTSD, and was desperately trying to see police officers to formally report the indecent images.

The response of one of the officers seemed to crystalise the police’s attitude for the family. He told a call handler the family were “taking the piss”. Clara said: “He really wasn’t paying attention.” Gaia disappeared a few hours later.

The inquest was told about the concept of the “golden hour” – the way a search is conducted in the initial stages is vital. The mistakes were many and fundamental. Officers have accepted it took too long for them to treat Gaia as missing and it was wrong to have initially graded her only as a medium risk. The hunt was muddled, chaotic. At one point they searched barns after a message from a psychic. But Gaia’s family feel they didn’t listen to them.

Maya said: “I wasn’t involved in the search. I was told to stay inside. If I went out, people might call in thinking it was Gaia because we were identical sisters. That was strange – I wanted to be involved but wasn’t allowed.”

The family told police that the beauty spot Dancing Ledge, a couple of miles from the centre of Swanage, was a key place to search. It was a site the family used to walk to and Gaia associated with her late, beloved grandfather.

Sure enough, Gaia’s body was eventually found in a gorse bush close to Dancing Ledge. She is believed to have died of hypothermia after either burrowing into undergrowth or falling and may have been experiencing an epileptic seizure or mental health episode.

“I knew that’s where she’d be,” said Clara. “The association with my family, my grandparents, that sense of safety; there was no doubt in my mind she was trying to get there. I really don’t know where else she would have been. They actively ignored us.”

It has been terrible for the family to learn that on the evening Gaia went missing a thermal image search by a police helicopter detected a faint heat source at the location where her body was discovered. And to hear from a dog search expert who was eventually brought in that if he had been tasked earlier he believed he would have found her.

The three-month inquest has been an ordeal. “I’ve been getting weird nightmares,” said Maya. “Last night [in a dream] a bomb went off the size of Hiroshima and we were all running from it. It felt like a big metaphor for everything. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the foetal position and lying down.”

The family believe the police tried to cover up mistakes. The recordings of the phone calls made on the day Gaia vanished emerged late in the day after a whistleblower revealed their existence. During the inquest a police officer involved in the search admitted altering search logs. “They were trying to save their arses when they amended those logs,” said Maya. Clara added: “They’ve got a lot to hide. I don’t think the police have been open. I have a firm belief systemic misogyny exists in the police.”

“I don’t know a woman that hasn’t been sexually assaulted or harassed to various degrees,” she said. “Very few of us feel we can go to the police and very few have good experiences when they do go to the police. Victims are persistently not believed.”

The family will continue to fight for justice. Clara said: “Gaia is in the back of my mind constantly. She doesn’t want us to give up. She want us to get justice. I remember a dream in which she and I were chasing her rapist. She was guiding me to chase after him.”

Maya said: “What we have heard is the tip of the iceberg. Justice for Gaia will come. The inquest is only the first part of the journey. We will keep campaigning, keep speaking out. We’re not finished yet.”

July 15, 2022 at 11:24PM Steven Morris

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