The inquest into my cousin Gaia Pope’s death was an 11-week tour of the wreckage left by a perfect storm of austerity and misogyny. Gaia was only 19 in November 2017 when she went missing. She was found after an 11-day search, having died of hypothermia. She had already grown into one of the most loving, intelligent and courageous young women I will ever know and I loved her like a sister. She was also a survivor of child sexual exploitation, living with severe epilepsy and severe post-traumatic stress symptoms, and she was so badly failed by the system.
The inquest has unearthed more than 50 missed opportunities in Gaia’s care and the search for her, as well as the fact that one Dorset police officer admitted to having altered search records after her death.
It also revealed that Gaia had contact with the police and local ambulance service in the hours before she went missing. She called the police to confirm an appointment to report online sexual harassment, and the ambulance service to seek help for an acute mental health crisis.
A review by South West Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust found that it failed to take appropriate safeguarding action when, in a follow-up phone call from the initial 999 call, a clinician did not attempt to make contact with Gaia or anyone with her. A phone call was made to Gaia’s mum, but leading questions were asked to confirm that Gaia did not need emergency services. This is a growing trend in an overstretched NHS where the culture of demand reduction increasingly takes precedence over patient care.
It is only thanks to an anonymous police whistleblower that we learned about her contact with Dorset police that day, calls the police failed to disclose in which Gaia and other family members were trying to confirm the details of an appointment Gaia had with them that day to report, in person, an incident of sexual harassment online.
The officer she spoke to failed to recognise a young woman in an acute mental health crisis who needed help. He assumed she was making things up, told colleagues that Gaia and our family were “talking rubbish”, said that no more calls from us should be transferred and, finally, hung up on her.
This was not the first time that Gaia had turned to Dorset police for help, or the second, or the third. When she had reported to them in December 2014 that she had been raped by someone who turned out to be a child sex offender who she said had threatened to kill her if she spoke against him, they took five months to respond, only to then drop her case. In the last two years of her life she returned several times to beseech them for a restraining order, a harassment order or even just confirmation of when he would be released from prison, where he eventually served a year for unrelated child sex offences. All these requests were refused, no referrals for support were made and no safeguarding action was ever taken.
We are all too familiar with stories of misogyny and apathy within the police when it comes to safeguarding those subjected to sexual and domestic violence, but Gaia’s experience with Dorset police found its perfect mirror image in Dorset Healthcare Trust. Within weeks of her rape disclosure it was making notes about her “delusions of sexual assault”; when she was sexually harassed while an inpatient at St Ann’s mental health hospital, it failed to consider a safeguarding referral and discharged her a couple of days after she had reported the matter to staff.
Despite spiralling mental health problems, repeated crises and hospitalisations, in those two years she spent less than 30 days under the care of mental health services. Instead she was repeatedly discharged with no social care support and no care plan in place because, to quote her psychiatrist, they “had to clear the decks”.
This inquest, which for five years my family and I have fought and waited for, was held with a jury under Article 2 (Right to Life) of the Human Rights Act because the senior coroner, Rachael Griffin, that it was “arguable that acts or omissions by Dorset police may have been or were contributory to Gaia’s death”. But after 11 weeks the coroner told the jury in her legal directions that even though Dorset police had admitted failings in the search for Gaia, there was not enough evidence to find they contributed to her death. The justice system, once again, failed Gaia and failed us. While we are devastated by this failure to hold Dorset police accountable for what happened to Gaia, we are proud to have argued successfully for the coroner’s unprecedented decision to issue several vital prevention of future deaths reports that challenge the underpinnings of austerity and misogyny at a local and national level. These include a report to the College of Policing about national training, including on post-traumatic stress and support for survivors; a report to Dorset Healthcare Trust across several issues, including policies on how staff deal with incidents of sexual harassment as well as communication with patients’ families and carers. Another report will go to the secretary of state for health and social care on resourcing and communication between epilepsy and mental health teams. We hope that this leads to real change, not just in Dorset but throughout the country, and will save future lives.
Over the past 10 years, the number of sex offences reported to Dorset police has doubled, making this the most commonly reported criminal offence in Dorset. Meanwhile, the number of cases resulting in charges has halved and we still do not have a specialist unit within the force that is properly trained to support survivors and investigate sexual violence and abuse. As a result, our community is not being properly protected and lives like Gaia’s remain at risk.
As the inquest closes, Justice for Gaia is getting behind a longstanding demand of the women’s movement and launching a petition to help save lives like Gaia’s by demanding that Dorset police invest in a rape and serious sexual offences (Rasso) unit that puts survivors first.
July 15, 2022 at 10:39PM Marienna Pope-Weidemann