We are a family fighting for justice for survivors like our girl, who went missing on 7 November 2017 when she was 19 years old. Eleven days later, her body was found. They told us she’d died of hypothermia but we call it a death by indifference.
Gaia was many things. She was a beloved daughter, sister and friend. She was bright, brave, kind, creative and fiercely loyal to those she loved. She was funny, insightful and passionate about science and the natural world. She wanted to pursue a career in health and social care to support other young people find their voices in a system she felt neglected by. She had strong values and believed in the power of ordinary people to make a difference. We have always been and will always be very proud of her.
Gaia was also a survivor of child sexual exploitation who was so completely failed by the state that it cost her life and her story resonates with people across the UK because her story is not hers alone. Less than 1 in 100 rape reports end in conviction and there are tens of thousands of survivors denied access to justice and the support they deserve.
Gaia was seventeen when she told us that she had been raped almost exactly a year before by Connor Hayes, who turned out to be a known child sex offender Gaia said had threatened to have her and the family killed if she spoke up. Disclosing the rape was so traumatic for Gaia that she could barely speak and had to be hospitalised. Almost immediately, NHS psychiatrists were making notes about her “delusions of sexual assault.”
Gaia bravely chose to report this to Dorset Police, who arrested and questioned Hayes but after five months of uncertainty, chose to take no further action on Gaia’s case. Hayes was ultimately imprisoned for other child sex offenses but she lived in fear of his release. Despite her repeated please and Hayes’ repeated attempts to contact Gaia 2015 – 2017, Dorset Police did not grant any form of protective order (such as a restraining, harassment or witness intimidation order,) nor did they make any safeguarding referral to arrange support for her.
Like many rape survivors, Gaia developed severe post-traumatic stress symptoms and her epilepsy, which was linked to stress, deteriorated to the point she was having up to 100 seizures per week. Gaia did not have access to the trauma-informed support she needed and despite repeated mental health crises and hospitalisations, she was repeatedly discharge by NHS professionals with no proper care plan in place. In the two years between her rape disclosure and her death, Gaia spent less than 30 days under the care of community mental health services.
Gaia needed much more support from mental health services than she got and what contact she did have with them, often made things worse because she did not feel that they knew her, believed her or could understand what she was going through. This came to a head in February 2017 when she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and sent to St Ann’s Hospital where she was sexually harassed by another patient in what should have been a place of safety. When she disclosed to staff, the whole episode was kept quiet. They failed to consider the need for a safeguarding referral and didn’t even complete an incident form. Gaia was sent home two days later with no further support in place.
In October 2017, Gaia was again in serious mental health crisis and had to be taken to hospital in a police car because no ambulances were available. She would be held at Poole Hospital for over 50 hours before she could be assessed. By this point, Gaia was sleep deprived and sedated, having been told by nurses that she would only be allowed to leave if she agreed to take diazepam, which she did because she was terrified of being sent to St Ann’s. The assessment team found that she was low risk and still did not meet the criteria for community mental health support, discharging her home once again without speaking to her family or organising any onward support.
Five days before her disappearance, Gaia was triggered by an incident of sexual harassment online when she was sent sexually explicit images by a stranger on Facebook. She immediately reported this to Dorset Police because she felt a responsibility to protect others. Both Gaia and her family knew she needed further support for her mental health but because she was not under the care of community mental health services, we had to wait for an appointment at the GP surgery to request a referral.
So it was that on 7 November 2017, the day she disappeared, Gaia had two appointments: one with her GP and one with Dorset Police. After almost two years of trauma for her and for our family, with our support she was still reaching out, searching for support and for justice. But when we called the police to confirm the appointment, they had no record of it. Gaia was further re-traumatised as relatives were forced to explain the story over and over again. Eventually, Gaia spoke directly to PC Lawrence of Dorset Police, who failed to recognise a young woman in crisis who needed his help. He assumed she was making things up, told colleagues that Gaia and our family were “talking absolute rubbish”, said that no more calls from us should be transferred and, finally, he hung up on her.
We only know about those phone calls thanks to the courage of an anonymous whistleblower known only as Officer X, who reported that Gaia had contact with police the day she disappeared. Initially, Dorset Police said they were not aware of any such calls, but later said they were aware of them and had not disclosed them because they did not believe they were ‘relevant’ to the investigation into Gaia’s death. They still maintain there is no recording of the final call, in which Gaia was hung up on just hours before she went missing.
Knowing Gaia had no phone, no purse and no medication with her and that would not be able to keep herself safe if she had a seizure or was having a mental health crisis, the family immediately reported her disappearance and called on our local community for help in the search. Gaia’s story made national headlines, hundreds of people joined the search and thousands more took action in an enormous grassroots effort to find her.
On 16 November, clothes belonging to Gaia were found in an open field by members of the public in an area the police said they had searched, adding “if she was out there we’d have found her.” On 18 November, eleven days after her disappearance, Gaia’s body was found less than a mile from where she went missing and on the route to Dancing Ledge, a place of great personal significance that her family had told police to search from the beginning.
In 2022 the inquest into Gaia’s death, which was one of the longest individual inquests in British history, unearthed more than 50 missed opportunities in Gaia’s care and the search for her, as well as at least two officers who still work for Dorset Police that secretly altered the search records after Gaia’s death and lied about it. The inquest was held with a jury under Article 2 (Right to Life) of the European Convention on Human Rights because senior Dorset coroner Rachael Griffin said it was “arguable that acts or omissions by Dorset Police may have been or were contributory to Gaia’s death.” She promised a “full and fearless investigation” when the inquest commenced, more than four years after Gaia’s death and following three closed-door reports, two from the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) and one from Dorset Healthcare Trust.
We did not get the “full and fearless” investigation we were promised, seeing instead an inquest that replicated the same culture of denial and disbelief that killed Gaia. From the outset, the coroner protected the failures of Dorset Police prior to 7 November from all scrutiny. She refused Officer X the anonymity they said they needed to come and give evidence. We had to fight tooth and nail to keep the issue of sexual violence on the table and at one point the coroner even tried to order bereaved relatives to use gaslighting language like “Gaia believed she was a survivor of rape.” We refused.
The jury sat through 8 weeks of evidence about a seemingly endless string of police failures in the search which by Dorset Police’s own admission was “deficient in that it was disorganised and lacked clear strategy, leadership and focus during the first 48 hours.” Only one failing was considered by the police to amount to misconduct, that of acting sergeant Sean Mallon, who took literally no action to assist or direct anyone else to assist in the search for Gaia during his shift on the night she disappeared and failed to inform the next shift that she was missing. He has since retired from the force will full benefits.
Despite all this, at the end of the inquest, the coroner prohibited the jury from considering whether any of these failings even possibly contributed to Gaia’s death. We consider this to be the single greatest opportunity missed and another instance of the system failing Gaia, failing us and failing to serve the public interest.
The jury was unanimous in their support of our family on every issue that was left to them. They found that Gaia’s death was probably caused by her mental state and the “situational crisis” she found herself in on the day she disappeared and that the failure to refer Gaia for community mental healthcare on 22 October after she was hospitalised, possibly caused or contributed to her death. The conclusions also recorded a series of failings admitted by both Dorset Police and Dorset Healthcare University Trust.
Though we were devastated by the coroner’s refusal to allow the police to be held to account, we know Gaia would be proud of what we have achieved, with the support of our amazing legal team, having argued successfully for the coroner’s unprecedented decision to issue a number of vital and extensive Prevention of Future Deaths reports that challenge austerity and misogyny at a local and national level.
These included a report to the College of Policing about national training on epilepsy, post-traumatic stress and supporting those with sexual trauma; 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; and a report to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on resourcing and communication between epilepsy and mental health teams to improve holistic care.
During the inquest there was a lot of talk about the complexity of Gaia’s needs but the truth is they were basic. She needed to be treated with kindness, respect and dignity. She needed professionals to take the time to listen to her and her family and each other. She needed trauma-informed support and advocacy as she pursued justice and tried to rebuild her life after rape. She needed to be protected and she needed to be heard. This is not much to ask for and if she had received it we believe she would be alive today.
We don’t want any more families forced to fight for someone who’s been taken from you and can never be replaced. That’s why we released Gaia’s Guide: a community organising guide to help keep missing people safe; and why, though we were denied justice through the courts, we will continue to campaign for Justice for Gaia, to make sure no other families have to go through this.
The world is a darker place without Gaia but she is still a light in all our lives. We honour her by fighting for the better world that she believed in and for the rights of every victim and survivor to be respected, protected and heard.