⌛ 3 Years Today ⌛

Gaia disappeared three years ago today. As we mark the eleven days of her disappearance, a time that is so painful for the family, we want to thank all those those helping us make it through, especially George Julian, who’s helping people Get To Know Gaia this week and everyone who has shown their support over the years either by taking a solidarity picture, lighting a remembrance candle or producing some Art for Gaia. With each gesture like this, we feel less alone and find a little more strength to carry on towards truth and justice for her. Thank you.

To find out how you can help, click here.

Our statement outside court 🌹⚖️🌹 (Sep 2020)

At Gaia’s pre-inquest review hearing on 15 September 2020 we took two more important steps towards #JusticeForGaia and it’s the most we’ve been able to say so far about what happened to her. Here, Gaia’s twin sister Maya speaks alongside her cousin Marienna.

“We are determined to do all in our power to make sure your family never has to stand where we stand today, fighting for justice for someone who’s been taken from you and who can never be replaced.”

Huge thanks to our amazing legal team for all their hard work, also INQUEST, Rape Crisis and Centre for Women’s Justice as well as all the friends who came today or found a way to show support online. (Please keep it coming, it keeps us going…)

Press Release: Gaia Pope inquest resumes, family to appear in court

  • Pre-Inquest Review Hearing on the disappearance and death of Dorset teenager Gaia Pope to be held 1pm on Tues 15 September at Bournemouth Town Hall.
  • Gaia’s family believe she died due to failings by police and mental health services following an incident of rape.
  • Provisions have been made for the press to attend the hearing in person and Gaia’s family will hold a short press conference immediately afterwards on the steps.

14 September: Inquest proceedings into the death of 19-year-old Gaia Pope-Sutherland from Swanage will resume with a Pre-Inquest Review hearing at 1pm on Tues 15 September at Bournemouth Town Hall. The hearing will consider what issues the inquest will cover and when it will take place. Two hearings were cancelled over the summer and after almost three years her family say vital questions about Gaia’s death – and the adequacy of local support services – remain unanswered. 

With 82 reports per conviction in 2018, Dorset Police has the worst conviction rate for rape in the UK. The county also has a significantly higher prevalence of suicides and numbers of A&E admissions due to self harm, compared to the national average

Gaia’s family says: “As we approach the third anniversary of our beloved Gaia’s death, we remain without answers about what went wrong and why. This pandemic has only worsened the mental health crisis and the vulnerability of victims of gendered violence, so the matters involved in Justice for Gaia have never been more important. We need answers not just for our own broken hearts but for the community that worked so tirelessly to find Gaia and which continues to rely on the very services which let her fall between the cracks and die there.”

Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice which is supporting the family, says: “For Gaia’s family, the wait is agonising. We hope progress will be made so that they can properly explore the multiple state failures in this case which contributed to her mental health breakdown and ultimately a preventable death, including a failure to adequately investigate her allegation of rape.” 

Deborah Coles, director, INQUEST, says: Nearly three years on, Gaia’s family and the public are still awaiting answers. The inquest must ensure any systemic failings can be identified and in the hope future deaths can be prevented. This is vital not least at a time of increasing concern about mental health of young people and lack of specialist services for women.” 

The Coroner has secured a room within the Town Hall for press and observers so that the proceedings can be followed. The room has capacity for 20 people. There is no facility for remote attendance so members of the press wishing to follow proceedings must attend in person. Gaia’s family will host a brief press conference on the front steps immediately after the hearing. Space is limited due to social distancing requirements so anyone hoping to attend should register as a matter of urgency via the contact information below. 

Since many will not be able to attend the hearing in person, members of the public are being invited to show support online using the hashtag #JusticeForGaia

Gaia granted full human rights inquest!

6 February: Gaia’s cousin Marienna speaks after the first hearing, where we were granted a full inquest under Article 2 (Right to Life) of the European Convention of Human Rights, with a jury to examine the role of of Dorset Police and healthcare services in Gaia’s death. 🌹

The coroner said: “It is arguable that acts or omissions by Dorset Police may have been or were contributory to Gaia’s death. I am satisfied there has been an arguable breach of the obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Press release: we confirm the identity of sex offender Gaia accused of rape and call for other victims to come forwards

If you think you may have been a victim of Connor Hayes, you are invited to contact the family’s solicitor, Sarah Kellas, who can be reached via the civil rights law firm Birnberg Pierce on 02079110166.

For emotional support, the family recommend survivors call the Rape Crisis Helpline on 0808 802 9999.

  • Connor Hayes, from Bournemouth, has been imprisoned, released and imprisoned again for separate sex offences since Gaia’s case was dropped by Dorset Police.
  • Gaia’s family say the Post-Traumatic Stress caused by this rape was “the crucial factor” in the 19 year old’s mental health challenges, disappearance and death.
  • Dorset Police has the worst conviction rate for rape in the UK, with 82 reports per conviction last year.
  • The inquest into Gaia’s death is on pause pending conclusions from two IOPC investigations: one into how Dorset Police handled her disappearance, another into their investigation of her rape allegation.

21 November: Gaia made an allegation of rape against Connor Hayes in December 2015, just over a year after her family say the rape occurred. Gaia then reported to Dorset Police, who said they had insufficient evidence to prosecute and discouraged the teenager from appealing their decision using the Victim’s Right of Review.

In a supporting statement, Gaia’s family say:

“We want to call on other survivors of abuse by Connor Hayes and his associates to come forward, either to Dorset Police or to our incredible solicitor, Sarah Kellas from the civil rights law firm Birnberg Pierce. 

Two years since Gaia she was taken from us, there are still countless unanswered questions, but what we do know is this. We know that Gaia reported she was drugged and raped by Connor Hayes. We know that she was denied justice and that this denial of justice, coupled with a denial of adequate mental health support, led to her death. We know that because of this, it is unlikely Gaia’s case can ever be prosecuted. 

But our idea of justice isn’t just about Gaia, it’s not even about Connor Hayes, it’s about about supporting survivors like Gaia the way they need and deserve to be supported. We want to do our part to keep women and girls safe in our community. We want those who may feel too let down by the system to report to the police to have somewhere else to go. We want support for survivors to improve in the South West and nationwide. We want rape taken seriously and the women who report it heard. We don’t want anyone else to go through the trauma Gaia had to go through or the devastating loss we live with every day.”

Katie Russell, national spokesperson for Rape Crisis England & Wales says:

“Gaia’s story is a devastating reflection of how our criminal justice system and society too often fail victims and survivors of rape, sexual abuse and all forms of sexual violence. Her family’s tireless efforts to seek justice for her and others who’ve been subjected to these traumatic crimes is an inspiration.

We agree with them completely that those who’ve experienced sexual violence and abuse need and deserve social justice, in the form of properly resourced, specialist and independent support, counselling and advocacy services, as well as a properly functioning criminal justice system. This must be an urgent priority for the next government.”

Today, Gaia’s twin sister Maya and her older sister Clara Pope-Sutherland, alongside Gaia’s cousin Marienna Pope-Weidemann, gave interviews with BBC South Today and ITV Meridian. They called for others who may have been victimised by Connor Hayes, to come forward.

Though Gaia’s rape case was dropped by police, Hayes was later sentenced to two years in prison in December 2016, after admitting to 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 say Gaia was aware he would most likely serve just half that sentence and be due for release in the early part of 2018, a prospect which terrified her because she said Hayes had threatened to kill her and her family if she reported criminal wrongdoing on his part to the police.

Some time after Gaia’s death in November 2017, Hayes was released early, then imprisoned for a second time. This time, he was sentenced to 21 months in jail after pleading guilty to two counts of causing or inciting a child aged 13 to 15 to engage in sexual activity and causing a child aged 13 to 15 to watch a sexual act. On this occaision, he was sentenced alongside William Wright, the third man in his family to be convicted for similar offences. Connor Hayes was placed on the Sex Offenders’ Register for 10 years and a previous Sexual Harm Prevention Order was extended to 2028 and amended to exclude him contacting girls aged under 16. The terms of this order are not known to the family.

Family members involved in the Justice for Gaia campaign say they have have good reason, beyond Gaia’s own testimony, to believe that many other women and girls may have been victimised by Hayes and/or his associates. The family says it will never release further information out of respect for the victims’ right to privacy.

Monday 18 November marked two years since Gaia was found dead following an 11 day disappearance and mass public search. During the anniversary of her disappearance (7-18 November) supporters and members of the public have lit candles in Gaia’s memory, some shared on social media with the hashtag #JusticeForGaia.

If you think you may have been a victim of Connor Hayes, you are invited to contact the family’s solicitor, Sarah Kellas, who can be reached via the civil rights law firm Birnberg Pierce on 02079110166.

For emotional support, the family recommend survivors call the Rape Crisis Helpline on 0808 802 9999.

The family also extend their deepest thanks to INQUEST, their legal team at Birnberg Peirce, civil society allies, friends, supporters and local community for their unwavering support.

Press Release: Gaia Pope family respond to further delays to investigation of teenager’s death

  • On Thursday 16 October, Gaia’s family learned that inquest proceedings will be postponed again. This is due to further delays in the IOPC’s investigations into Dorset Police’s handling of her rape allegation and later disappearance.

  • Deadlines for the IOPC investigation have been extended several times since May.

  • Recent figures reveal Dorset to have the worst conviction rate for rape in the UK, with 82 recorded rapes per conviction in Dorset last year.

  • The family have been granted no guarantee that the full findings of the IOPC will be made available to them prior to the inquest.

In response to press enquiries about the conclusion of IOPC investigations into the disappearance and death of Gaia Pope-Sutherland, which were expected last month, Gaia’s family have issued the following statement:

“Every deadline the IOPC has given our family has been broken with little explanation, while decisions are made without us behind closed doors. Even the monthly updates we were promised, we have had to chase for. Now, less than four weeks before it was due to resume, we are told that the inquest will be postponed yet again. Even now, we have no guarantees that the answers we have long waited and suffered for will be given to us in full.

7 November will mark the second anniversary of Gaia’s disappearance. For almost two years we have been left, struggling to stay afloat in a sea of unanswered questions.

Was Gaia’s disappearance treated with the seriousness it deserved? Has third party involvement in her death been ruled out? Why did it take Dorset Police so long to find her? Why did they encourage her not to pursue the case against her rapist and remain so resistant to public assistance in the search for her when she was missing?

These are questions no grieving family should ever be left with, while the answers may be sitting on someone’s desk. Without them we live frozen, unable to grieve, unable to move forwards, unable even to begin. Justice delayed is justice denied.

That we should have to wait so long and fight so hard for answers about what happened to our darling girl, while the details are poured over by strangers, seems bizarre. However, we are not alone in this.

Inquests and investigations following state related deaths are intended to seek the truth and to expose unsafe practices or potential abuses of power by state agents. This is not just about respect for those whose lives have been wrecked by unspeakable loss; it is about protecting the public by preventing future harm and deaths.

We have always maintained that what happened to Gaia is a matter not just of our private grief but one of public concern. Under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, families have the right to meaningful participation in investigations. All too often this is not happening as it should. That is why families like ours, with support from the charity INQUEST, are campaigning to improve these systems.

At present, we can only hope that a robust and unflinching investigation is taking place. With new statistics revealing the true scale of police failures to prosecute sexual violence and Dorset Police now rated worst in the UK, we are more determined than ever to see lessons learned from Gaia’s case, survivors’ access to justice improved and their voices heard.

In the meantime, we continue with the Art for Gaia project and our work to develop Gaia’s Guide: a community organising guide, based on our experiences, to help keep missing people safe.

Our deepest thanks to INQUEST, our legal team at Birnberg Peirce, our social movement and civil society allies, our family, friends and local community for your unwavering support.

Justice for Gaia.”

You can follow the family’s Justice for Gaia campaign via their website and via Facebook or Instagram and twitter @JusticeForGaia

INQUEST has been working with the family of Gaia since January 2018. The family is represented by INQUEST Lawyers Group members Sarah Kellas and Harriet Wistrich of Birnberg Peirce Solicitors, and Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC of Doughty Street Chambers.

A story of death, trauma and austerity

The day Gaia went missing, the world turned upside down. That was almost two years ago and it’s still not close to right side up. Gaia was the light of our lives. She was also a survivor of sexual violence, denied justice and ultimately killed by the very system that is meant to protect and care for us.

In November 2017, Gaia Pope, a teenager who had been failed by the justice and mental health systems, went missing. Her body was found after 11 days. In an essay commissioned by the Wellcome Trust, her cousin Marienna proposes compassionate systems that listen to those in mental distress. Content warning: Sexual violence, mental distress, loss.

Dorset Police failed to prosecute her rapist – a known child sex offender – and convinced her not to appeal. Like so many, she was also let down by the mental health system, which detained and then abandoned her. On 7 November 2017, Gaia disappeared. After 11 relentless days, she was found dead on a coastal path near our home. She was 19 years old. The coroner ruled the cause of death as hypothermia; we call it a death by indifference.

Gaia’s story captured national attention because it speaks to a whole generation who know the horror of being denied justice after abuse; the pain of finding the courage to ask for help and then being ignored; the humiliation of being interrogated and stripped of the financial support we depend on.

I write this from the perspective of someone with five years’ experience caring and advocating for loved ones enduring extreme mental distress and as someone with my own lived experience. These two perspectives aren’t separate for me, or for countless others: both are rooted in the realities of poverty and oppression.

The Nightmare

I often have nightmares. There’s one that repeats a lot, something between a nightmare, a memory and a fear for the future. The life of someone I love is in imminent danger. I am in a softly lit room, phone in hand. All I have to do is call a number, a very important number, and the system will spring into action and take care of us.

I call. It rings. No answer. I call again. “I’m sorry, we’re unable to get to the phone right now,” says the voicemail. “We are only open between blah and blah o’clock.” But it is between the hours of blah and blah. I call again, and again. The light starts to flicker.

Icy panic flushes through my limbs and pulls down on my organs, like when you crest the summit of a rollercoaster. I start calling other numbers; I’ve got at least 25 of them in my phone, different doctors and nurses and teams, because this person that I love has been passed from one acronym to another for a long time and the numbers have really stacked up by this point, but not one of them will answer me. The room darkens.

Finally, a human voice greets me with a surreal neutrality.

I take a deep breath, push down all my desperation and anger over broken promises, knowing that if I show any emotion I’ll just be told to calm down. I try not to focus on the irony of the fact that I’ve learned not to show any signs of mental distress when dealing with professionals whose job it is to support those experiencing mental distress because I know they will dismiss me. I tell them we’re in crisis, we need those plans and promises fulfilled.

“An approach that values lived experience is vital not just for those using the system, but for fixing the system itself.”


I use all the right acronyms, all the right words, like “safeguarding” and “imminent risk”. You have to use their language. It’s like talking to a really primitive version of Alexa. The voice tells me they won’t be sending anyone to help. It tells me it has no record of any promises made and not to call again because I’m making a nuisance of myself. Now I’m in total darkness.

All dignity evaporates and I start to beg – not for the first time. Please. Someone is going to die. Please do something, please. Help us. The voice says something about a week next Tuesday. I tell them that’s too late. The voice asks me how I dare tell it how to do its job. It tells me that if I ring again, the police will be called, then hangs up.

I wake with incalculable rage heaving in my chest. I summon the energy to sob, just to get out some of the adrenaline.

I know the dream will follow me all day like a dark cloud. I know I’ll jump at loud noises, stare into space, compulsively pore over some records for no particular reason other than to remind myself that all these things actually happened.

Bad things happened, no one came, and Gaia died; and those of us left behind, stumbling under the weight of our grief, must still depend on the system that let her die; that has let many people die.

Sharing Stories

It is extremely difficult for carers to speak out. We too are dependent on mental health services. When you’re starving, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you, even if it’s only tossing you crumbs.

Five years engaging with community and residential mental health services has taught me that ‘family engagement’ is usually an outsourcing programme. There are rare exceptions – shining lights in the darkness – but they are bound and gagged by the system they work in and often burn out. The rest talk to you like they know everything and you know nothing, not even about your own pain, your own family.

It’s taken me a long time to grapple with the reality that I might need support myself. In my mind I was the advocate. I hid away in that role, trapped in the same soundproof box I built for myself when Gaia was missing, and I spent every hour of the day organising searches and giving interviews so I wouldn’t have to stop and hear the screaming silence of the absence of her voice.

Part of what gave me the courage to acknowledge my own pain, my own story, was the stories shared by others.

They started coming through a couple of months after the Find Gaia Facebook group became Justice for Gaia, highlighting the intersectional links between austerity, inequality and sexual and domestic violence. I was speaking and reaching out because I wanted Gaia to be heard, and soon people started talking back. 

“My dad tried to throw himself off our balcony, and two years later he’s still on the waiting list. I’m afraid to leave him alone.”

“I was raped by a colleague and my boss has threatened me with disciplinary action if I speak out or access counselling.” 

“I’m fighting for an inquest for my teenage daughter who died a preventable death in a secure mental health unit, but I can’t afford a lawyer.” 

“My grandchildren are being beaten at home. I’ve got stacks of evidence here, but I’m being ignored by social services and threatened by the police.”

That was when I realised how many of us are trapped in this nightmare together. I’ve been involved in anti-austerity campaigns for almost a decade, so I thought I knew how bad things were, but I was wrong.

Since 2010, several billion pounds’ worth of cuts to essential health and social services have been linked to over 120,000 deaths in the UK; I thought funding was the issue, but I was wrong about that too. Austerity only explains why the capacity of mental health services to help has been crippled, especially for marginalised communities, young people and rural dwellers. What it does not explain is why these services so often do active harm. This is an issue with roots far deeper than Tory austerity.

An Unjust Reality

Evidence for the central role of trauma in mental health problems is overwhelming. There is a reason we are seeing a Black mental health crisis, with people of colour more likely to be sectioned, overmedicated and assaulted by those meant to care for them. There is a reason why almost half of women who have endured severe mental distress are survivors of sexual violence. There is a reason why almost half of those in need of benefits and half of those in financial debt are struggling with their mental health.

The common thread is trauma, the impact of which is magnified not just by austerity, but also by a mental health system, which, while essential, is as unequal as the rest of society.

Last year, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Gaia suffered from severe PTSD, so I recognised the escalating cycle of insomnia, sleep disturbances, panic attacks and flashbacks that had already pushed me out of two jobs, my relationship and my home.

PTSD means the brain is more sensitive to certain trauma-related stimuli. There’s no doubt that my brain works differently from the way it did before Gaia was taken from us. I metamorphosed from a confident, fearless and idealistic young professional to an insular, nervous wreck, unemployed and too exhausted to even apply for the benefits I was entitled to. I couldn’t bear to be told by one more person that my pain wasn’t worth anything, as have 125,000 others with mental health conditions who’ve had their benefits slashed.

Did I suffer these symptoms because my brain is dysfunctional, as the medical model says? Was I broken by what happened? Or, after the trauma, did my brain adapt to a learned reality that we are living in an unjust world where the unthinkable can happen?

It might not seem an important distinction, but knowing, loving and losing Gaia – whose trauma was incalculably greater than my own – has taught me just how important that question is. 

If my brain is to blame, I am what is broken here. The medical model justifies medicating people so they live and work obediently in an unjust world. It is the psychological equivalent of smashing square pegs into round holes until they fit – even if you break them in the process. There’s a strong financial incentive for this because drugs are cheaper than talking therapy. That’s where austerity comes in.

The oppressors and the oppressed

Like the murky inquest system we will have to navigate for the investigation into Gaia’s death, the medical model of mental health shifts accountability onto the oppressed and away from those oppressing them, whether that’s a family member or policymakers in government.

But if we take a trauma-informed approach, then the perpetrators of the trauma itself are to blame. They, and the systems that enabled their actions, can be held accountable. Whether that trauma is related to childhood or sexual abuse, hate crime and prejudice, structural racism, domestic violence, poverty or something else, suddenly your lived experience matters. An approach that values lived experience is vital not just for those using the system, but for fixing the system itself.

We are wired for connection. Little is more central to our wellbeing than a sense that we belong, that our experiences are valued, our stories heard. By pathologising symptoms that are most often caused by trauma, the medical model obscures our view of oppression, upholds the status quo and silences precisely the people we should be turning to for leadership: those with lived experience. 

Some psychologists and users of mental health services are pushing for change. Mental distress – and the sharp learning curve that comes from any sustained engagement with the mental health system – can be a great teacher. Trauma can be a great teacher. But every day there are more deaths by indifference – another sibling, child or parent who has died waiting for someone to listen to their story. Dying along with them is the invaluable wisdom they’ve accumulated.

That I am slowly getting back on my feet is only thanks to the love and support of friends and family, and the inspiration Gaia gives me every day to keep speaking out. For me and many others the only thing standing between us and the void is the prospect of finally being heard, the possibility of change. 

You’ve raised over £1000!

Thanks to our amazing supporters, our spring fundraiser has raised over £1000! We’re so overwhelmed and grateful for all your support, which will help fund…

  • The production of a grassroots guide for the loved ones of missing people to help bring them home safely
  • Research for our case as the inquest approaches this summer
  • #ArtForGaia creative workshops to be offered to schools, universities and community groups
  • Fighting for justice for survivors

Click here to donate or share the fundraiser

Octobure Releases #ArtForGaia EP

Incredible to be able to share this EP released by one of Gaia’s closest friends and dedicated to her. Octobure is a singer/songwriter, producer & drag queen based in Dorset.

Dom, Gaia loved you so much and so do we. Thank you for pouring your heart into this music with such courage to give us all something to listen to and feel close to her.

Tracks are available for streaming on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, etc. More coming soon.

“This collection of songs was written about and dedicated to my best friend and sister Gaia who sadly isn’t on this worldly plain with us anymore. I love you and miss you sis – this is for you ❤️  Please please share this with your people, the family are still fighting to get justice and I’m fighting along with them, all in our own ways. I started working on this EP over 6 months ago now and have put my butt, sweat and tears into this tribute.” – Octobure.

Press Release: family respond to breaking news of Connor Hayes’ second conviction for sex offences

Response to breaking news from Dorset Police reporting that convicted sex offender Connor Hayes has been sentenced to a further 21 months in prison after admitting further offences against a teenage girl.

Gaia was a survivor of sexual violence and last year there was press coverage linking Connor Hayes to her disappearance. We are not in a position to comment on these claims while investigations are ongoing. However, now this man has been convicted of another sexual offence against a minor, we must at least speak to honour the strength and courage of all the survivors involved in this case, as well as their families and loved ones.

We know all too well how long and painful this walk to justice is. We do not know your names, but we owe you thanks. Every member of the public owes you thanks for what you have done to keep our community safe.

May we one day live in a world where every single person subjected to sexual violence feels safe and supported to speak out. In the meantime we live, as Gaia did, afraid that other women and girls may be at risk.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is still investigating Dorset Police’s response to Gaia’s allegations. It is to protect the integrity of this vital investigation that we cannot say any more publicly, except to ask that anyone with any relevant information come forward to us or to the IOPC.

We thank the IOPC from the bottom of our hearts their continued hard work towards truth and justice for Gaia. Whatever happens, this all comes too late to save Gaia and save us the unending pain of life without her; but we are determined to do all we can to see others protected and justice done.

All we can do is wait, thank our friends and our community for their continued support and assure anyone out there who perhaps, like Gaia, feels ignored and afraid, that they are not alone.

Thank you.

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