Policewomen on the emotional front line (1): Gemma Lawrence case

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THREE years ago today, Nicholas and Gaynor Lawrence, from Oxfordshire, fell prey to the unthinkable while on holiday in Bridport, Dorset. Their eldest daughter, Gemma, eight, was snatched through the open window of their caravan and abducted. Police Constable Sue Dodd, 35, for the first time in her 16 years' service, was assigned as family liaison officer. She spent about 17 hours a day with them in a caravan on the site while the police hunted for the little girl.

WHEN I arrived I certainly did not know what to expect. What I found was a family that was absolutely devastated because their child had gone missing.

I was expected to become a friend, but there was the thought at the back of my mind: 'Is this something to do with the family? Are the husband and wife in conflict?' I was suspicious of virtually everything to start with. And from the beginning Mrs Lawrence was really angry with the police. Because we hadn't found Gemma, in her eyes we weren't acting quickly enough.

As a police force we do things in a specific order and people don't understand why we're not doing them faster. That rebounded on me. I was regarded as the Baddie in the beginning. When Gemma's mum was really angry, it created an ugly atmosphere. She'd shout at me to go away, saying she didn't want anything to do with me. I remember the colour flooding to my face, gritting my teeth and thinking, 'I mustn't bite back'. When things got really bad, I'd take the children to the swing park (if there was somebody else around to be with her), to give us both some space. At other times all she wanted was to cuddle me or cry on my shoulder.

Emotionally it frustrated me, too. It not only made me angry with her but with the job as well. I knew that we were doing everything we possibly could to find Gemma, but when you're just waiting, everything happens so slowly. All I wanted was for them to find that child, so that it would take away the mother's anger from me.

By the end of each day I felt totally drained. I was with the family from early morning to midnight or later without a break, and when I finally got to bed I'd weep about it all. I hadn't been married very long at the time and I'd cry down the telephone to my husband saying, 'I wish this was over'. Before I fell into an exhausted sleep, I'd lie in the dark, visualising Gemma being reunited with her family. That's what kept me going.

'Although Gemma's dad was very emotional, he was out there searching for her with everyone else, which meant that he had a focus. Mrs Lawrence could only sit and wait because she had the other two children to look after. As time went on, she became desperate. She kept saying: 'Will she be being looked after? Will they be feeding her?' I had to keep a positive attitude, but I found that difficult because instinctively I felt full of doubt about Gemma's survival. Lisa, her younger sister, would sit on my knee and say, 'You're going to bring Gemma back, aren't you?' Now what do you say to that?

There was a lot of helicopter activity overhead, while the police and public endlessly searched the area out of sight of Mrs Lawrence; but clearly it felt to her as if nothing was being achieved. After the second day, my emotions finally erupted and I did get cross with her. I felt she wasn't listening to what I was saying; I was trying my utmost to do a demanding job and getting the flak for something that wasn't my fault. In a way it was a turning point. She realised then that I was there to help, that I wasn't going to say, 'I know how you feel' - because I didn't.

As I grew closer to Mrs Lawrence, I began to see that some of her tears were due to guilt. She felt that she hadn't been a good mother because she hadn't heard anything during the night that Gemma was abducted, and that if she'd been protecting her, it would never have happened.

She'd say things like, 'If Gemma's gone, there's not much point in me staying', so I'd remind her how much the other children needed her. Then she disappeared from me once for about 20 minutes and I panicked. I eventually found her sitting alone on the beach sobbing her heart out. 'I know she's dead, I know she's dead,' she wailed. It made me want to cry just listening, but I tried not to let her see my face. I put my arm round her and cuddled her to me. I was feeling grief as well because I felt she might be right, and I agonised over whether it was right to try and keep her spirits up. It's certainly not what I felt inside.

I'd never met Gemma, I'd only ever seen her in photographs, but I now knew so much about this child that I felt I really knew her. On the Monday night I can remember thinking, 'I might have to tell this woman that her child is dead and I don't know how I'm going to do that'. I'd almost integrated with the family, and I was almost feeling their pain. The hardest part of all was the not knowing.

During those four days, I was occasional cook, nursemaid and confidante, none of which I was qualified to do. Even the job for which I was trained had left me feeling inadequate. The lowest point came when I suddenly heard over my two-way radio that they'd found a little girl and I had no idea whether she was alive or dead.

The hardest decision for me at that point was what I should tell the family about all the police activity up on the nearby hill that we could see from the caravan windows. My stomach was churning because there was still that dreadful uncertainty. The mother's reaction was, 'It's got to be Gemma]' But it was my job to persuade them to stay where they were.

As it was, the father raced outside and up on to the caravan roof. For what seemed like for ever I felt completely in the dark. Then the news came. An inspector had been talking to the little girl through the shed door while she was still with her abductor and she'd said her name was Gemma.

Once we knew she was alive, we all wept. It was like a huge pressure had been relieved. Then Mrs Lawrence came over, put her arms round me and thanked me. Later that day I met Gemma for myself. She was a super little girl.

When I got home that day I felt like a washed-out lettuce. I'd used up every emotion I had and I just needed to sit down and talk about it, endlessly. I still treasure the card from the Lawrence family, thanking me for my support. It came with the biggest basket of flowers I've ever seen.

What happened at Bridport that summer showed me that however long I've been doing my job, I'm still a compassionate person. It was certainly a testing time, and I still think back to it when I hear news of an abduction. I feel for the families involved and the trauma they must be going through, especially those whose child never comes back. Not knowing the outcome is the hardest part of all.'

A 23-year-old unemployed man was subsequently found guilty of kidnap. He was sentenced to an indefinite period in a secure mental unit.

(Photograph omitted)

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