Friday 15 March 2019

Following the tragic death of local Phillip Island resident and psychologist Samantha Fraser in July 2018, a group of passionate community members and service providers have been working together to develop a strong family violence strategy aimed at preventing such tragedies in the future in the Bass Coast community.


The Change for Sam strategy is led by a collaborative and passionate steering group comprising community members, Gippsland Women’s Health, Bass Coast Shire Council, Victoria Police, Bass Coast Health, Gippsland Primary Health Network, South Coast Primary and Community Partnerships, and Family Safety Victoria (Orange Door).


Lija Matthews is one of Sam’s friends who is representing the community on the Steering Committee and her involvement in the strategy is led by her heart.


“I knew Sam for five years. She was the first person I met on the Island. We met at the kinder our kids both attended and Sam invited me out for coffee. We went for a walk along the beach and talked and laughed, and that was it – we instantly became firm friends”, she reflects.


Hoping to salvage something positive out of her friend’s tragic death, Lija is participating on the committee to make a difference.  The work of the committee has the blessing of Sam’s parents, who endorsed the use of Sam’s name in its title to make sure we all remembered the people behind such tragedies.


Lija is passionate about her involvement in the initiative, “The aim of this strategy is to prevent family violence, particularly against women and children in the Bass Coast area, and to coordinate current services and resources to better respond to incidents of family violence – something that Sam cared about deeply. I’m doing this so no one else has to go through what Sam went through. I feel like I’m representing Sam’s voice, so I can make sure that what is planned, matches what she would have wanted. Sam was passionate about helping people and I don’t want what happened to her to be in vain. Even knowing what Sam was going through, I could only support her as a friend, and many times I felt helpless. Being involved with this initiative means I can support my friend in a very tangible way. We all agree that some things have to change”, she said.


One of the ways Lija hopes the Change for Sam initiative makes a difference is by sparking more conversations about family violence and violence against women.


“I hope we can bring discussions about family violence out into the open; name it, so people feel like they’re ‘allowed’ to talk about it. Since Sam’s death, I’ve become aware of so many women who feel ashamed about being in a situation of family violence – but they have done nothing wrong. As a community, we need to find a way to talk about family violence so information can be shared and connections can be made, making it easier for women to get help”, she said.


In 2017/18 there were 523 incidences of family violence with Bass Coast ranking 15th out of 79 municipalities. The reported incidences of family violence in Bass Coast is approximately 1 per day.


Bass Coast Health CEO Jan Child, who is also part of the steering committee agrees that easier access to services locally is vital.


“Agencies and services working to respond to family violence in the Bass Coast area are widely dispersed and they often work in isolation of other agencies, making access to services difficult”, she said. “There has been excellent progress at a policy and service level across the State and we have recently seen the excellent Gippsland Orange Door established in Morwell – sadly, it is 193kms away from where Sam Fraser died. We know from women who access our services that they are often unable to travel to services that are located so far away”.  


According to Lija, this was the case for Sam. Friends who knew of Sam’s situation tried to help by providing bits of information they had searched for, but many services were located outside the region, making them harder to access.


“Services were also fragmented”, said Lija. “Women have to go to a number of different places to get different support. Family violence can affect so many aspects of a woman’s life. It means a woman may need supports like legal services, intervention from the police, assistance with alternative housing, financial support, and counselling for herself and her children. Trying to access these services separately can be too overwhelming or too dangerous for women who have to account for time away from home or explain their absences to abusive partners”.


Part of the Change for Sam Strategy will be to develop a comprehensive, coordinated prevention and response program across the Bass Coast Shire, including a place where services can converge and be available in one place. The start of this centre will be initially located in Bass Coast Health’s Phillip Island Health Hub.


According to Jan Child, “Some key organisations have done some great work individually on prevention, but we need a more coordinated effort so that everyone sees it as part of their remit. Prevention is about calling out unacceptable behaviour. It is about understanding gender inequity. Now is the opportune time to encourage everyone to think about the prevention space, to take on a stewardship and guardianship role in establishing and maintaining a safe community, in collaboration with those of us directly involved in responding to family violence”.



Lija is excited about it all coming together, “Imagine having highly visible local family violence services all together in an easily accessible, safe, child-friendly, welcoming environment, where women can go 24 hours a day. We have a strong vision for a one stop shop, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, where women experiencing family violence, along with their friends and family, can easily access information, support and advice – including education about prevention”, she says.


“Having a place with local services all working together definitely would have made it easier for Sam to get the help she needed”, she says. “What happened to Sam can happen to anyone. And it does”.


Lija says a lot of work is being done behind the scenes to make the strategy a reality, “I’m just in awe at the passion these people have. It’s great to see increased communication between the different agencies happening already and to see relationships being built or being strengthened, which will mean services will be more coordinated”.


“Sam’s death touched a lot of people she had helped, and a lot of people who didn’t even know her. However it’s important that she is not defined just by the day of her death. Sam had a gorgeous soul and was an active community member who positively touched so many people on the Island when she was alive. She was a dedicated mother and also cared for the needs of others in her work – a support to so many people.  The Change for Sam Strategy is a way of continuing Sam’s dream of helping others in unfortunate circumstances. It also gives people like me an opportunity to translate the horror, frustration and helplessness we felt about her death into something that stops this from happening to anyone else. When our new service model is up and running, it will play an important role in supporting people in need, and spreading the word that help is available locally”.


The steering committee has successfully secured funding through the State Government from Family Safety Victoria to appoint a coordinator to support the steering committee implement its action plan. The committee is also providing proposals to the State and Federal Governments which will improve prevention, service response, system coordination and alignment, and provide practical support. This will include the engagement of additional family violence case managers, brokerage funds for crisis accommodation and support for co-located family violence facilities.


“I am very proud to sit alongside other friends and colleagues of Sam, and service providers who didn’t even know her, to create this cultural change initiative within the Bass Coast region. I miss her every single day, but I also know that by working together, we can help prevent further tragedies in the future and make Bass Coast a safer place for women”, says Lija.



If you are in immediate danger from family violence, call 000. Other crisis services available are:


1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) - for family violence and sexual assault counselling 24/7

1800 015 188 Safe Steps - for 24/7 crisis support

5671 3278 - Bass Coast Health Family Violence Support (Mon – Fri)

Pictured: Lija Matthews is collaborating with local service providers to support the legacy of her friend Samantha Fraser.