by Kirra Grimes

Sam Fraser’s friends want her to be remembered for the “fantastically beautiful, wonderful, amazing person she was,” not for what happened to her on the day she was killed.

A DEDICATED group of volunteers has spent the last two years campaigning for change in the name of Samantha Fraser, the 38-year-old Cowes psychologist who was allegedly murdered by her ex-husband on July 23, 2018.

On Tuesday July 21 this year – the day before what would have been Samantha’s 40th birthday – that group, including community members, representatives of the local police force, family violence partner agencies, local council and Bass Coast Health, met to reflect on their achievements and learnings in the family violence space, in response to the devastating loss of the young mother, daughter, sister and friend to many.

It was a chance to celebrate a series of well received public awareness events and campaigns; the improved coordination of existing support services; and the promise of increased support for survivors through a new Orange Door outreach service and Phillip Island Community Hospital.

As well as progress driven by the ‘Change for Sam’ committee, the past two years has seen the roll out of recommendations from the 2015 Royal Commission into Family Violence, including a new emphasis on educating the community about gender equality and violence prevention from a young age, such as through the Respectful Relationships program, which has been embraced by many Victorian primary and secondary schools and early childhood services, including in Bass Coast.

The police response to family violence has also changed, Victoria-wide, with the introduction of a more detailed interview process that takes into account past incidents as well as the current offence, and increased powers to detain alleged offenders under an amended Bail Act.

Change for Sam committee member and Victoria Police’s South Gippsland/Bass Coast Local Area Commander, Inspector Paul Bruders said an important change had been in community attitudes towards family violence, with a much more open conversation around the issue, and people feeling more confident in “calling out” unacceptable behaviour.

Though recent Crime Statistics Victoria data suggests family violence incidents have increased in Bass Coast since 2018, Inspector Bruders said that was likely because more people had been reporting incidents, when they may not have come forward in the past.

An encouraging sign, he said, was that rates of family violence reoffending had dropped significantly, suggesting “the word’s been getting out there”.

But despite many positive developments, the pain of losing Samantha is as raw as ever for those close to her, such as her best friend Lija Matthews.

Lija met Sam upon moving to the island six years ago, and the two instantly bonded over a mutual love of motherhood, long walks and catching up over a cuppa.

“She was first person I became friends with – Our kids went to kinder together and she invited me for coffee one day and we never looked back since,” she said.

Lija joined the Change for Sam committee soon after its inception to help ensure the wishes of Sam and her family remained front and centre in the decision-making process.

And while she’s all for helping others avoid the same tragic fate as Sam, it doesn’t make the loss any easier.

“It’s been hell,” Lija said of the last two years.

“Losing her is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through and every day since has been just as bad, if not worse.

“You try to have good days but it’s always lurking; it doesn’t go away.

“Every single day I miss her – she was person I’d talk to if I had any problems.

“And it does break my heart a bit that she’s been turned into a ‘story’.

“She should be remembered for the fantastically beautiful, wonderful, amazing person she actually was, not for what happened to her on the day she was killed.”

Sam was a very involved community member who was passionate about addressing the challenges of family violence.

She should’ve been celebrating her 40th birthday with a big party. Instead, it was a solemn occasion for her family and friends.

“We had a party for her birthday last year, but it’s just too hard [this year], to be honest. It hurts too much,” Lija said.

They now await the outcome of the long running court process to sentence Sam’s alleged killer, Adrian Basham.

He’s been on remand since his arrest in 2018, pleading not guilty to the alleged murder and five other charges at a committal hearing in Morwell in late 2019.

He’s due to appear next at Melbourne’s Supreme Court, for a directions hearing on September 18, 2020, where a trial date may be determined.

Whatever happens to him won’t mean very much, Lija says, but will at least bring closure to one aspect of the ordeal.

“There won’t ever be justice; there is no justice because nothing’s going to bring Sam back.

“It will just mean people don’t have to talk about him anymore; that part will be dealt with.

“It won’t feel any better but it will be one less thing to carry,” she said.

Going forward, Lija and Paul agreed the greatest hope for change lies with the next generations of adults, who are being taught vastly different narratives about relationships between men and women than those before them.

For Lija, the main message she wants to see getting through is simply about kindness.

When her own young sons saw ribbons tied around trees in the main street of Cowes in memory of Sam, in the weeks following her death, that was what she spoke to them about.

“My boys asked me, ‘what are the ribbons?’ and an easy way to explain was that they were there to remind people to be kind.

“I explained that you can choose your actions; you’re in charge of what you do, and if everyone chose to be kind, there’d be less evil in the world.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever eradicate domestic violence but I think if kids can grow up with good foundation of respect, that’s a good start,” she said.

“Small changes will make big changes. And I am seeing kindness. And I know Sam’s family have been really thankful for the community’s support.

“Without a lot of people in this town, we’d all just fall down.

“We are walking but we’re being held up.”