Why Did Rebecca Lazarus Die?

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Outside a plain weatherboard house on Central Avenue, Boronia, at 3.40pm on 4 July 2007, Rebecca Lazarus lay on the ground with severe stab wounds to her chest, stomach and left hand. Her murderer stood over her with his hands pressed against her chest, but after a few seconds calmly walked away, leaving her to die.

Just hours earlier, it was a run-of-the-mill Wednesday for 25 year-old Lazarus as she headed to Zagames Hotel with her friend Daniel Penny.

The pair left their supported residential service (SRS) in the morning and made their way down to the hotel they often frequented. There, she got chatting to Matthew Bell, whom she hadn’t met before. He bought her a few drinks.

After midday Lazarus called one of the managers at her SRS and asked them to tell Travis Cooke, her co-resident and boyfriend, to meet her at Zagames. After he arrived, the three chatted unremarkably.

Shortly after 3pm, Cooke and Lazarus left and made their way to K-mart where Cooke stole a steak knife. Not long after he used it to stab his girlfriend.

Alvi D'Souza was the manager and proprietor of Hazelwood Supported Residential Service until the beginning of 2007, when he sold the business. Lazarus had lived at the facility since the age of 19 following a foster care upbringing. Her mother had suffered from cerebral palsy and her father had been her primary carer. Following his death, when Lazarus was five, she was placed in foster care and so begun her journey to Hazelwood where she would wind up living with Travis Cooke.

“She used to call my wife and I 'Mum' and 'Dad' all the time. She was always a happy girl,” D’Souza told New Matilda.

Lazarus aspired to one day make it down the aisle, he added: “It always happens in places like this, they want to have someone to walk around with ‘cause they like family and at her age she wanted to be getting married, she just couldn’t find the right person.”

In early 2006 Lazarus and Cooke began their relationship when they met at Hazelwood. Supported residential services are privately owned businesses that often receive little government funding but are responsible for some of society’s most vulnerable members including the aged, those suffering from mental illnesses, disabled residents and alcohol and drug abuse victims. According to the Victorian Department of Health, there are about 160 active SRS facilities in the state, legislated and governed by the department under the Supported Residential Services (Private Proprietors) Act 2010.

No price cap is set on how much these facilities are allowed to charge. Documents published by the department reveal that rent “can range from most or all of a pension plus rent assistance per week in some SRS, to $1000 or more per week in other SRS”. The fees some facilities charge often leave residents penniless.

Violence and abuse are also rife in SRS and reports show that incidents have ballooned over the past few years. There is currently no legislation or policy in place to dictate which residents an SRS can accept, frequently leaving facilities as hotbeds of violence, abuse and neglect.

Some facilities house residents as young as 19 alongside aged residents often looking for a quieter lifestyle. These conflicting needs have been known to result in arguments, often ending in aggressive outbreaks and in some cases, murder.

At the time of Lazarus’ murder, 30-year-old Cooke was on a Community Treatment Order and receiving mental health assistance from Eastern Health. Although Eastern Health told the Coroner’s Court that Cooke was thought not to be any “significant risk” to Lazarus, risk assessments from February and May 2007 completed by Eastern Health describe him as being an “ongoing chronic risk of harm to others due to ongoing paranoid and persecutory delusions”. Despite these observations no efforts were made to transfer Cooke to a more secure facility.

In addition to Eastern Health’s assessments, Cooke had been through a long list of psychiatric treatment and in December 2006 he was admitted to the Adult Inpatient Unit at Maroondah Hospital following an incident in which he threatened a co-resident with a knife. He had also been known to have made death threats to his parents and in February 2007 a knife was discovered under his pillow at the low-care facility, five months before he would stab his girlfriend to death.

The biggest shock was that it would take nearly five and a half years after that day for the findings into Lazarus’ death to be published. On the 14 November 2012, 1960 days after Lazarus was brutally murdered, the Coroners Court of Victoria released its report, a “Finding Without Inquest”.

Of the 12-page document only one recommendation was made by Judge Jennifer Coates. She suggested that the “Department of Health continue to develop the skill and knowledge of staff proprietors of supported residential services” through the incorporation of a family violence training module.

But while Coates did recommend a "specific focus on the impacts and effects of family violence in relation to people with disabilities", a specific recommendation about the placement of high-risk individuals such as Cooke in low-risk facilities was absent. Why was the main reason for Lazarus’ murder ignored in the coroner’s recommendations?

Part two of Benjamin Potter's report on supported residential services will be published tomorrow. This story was originally written as an assignment in the School of Journalism at Monash University.

New Matilda

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