‘Emotional call’ made over memorial plaque

An “emotional and difficult” decision has fallen upon Grant District Council to determine the outcome of a sensitive dispute which has “torn a family apart”.

Council was put in a tight spot to retain or remove a plaque after a mother and daughter were at odds over a memorial displayed at Carpenter Rocks.

A plaque honouring their son and brother, Damian Benson, who was lost at sea 24 years ago is displayed on a memorial wall in honour of lost fishermen in the area.

Damian was 15 years old when lost at sea in waters off Blackfellows Caves. He was fishing with his father Christopher Benson who was also tragically lost at sea at the same time.

Kathy McCallum wrote to council expressing her emotional distress at seeing her son’s name on the memorial wall and requested the plaque for Damian be removed.

However, she did not wish for her former partner’s plaque to be removed.

Ms McCallum said having no closure on the loss of her son continues to cause her distress and the plaque “opened up more pain and sorrow”.

“This incident is still devastatingly raw and seeing this plaque displayed is unbelievably upsetting,” Ms McCallum said.

“No-one would possibly know how I feel unless they have lost a child with no closure.”

Ms McCallum said her son and his father were holidaying in Mount Gambier at the time they went missing on July 26, 1998.

“Damian went missing … to this day he still is. I’m all for Chris’ plaque as some of his remains were found, but I will not accept the plaque of Damian because there was nothing found to this day,” she said.

“We moved to Mount Gambier in 2002 and for the past 20 years have visited the place in hope he would appear.

“It hurts like hell to see Damian’s name plastered on a plaque. His name should not have been there.”

Ms McCallum said as next-of-kin to her son she should have been contacted and asked permission for a plaque in Damian’s honour.

“Surely someone could have contacted me about it. Being next-of-kin, I certainly would have said no,” she said.

Ms McCallum said she found out through social media that her son’s name had become the subject of one of the plaques.

“I found out about it on Facebook. I was totally devastated and really upset finding out on social media something I knew nothing about… without permission,” she said.

“It really made me one angry mum as it could have all been avoided if things were searched and checked and the proper family next-of-kin found. I’m so heartbroken.

“This has torn our family apart.”

Meanwhile, council also received a letter from Sandy Benson, Damian’s sister, requesting the plaque remain.

She also initiated a petition ‘Help save Damian’s name on the memorial wall!’ on the platform change.org which gained 293 signatures of support.

“What gives her (Sandy) the right to ask the whole wide world their opinion,” Ms McCallum said.

The Carpenter Rocks Progress Association, with assistance from council, erected the memorial.

Unveiled in October last year, the memorial displays name plaques for 19 fishermen who lost their lives at sea.

Located on the foreshore at the seaside town, the structure has provided a physical place to mourn and respect those lives lost.

For Ms Benson the memorial is a place to pay her respects to her brother and father.

“I think it’s such a beautiful thing to do for the families as it gives us a place to go to see them and pay our respects as not everyone’s body has been found,” Ms Benson said.

“It’s a place for me, my kids, our families and Damian’s friends to go to show our respects and the only place that actually has his name.

“We do not have a grave or ashes or anything else.

“My mother was told if she wanted it removed, she would need to put it in writing and put it to the council and they will then decide.

“I wanted to get as many signatures as possible to keep Damian’s plaque next to my dad and to show how many people think it’s a great idea and it needs to stay.”

Unveiled in October last year, council chief executive Darryl Whicker said the memorial has generally been supported by the community.

“This decision is emotional and difficult to make,” he said.

“The wall was a community initiative supported under council’s Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program.

“So, it remains our infrastructure and our asset. That’s probably why this decision fell upon council rather than the progress association.”

He said the project was community driven, including historic research to identify suitable persons for inclusion on the wall, design of the wall and consultation with the community and relevant next-of-kin, who could be identified and located.

Mr Whicker reported Ms Benson’s petition does not meet the requirements of a petition under the Local Government Act.

“Therefore, the petition should be considered as indicative of community sentiment only,” he said.

Council also has a ‘Plaques and Memorials Policy’, however, the policy does not take into consideration requests to remove plaques or memorials.

Given the “extremely sensitive nature” of the dispute, council sought legal advice in respect to its legal obligations.

“The legal advice included deaths are a part of the public record and so long as council has complied with its policy requirements, there is no breach of any law by displaying the plaque,” Mr Whicker said.

“There is not any legal requirement to obtain permission from the next of kin. The association sought approval from all deceased person’s next-of-kin or appropriate relative, thus meeting the policy requirement.

“The association confirmed they were unable to locate Kathy McCallum who now resides in Queensland.

“There is not any legal requirement for the council to remove the plaque, nor is there any requirement to maintain the status quo.

“The association’s project manager expressed the plaque should stay because it is a part of the community’s history and a place where community and relatives may reflect and grieve.”

Mr Whicker said the decision took into consideration correspondence from interested parties, including the petition, council’s Plaques and Memorials Policy and legal advice provided by Kelledy Jones Lawyers.

It was decided Damian’s memorial plaque will remain and his mother and sister will be notified by council of the outcome.

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