The murder of mother-of-two Bernice Cassar, allegedly shot dead by her husband Roderick Cassar, has left many questioning what happens to their children who essentially lose both parents.
The outcome depends on the specific situation, according to a source who works in the children’s rights field.
If a family member is willing and fit to keep the children, they file a court application asking for temporary custody. What happens after that depends on the outcome of the custody case.
What happened to the children of Bernice Cassar?
In the case of Bernice Cassar’s two children, Times of Malta is informed that on the day of the murder – Tuesday – the maternal grandparents, through their lawyer Marita Pace Dimech, filed a court application for temporary custody, which was upheld.
The children had been living with their grandparents ever since their mother moved out of the matrimonial home, and into her childhood home last May following an incident when her husband allegedly held a knife to her throat. The court case over that incident was scheduled for November 19, 2023 – one year from now.
The funeral of the mother-of-two will be held at 3pm on Friday.
Over the years there have been several cases in which children essentially lost both parents to femicide: as the mother was dead and the father ended up behind bars, either in preventive custody or when convicted.
“While such cases are thankfully rare, the children would have already lost so much. So keeping them with people they know and love is a priority if it is possible,” the source said. In cases where there was no fit relative, the state would intervene.
Does the father have a right to see his children?
Technically speaking, the father has a right to ask to be granted access to the children, the source said, but he would have to take his argument to court.
If access were granted while he was in prison – either before being granted bail or while serving time – he would be escorted to a Family Visitation Centre where he would meet the children under supervision.
Speaking during an interview in 2020, counselling psychologist and family therapist Clarissa Sammut Scerri explained that, psychologically, these children may have to contend with the complex issue that they are simultaneously the children of a victim and a murderer, which may bring with it feelings of shame and hardship.
“Faced with the loss of their parent through a traumatic death, some children may become anxious or restless, sad and depressed, and may experience difficulty learning and concentrating in school. Depending on the children’s age, they might find it hard to believe that their parent is really dead.
“They might live in fear that the perpetrating parent might retaliate aggressively towards them and their care givers. They might also have sleep problems and aggressive behaviour. Some children may also have physical symptoms, such as eating and feeding difficulties such as nausea, or show weight and appetite changes,” she said.
What psychological help should the children receive?
Sammut Scerri added that children thrive if they are cared for by caregivers who are able to acknowledge their feelings and experiences and who can follow up their concerns with mental health care when needed.
“Children need honest communication about the way their mother died that is sensitive to the children’s age and to their current needs. They also need the possibility to say farewell to the deceased parent,” she said.
Two children lost their mother when Chantelle Chetcuti was stabbed in the head outside a bar in Żabbar in February 2020. She was allegedly stabbed by Justin Borg, her former partner of over a decade and the father of her two daughters. He was charged in court, denied the murder and was granted bail.
What other cases have there been?
Seven other children similarly lost their mother recent years.
Lourdes Agius, 35, was found strangled at her home in Paola in September 2018. The main suspect is Michael Emmanuel, her partner and father of two of her children. He had claimed insanity and pleaded not guilty, but his plea was thrown out by a jury.
A child lost her mother, Eleanor Mangion Walker, 33, who was found dead in a warehouse in Qormi, after being struck with a hatchet to the head in July 2016. Andrew Mangion, her former partner and father of her daughter, was charged with the murder.
Two children lost their mother when lawyer Margaret Mifsud was found strangled in her car, after a night out in April 2012. Her ex-husband, Nizar I Mustafa Al-Gadi, was found guilty of killing her and was sentenced to life. During his trial, one of the couple’s two daughters described him as “the worst dad in the world”.
Three children lost their mother when Catherine Agius, 40, was stabbed to death in July 2009 by her estranged husband Roger Agius with a butcher’s knife at a Tarxien bus stop. In 2012 he was jailed for 31 years after he admitted to the crime.
The children had told Times of Malta they believed their father should have been imprisoned for life because he robbed them of their mother. “Our father stopped existing when he killed our mother,” they had said.