Children of femicide victims, especially those whose mothers were murdered by their fathers, need more support after the brutal experience that robs them of both parents and catapults them into a world of grief and instability, experts and relatives of the victims have said.
“The reality is that, in such circumstances, these children lose both parents as one is dead and the other jailed,” says 66-year-old Josephine Walker who is raising her granddaughter – the child of her daughter Eleanor Mangion Walker who was murdered on July 1, 2016.
Apart from the grief and trauma, this often creates financial problems that result in further changes in their lives – such as no longer attending the same school or extracurricular activities, she said.
Ms Mangion Walker’s estranged husband, Andrew Mangion, is pleading not guilty to the femicide believed to have taken place in a Swieqi garage. The 33-year-old mother’s body was discovered wrapped in a plastic bag and hidden under wooden pallets in an Qormi warehouse. She sustained blows to the head.
Mr Mangion had given himself up to authorities following a two-day manhunt.
Last week’s murder of mother-of-two Chantelle Chetcuti – who was stabbed in the head and whose former partner turned himself in to police (and is pleading not guilty to murder charges) –brought back bad memories for Ms Walker and her granddaughter.
Ms Chetcuti’s murder was the 16th femicide in a decade.
“When I was watching the news about this woman, my granddaughter stopped what she was doing and said: ‘this is what happened to my mummy’… She talks about her mother a lot. But wants nothing to do with her father,” Ms Walker says.
While Ms Walker tried hard to ensure her granddaughter did not have to experience too much change, she knew of other children of femicide victims who were uprooted from their lives.
Robbed of both parents
Her granddaughter is at school as I speak to Ms Walker, who relays a message from her: “What my father did is not fair. Because of him I don’t have a mummy or a daddy anymore.”
Ms Walker goes on to add: “The children suffer so much. In the beginning she (the granddaughter) didn’t want to sleep alone. I moved into the same bedroom with her and brought in a large painting of princesses her mother painted for her. I’d wake up at night and find her awake, knocking at the painting as though she wanted to go into it,” Ms Walker says.
In November, her granddaughter returned home from school with handmade birthday cards which her school friends made for her mother’s birthday. The cards are still near a large frame of Eleanor located in the entrance hall of the apartment block.
I’d wake up at night and find her awake, knocking at the painting as though she wanted to go into it
'We're still broken'
Times of Malta reached out to grown children of other femicide victims who said that, while they had a lot to say, they did not want to reopen the wound.
“I just want to move forward and leave all this behind,” one daughter said.
The daughter of another victim, murdered by her partner said: “We too lost both our parents. People say time heals but it’s the opposite. The older we grew, the more we needed our mother to talk to and confide in. We’re still broken and we will always feel our mother was taken from us especially as we live through moments that are happy ones for most people – like getting married or having children.”
Disappointed by the system
Eleanor’s elder sister. Melissa Gaul, 40, said that hearing of another femicide last weekend was saddening.
“When I hear of yet another victim, I feel a huge wash of disappointment that the system allows for this to happen so often and it also opens up old wounds.
“Then you see the statistics and wish you did things differently or spoken up with more authority when you might have noticed something odd. There’s also the feeling of helplessness knowing that what’s done is done and everything I do now won’t help my sister but may help another victim,” she says.
A close relative of a femicide victim said: “There are necessary laws but the problem is enforcement. Domestic violence is still considered a local matter and handled by the local police stations where officers there usually know the abuser. There are units within the police force handling different kinds of crimes, drugs, money laundering and cybercrime. So why not a domestic violence unit? The police system regarding domestic violence is outdated and treating it as some petty crime.”
Equality and Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis on Tuesday told women’s rights groups – who gathered for an impromptu protest in Valletta after Ms Chetcuti’s femicide – that although the government had implemented laws against domestic violence, more still needed to be done. He said the government was opening a channel with civil society to discuss the changes going forward.
Living in fear
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 a lot 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.
Dr 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 also need honest communication about the way their mother has 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.