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Society

After A Femicide, What Happens To The Children?

Children orphaned by domestic violence are a uniquely vulnerable kind of victim. An investigation from Romania.

Abstract painted image of an adult and a child walking. The adult is holding the child's hand.

Where does a child turn when their father has killed their mother?

Oana Sandu

NOTE: The names of the characters in the two stories featured in this article have been changed to protect the identity of the children.

A seven-year-old boy bounces out of the schoolyard towards his grandmother, who welcomes him happily and takes off his backpack. The child smiles at her and tells her that in one of his classes he got up from his desk and looked out of the window.

"You're not allowed!" the grandmother replies firmly. "Never do that again!"

The boy, Vladi, who has just started primary school, is puzzled: "Granny, do you forgive me? But I didn't know it was a rule. You didn't tell me I wasn't allowed to look out of the window."

"There are rules," the woman tells him. "Don't talk without being asked, don't interrupt class, don't get up from the bench."

"Yeah, but you didn't tell me I wasn't allowed to look out the window."

Grandma Ileana doesn't answer and hurries him towards the crossing to go to the supermarket. When he hears about the shopping, Vladi forgets the unspoken rule he had been warned about and is already thinking about what sweets to put in the basket.

The real reason for his visit to the supermarket in the center of a small town near Bucharest, Romania, where his grandma has lived for almost 20 years, is a promise from the manager to help her with a much-needed document.

Her daughter died three years ago and she wants to make sure Vladi and her sister have access to orphan allowances. To do this she needs the original work card for her daughter, who worked as a shop assistant here more than 10 years ago, when she was free and could choose where to work.

With her voice trembling, she tells the manager that her daughter worked here in 2009, and the government has been asking for her old work card. "It will be three years now, in February, since she died. I don't know, maybe you heard of the case?"

The manager doesn't reply, reads the document worriedly and then tells her that a long time has passed since 2009 and there is little chance that the original work card will be with them. She phones a colleague, asks a few questions and then explains to the grandmother that in 2011, work cards were given to employees, so the daughter probably already received it.

"Got it," the grandmother replies resignedly. She asks Vladi what they have to take, and he answers quickly, as if he had already learned the list: "Bread, milk, cereal — and I would like some sweets."

Vladi and his sister Eliza have been Ileana's top priority since February 2020, when their father killed their mother, Ileana’s daughter.


He had a restraining order, which he had already violated with no consequences. The police officers who should have intervened are under criminal investigation.

Electronic bracelets are not enough

Maybe you've read the dramatic headlines, or heard them on TV: ‘A little girl was orphaned by her own father.’ ‘A Romanian man in Germany killed his wife in front of their two children.’ ‘A woman was killed by her husband in front of her child.’

Such murders happen about 40 times every year in Romania. According to Romanian police, between 2014 and 2021 there were 337 murders between current and former intimate partners.

Families are numbed with shame.

Some have been catalysts for important legislative changes to combat domestic violence, like electronic monitoring bracelets for abusers, in the hopes of better protecting women after the deaths of many who were theoretically protected by protection orders (which have also been made more effective).

Still, while the government boasts about implementing electronic bracelets — after 10 years of demands from civil society organizations — we know nothing about the long-term consequences for the child victims of intimate partner murders.

The families who raise them are numbed with shame, tangled in a thicket of bureaucracy and uninformed and overwhelmed by financial worries.

Abstract, painted image of a child-like figure in a dark cloud, with other indistinct figures of adults and children around them.

Painted image of a child-like figure in a dark cloud, with other indistinct figures of adults and children around them.

Tuan Nini

What daddy did

The survivor's allowance Ileana wants to get, €200 per month, is the latest challenge in her life as a single grandmother. She decided to give it a try after a childhood friend told her about the allowance. The children have this right, and they could make use of it — it's hard to raise two children on a retirement pension and foster care benefits of not even €400.

At first, the boy was violent and aggressive. He had nightmares. He cried in his sleep and called out for his mother: "Mummy, mummy, mummy.” Sometimes it sounds like he is confessing: "Mummy, I have something to tell you. I miss my mummy."

When it happened, the boy was four and the girl had just turned three. They had already seen and heard a lot in the house they shared with their parents and grandmother. Their father had punched their mother in the head like a punching bag, burned her with a cigarette, cursed her over and over. She got a protection order in winter 2019 — a measure that made the husband furious, and which he freely violated without consequence from the police.

One morning, the man broke through the attic into the room where the children and wife were staying. The little ones hid under the clothes dryer and heard and saw through their clothes how the father stabbed their mother. More than 20 times.

With the bloody knife in his hands, he called out to them too. Eliza wanted to answer, but Vladi put his hand over her mouth. When they heard his footsteps walking away, out into the street, the little ones came out from under the dryer. They approached their mother, wiped the blood from her face, and said tearfully: "Mommy, mommy, breathe so you don't die, mommy."

We don't say how, just that you don't have a mother.

That's what the boy told his grandmother, aunt and cousin. When a kindergarten classmate asked him why he didn't have a mother, he said serenely, "Because daddy stuck a knife in her." Grandma imposed a different rule then: "We don't say how, just that you don't have a mother.”

But the pain remains, and this can be seen in the question the boy still asks his grandmother: "Why was the monster bad? What did he want with mum?" Ileana answers as best she can: "You'll find out when you grow up."

Confusion and helplessness 

When your mother is killed by your father, you go through a devastating experience, with traumatic consequences that you will feel for the rest of your life.

When you're young, like Vladi and Eliza, you live in confusion and helplessness, not understanding what happened — either because the adults around you are terrified of sharing such a cruel truth with you, or because they believe that a child's resilience can help them erase painful memories.

But the human mind is curious. To survive and to move forward, we need answers — especially when we're young and learning about life from the stories adults tell us.

For a child, a murder in the family is also devastating because it's a horrific end to the violent reality they’ve been living, says U.S. psychiatrist Charles Zeanah. "Parents in violent relationships tend to minimize the effect on their children, for their own psychological reasons, but we know that children are more affected by domestic violence than parents recognize."

Children sometimes need to understand what they’ve experienced before the adults around them are ready to talk about it. "Because of their own pain and shame, surviving families want to put the story aside and encourage children not to think about it — but these actions can harm children, because they don't get what they need."

Those caring for these orphaned children need to be aware of the many consequences of the trauma of losing one's parents to a domestic crime. Their development — physical, cognitive, mental — is at risk, explains Diana Vasile, psychologist and president of the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Trauma: "There is a risk of greater illness, a risk of greater self-harm, a risk of greater aggression towards others, a risk of greater isolation and inability to socialize.”

Multiple victims

Children and their caregivers, whether uncles, aunts or grandparents, are co-victims of intimate partner crime. They experience enormous socio-emotional adjustment challenges, as well as physical and mental health challenges. It's hard to get back to your old life when you lose someone close to you and go through grief. And it's infinitely harder when your loved one is killed and you become a parent to a young, traumatized child who needs your full attention.

There's no going back to the life you had before.

Maria doesn't remember the first two weeks after her sister's death. Now 42, Maria runs a bakery in Moldova. She is divorced and has a teenage son. I met her four years ago, when she traveled several hundred kilometers every month to attend her brother-in-law’s criminal trial.

Her niece, Ana, was five when her father stabbed her mother with a kitchen knife during a party. She was left with the memory of a broken door, and the tense faces of that day when she and her younger brother, not yet two years old, were in the building where the murder happened.

Then the little girl moved out of Bucharest with Maria, her husband and son. Her brother was taken in by another aunt, who lives in the same town. Ana had new kindergarten classmates, a new teacher, new friends. It wasn't easy.

"She was kicking, screaming, throwing things," Maria remembers. “She would have tantrums in which she would throw herself to the pavement.”

Angel, watching over

Four years later, Maria tells me she learned everything on her own. She saw that although Ana was growing up, she was still behaving like a five-year-old, the age at which she had lost her mother. "The child wasn't maturing," she says. "I was aware that she was in shock because she had seen some of what had happened. I was admitted with her to a psychiatry ward for a week for treatment, diagnosed with an emotional block."

In the meantime, Maria found a psychotherapist in the city of Iasi, whom the girl accepted. They make trips every weekend to therapy, and for a while they also did sessions of therapy with horses, which Ana said helped her to feel calm. She is enrolled in a public art school, draws and plays the piano, finding solace in art.

Ana was nine when she started asking all sorts of questions: How did my mother die? Where is my father? She didn't have real answers from adults around her, her aunt thought, so her mind had begun to make the connections on its own. Until then, the family had told her that "Her mother had turned into an angel, watching over her at night in the form of little stars, and by day in the form of the sun's rays."

Hard questions

One evening, as they were getting ready for bed, she said to her aunt: "Aunty, please tell me why mummy died, because she was young. She didn't die of old age." Maria then took some photos of the girl's parents and asked her who the people in the photos were. She named her mother and father. And she asked Maria where her father was. She told the girl that he was in prison.

"Why?" the little girl asked.

"Mommy and daddy loved each other very much. They made you and your brother out of love. But after a while, they didn't get along and chose to separate," the aunt began the story. "But daddy couldn't accept that. He couldn't live without mummy, and decided to take her life."

"You mean kill her?"

"Yes."

"I understand," Maria remembers the little girl telling her.

Then came more questions:

"But how did he kill her?"

"Darling, let's talk about this tomorrow, it's a little late. Now we're getting ready for bed."

"Oh, if you don't tell me, I'll tell you. He stabbed her in the heart."

Without waiting for her aunt’s answer, the girl continued her question-and-answer.

"But with what? With the spear or the knife? If you don't want to tell me, I'll tell you: with the knife. That's why I'm afraid of sharp things, isn't it?"

Abstract, painted image of a child, looking into the distance, above a shadowy figure.

Painted image of a child looking into the distance above a shadowy figure.

Tuan Nini

Survivor's pension

A few days after the conversation, Ana was very sad. It wasn't easy for either of them, but her aunt is confident that the answers will help her. She was also somehow satisfied that even though it was extremely difficult, she was able to tell her the truth, as her therapist advised.

Maria waited more than half a year to receive the child’s social benefit that every Romanian child gets — a bureaucratic procedure that involves moving money from the deceased parent's account to that of the new legal representative. Because the delay was not explained to her, Maria asked for an audience with the mayor, and the money then magically came in.

Where children can relax from all the weight they feel.

But the stress has consumed her. She says she would never want to go through that again. At the end of last year, she got an orphan allowance for Ana, but the money hasn’t been deposited, and she doesn't know why. The county social office told her that the money would not be received until the child turned 18. The monthly amount is €80.

Legally, any orphaned child can receive a survivor's pension if the deceased parent contributed to the state by being employed. The amount varies according to the parent's contribution up to the date of death, but if it is less than €200 per month, the minimum social retirement pension in Romania, the state covers the difference.

Nobody told Maria this.

The only support Maria receives today is the approximately €200 child placement allowance, which she will no longer receive once she adopts her granddaughter — a legal procedure many families choose so that their children no longer bear the abuser's name.

For the past three years, Maria has been paying for psychotherapy or equine therapy sessions, which add up to about €600 every month. She says she has never had the courage to ask for help to have it covered, nor does she believe it would be possible. She thinks the state should provide special financial help for the children of victims, free psychotherapy sessions, art or music classes, "where children can relax from all the weight they feel,” she says.

What other countries do

According to data from Romania’s social welfare and child protection offices, 230 children were orphaned as a result of intimate partner killings between 2012 and 2022.

The real figure is higher. Some offices said they do not count cases of children in guardianship with extended families — only children in foster care with relatives, or already adopted. And others told me that 10 years ago, cases did not reach them if the children were looked after by people other than family members.

In many cases, orphans did not have survivors' pensions because their mothers had not legally worked before their deaths.

In Italy, child victims of domestic crimes have been called special orphans since 2018, when Italy became the first country in Europe to pass a law in support of the children of femicide — thanks to the research work of civic activist Anna Constanza Baldry. Italian researchers estimated that between 2000 and 2015, around 1,600 children and adults were orphaned by domestic violence.

Under Italy's new law, these children receive education grants, legal aid and financial support for medical and psychological services. The family caring for them receives a monthly allowance of €300.

Wider context of domestic violence

Similar laws exist in Latin American countries such as Argentina, Peru and Uruguay. From 2020, the Peruvian state will offer a monthly payment of €300 to each child enrolled in school.

In Spain, an NGO offers the Soledad Cazorla scholarship for children of femicides. Families can apply to the fund, which is named after the first female prosecutor of a court specializing in gender violence, and receive up to €2,000 euro per month, depending on their needs. The organization is now campaigning for a clear support protocol for orphaned children and their relatives, which does not exist in Spain.

To be the sister, brother or mother of a murdered woman, asked to offer comfort to her children, is devastating. And when the tragedy happened while authorities should have protected her, the least the state must provide is dignified social and financial support.

It takes all of us to understand that these stories and their characters are not just articles in the news, too tragic to think too much about. They are part of the phenomenon of domestic violence that continues to affect society in Romania and beyond.

Reporting for this article was supported by an Early Childhood Global Reporting grant from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.


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