What happens to the children of women killed by men?

In the latest part of our series, we highlight the lack of official support in the UK for traumatised youngsters and those left to pick up the pieces. But, amid the grief, is there still hope for the future?

Susan Dela Cuesta, 57, and her partner, David Crouch, 78, will soon know if they have full custody of their one-year-old granddaughter. The child’s mother, 20-year-old Caroline Crouch, was killed on 11 May this year, by her husband, Charalambos Anagnostopoulos, 33. Initially, he had claimed that intruders had murdered his wife. “One thing that makes me even more sad than her death is the fact that our daughter will grow up without remembering her beautiful mother,” he said, before his arrest, at Crouch’s funeral.

Her diaries revealed that she had been in an abusive, controlling relationship. Now, it seems likely that the little girl will grow up not in Athens but on the island of Alonissos, her maternal grandparents’ retirement home. “There,” her grandmother said, “she will not be known as a killer’s daughter.”

She is one of many children each year, hidden behind headlines about killings, who are left motherless by femicide. Families and friends will struggle to take on the role of carers, hit by a juggernaut of sudden loss and unexpected added responsibility.

Their stories are just some of those now being highlighted by the Observer, as part of its collaboration with the Femicide Census, a database that includes a 10-year review of all female killings. Activist and former solicitor Clarrie O’Callaghan, and Karen Ingala Smith, chief executive of Nia, a sexual and domestic violence charity founded the census. They have been helped by pro bono support from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, an international law firm, and consultants Deloitte. The aim of our collaboration is to try to reduce the rate of femicide. One woman is killed by a man every three days, a statistic unchanged for a decade.

Charalambos Anagnostopoulos, wearing a mask.
Charalambos Anagnostopoulos, who killed his wife, Caroline Crouch, in May this year. Photograph: Miloš Bičanski/Getty Images

“The least the government can do is to establish precisely how many children are affected and produce an action plan to meet their needs. Currently, that is not happening,” says O’Callaghan.

She and Ingala Smith estimate that at least 80 children a year in the UK are left motherless by femicide. “Bereavement through violence has a profound impact on children, even more so when the perpetrator is your father,” says Ingala Smith. “In addition to the trauma of loss, there are the questions of identity, loyalty and genetic inheritance.”

Emma Radley of Winston’s Wish, a charity that supports bereaved children, says that many of them “puddle jump’’. “One minute they will be in the depths, crying , wanting to know, ‘Where’s Mummy?’, the next they will be asking if they can go out and play. It can make adults think, ‘It’s OK now’. And it may not be. It can have a domino effect on a child’s entire life.”

In the UK, in what is still the only major study of children affected by one parent killing the other, six-year-old Harry was asked to draw what he saw when his father shot his mother and later killed himself.

“Are you sure you want to see it?” Harry asked. “I can only draw sad faces.” Often, children stay silent in case the pain is too much for their new carer and they are abandoned again.

The study, When Father Kills Mother, was conducted by a team of child and adolescent psychiatrists headed by Dora Black, now retired. In it, the team records how 400 children impacted by domestic homicide, “flotsam in the sea of life”, were helped. Forty per cent (160) were under five at the time of the killing. Some had been returned to the care of the perpetrator, having witnessed the killing. Many suffered from anxiety, nightmares, phobias, post-traumatic stress, aggressive behaviour and an inability to trust –“frozen watchfulness”.

“If they behave as if nothing has happened,” the authors warned, “this should be regarded as a problem.”

The book was first published almost 30 years ago when “psychological first aid”, understanding and practical help were in short supply – so, has there been progress?

Mumtahina Jannat
Mumtahina Jannat, 29, was strangled to death by her husband, Abdul Kadir, six years after they had separated. Photograph: Unknown

Drawing on the Femicide Census database, 80% of mothers (402) in domestic homicides were killed by a current or former partner. For example, Mumtahina Jannat, 29, mother of two, was strangled by her husband, Abdul Kadir, 49, in 2011, six years after they had separated. Five per cent (27) of mothers were killed by strangers.

In 19% of cases it’s unknown if the victims had children under 18. Over 10 years, at least 52 children were killed and, excluding by terrorist attack, 31 were killed by their father. In at least 19 cases, femicide was followed by suicide leaving the child or children orphans.

More than 100 children witnessed a killing or were in the home when it occurred. In one instance, a man murdered his girlfriend and their 10-month-old daughter in a “sustained and fearsome” knife attack, leaving a two-year-old in the house with his dead mother and sibling for over 24 hours.

In 59% of domestic homicides, a history of domestic abuse was identified, “a considerable undercount”, according to the census. So, long before the loss of a mother, many children will have witnessed, if not experienced, violence and coercive control.

Roann Court, 27, appears confident and outgoing but some days, she says, that melts away. In 2009, Benjamin Cooper, 35, stabbed Court’s mother, Clare, 41 times. She had left him after a decade of abuse. Court, then 15, witnessed the attack, grabbed her little sister, ran to a neighbour and returned to try to save her mother. ”My mother’s last words to me were: ‘Look after the girls.’”

She says: “I wouldn’t be here but for my nan, my husband and my two boys. I’ve taught myself how to cope. He [Cooper] is out now after only 10 years; our sentence continues.”

Court’s “brilliant” grandparents, then in their 50s, adopted their three granddaughters. “They picked up the pieces.” Therapy, however, soon stopped. “It was PTSD treatment for veterans. They don’t know how to deal with children. My sister was three but she can remember word for word what happened. It’s so important to ask the child. Instead, the professionals would talk to my nan and grandad but only we can know what we need.”

Roann Court, sitting in a garden.
Roann Court, whose mother, Claire, was murdered by a former partner in front of her and her sister in 2009. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Court’s sister is now 15. She has good support from school but, “she does ask, ‘What if I turn out like him?’ And some parents of school friends seem to think murder is catching.”

Court says she remembers her mother as someone full of life who, “loved dancing, Elvis Presley and laughter” and “not as a dead woman in the newspapers”, adding: “That matters to me.”

She would like to become a child counsellor if she can find the money. “I didn’t get the support that I needed when I was young so if I can help someone else experiencing what I did, I’ll feel good about myself.”

Hetti Barkworth-Nanton chairs Refuge, a domestic abuse charity and is co-founder of the Joanna Simpson Foundation, set up to help children bereaved by domestic homicide and fund research.

“Is there enough support today? Categorically no,” she says. JSF was established after the killing of her best friend, Jo, in 2010 by her husband, leaving two children. “When support does happen, it’s patchy at best. Victim support is for the adult but the child is invisible.

“Almost half of these children end up in care or, on average, they are moved four or five times, changing schools, not allowed back into homes after a killing so they can retrieve clothes or school work or something to remind them of their mother. They may be bounced between both sides of battling families and end up in limbo when what they desperately need is love and security.”

A domestic homicide review (DHR) investigates a killing to learn lessons and make recommendations. A 2018 report analysed 55 DHRs published between 2011 and 2016 that involved children under 18. Only three had any input from a child; only 11 mentioned ongoing support for the children.

Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse, an extraordinary charity that provides specialist advice and support for families, would like to see children having a voice and many more specially trained child advocates.

Also not considered in the DHRs was how, after separation, the family courts and other agencies continue to insist that “contact is best”, a dangerous man can still be a “good enough father”, even when he is using contact to continue to exercise coercive control.

A Women’s Aid report lists 19 child fatalities from 12 families in the context of post-separation contact. In 2014, Claire Throssell’s sons, Jack,12, and Paul, nine, were burned to death by their father, Darren Sykes, on a contact visit. Now, she campaigns. Belatedly and slowly, reform is underway but some judges still fail to understand the toxicity of coercive control.

Dr Gemma Graham.
Dr Gemma Graham, whose mother committed suicide when she was six years old. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

What is it like for a child to be returned to the care of a man whom your mother feared? Gemma Graham lectures in forensic psychology. On 1 May 1993, when Graham was six, her mother, Linda, took her own life. “She had left her husband after years of abuse, but he kept tracking her down. She lived in terror. She told my grandmother, ‘If anything happens to me, don’t let him have Gemma’.”

Graham was placed in foster care. “I never lived with my brother again. I thought I’d done something bad.”

Then, her father won custody. He had a new partner. “They were violent, noisy, drunken,” she says. When she was nine, her father abandoned her to his partner who told Graham to leave five years later. “There was no love. She wouldn’t let me eat in the same room. I got accused of bullying at school. Nobody recognised something was wrong. I’m 34 now and I’m still massively impacted. Two years ago, I told my husband, ‘I’m alive but I’m not living. I’m constantly catastrophising about losing my job, my marriage, my friends.’ Anything would trigger those awful feelings I had as a child.”

Graham had a year of trauma therapy. “It was the best and the worst thing I’ve ever done. Eighteen months ago, I couldn’t have had this conversation. Now, I’ve got a mental tool kit that reminds me: ‘You’ll be all right.’”

Outcomes for children after a killing are linked to support for their carers. Many relatives, or kinship carers, have a special guardianship order until the child reaches 18. Some have to share parental responsibility with the perpetrator and allow his family access to his children.

Leeds City Council has a dedicated team to support special guardians (SGs), offering assessment, training, workshops and practical and financial help.

That is rare. A group of organisations, including the charity Kinship, are campaigning to improve the help SGs receive. Income is an issue. If a grandmother gives up work for a second round of parenting, her pension will suffer. She may also face sanctions from the jobcentre, further reducing her income.

“Kinship care and poverty are inextricably linked,” says the charity’s chief executive Lucy Peake.

Unlike fostering, which usually has a minimum allowance of £134 a week, the average weekly allowance for SGs is about £91, although one in four receive no allowance at all. A child may receive a payout from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority but that is generally reserved until they come of age.

Paul and Glynis Holder in the Gloucestershire graveyard where their daughter is buried.
Paul and Glynis Holder at the Gloucestershire grave of their murdered daughter, Kelly. They are bringing up her two children. Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Observer

On 28 November 2018, George Worgan strangled his wife, Kelly, 33. Their children were aged four and five. He must serve 12 and a half years before he is eligible for parole. Two days after the killing, grandparents Glynis and Paul Holder became the children’s carers. Paul, 57, has disabilities and Glynis, 65, is his full-time carer. Glynis says: “Social workers were here all the time. It was stressful.”

Money is sparse but the community has given strong support. The children were given “a van load” of Christmas presents, their first without their mother. “It’s been very hard,” Glynis says. “As my granddaughter grows up, how she walks, her temperament, is so like her mum.

“They won’t sleep alone. She is having therapy. The other day she made a mask, inside she had written ‘Help’. The father used to say there was something wrong with my grandson. He used to smack him. When the boy started school, he was still in nappies. Now he is doing so well. They know we love them and they are safe.”

This year, for the first time, domestic abuse legislation recognises children as victims of abuse in their own right. The Home Office says it has provided more than £3m for specialist services for children. It is currently undertaking consultation prior to statutory guidance.

In 2018, Italy passed a law for children affected by domestic homicide, “orfani speciali”, based on the work of the late feminist campaigner, Professor Anna Constanza Baldry. Among other elements, it provides money for scholarships, further education, job training, legal aid, medical and psychological care, and funds civil proceedings and a monthly allowance. It also ensures the child receives their dead parent’s pension and the right to change their name. The UK needs a similar model.

Of course, the best outcome of all would be for the killing and abuse to stop.

Care system failings

Children may also become victims of femicide because of statutory neglect. Samantha (Sami) Sykes had known Elisa Frank and her younger sister, Kimberley (Kim) Frank, since primary school in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. Then, the Franks were placed in care.

Samantha Sykes was stabbed to death in 2012, aged 18
Samantha Sykes was stabbed to death in 2012, aged 18. Photograph: West Yorkshire Police

In a children’s home, Elisa began a relationship with Ahmad Otak, who arrived in Britain in 2007 as a refugee, an unaccompanied minor. After he and Elisa moved in together he would threaten to sew up Elisa’s mouth and kill her relatives if she left him. Sami successfully encouraged Elisa to end the relationship.

“Sami was fearless,” says her mother, Julie Warren-Sykes, an NHS associate director of nursing. “She had a strong sense of right and wrong.”

In March 2012, Elisa, 19, and Kim, 17, were in Elisa’s flat when Otak arrived. He tied up Elisa and stabbed Kim to death and made Elisa call Sami, 18, whom he also killed. He is serving 34 years.

“Looked-after children are also victims of femicide,” Warren-Sykes says. “No one confronted Otak about his abuse except Sami. When vulnerable children do come forward and nothing is done, what kind of message does it send to all women?”

Warren-Sykes and her family established the remarkable Samantha Sykes Foundation Trust, in 2014, to support children in care and care leavers. More than 3,000 young people have been helped with further education, laptops, transport costs and therapy.

“It was important to turn what was so brutal and negative into something positive in Sami’s name,” she says.

Contributor

Yvonne Roberts

The GuardianTramp

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