On 28 November 2023, Luigi Leonetti, 51, confessed to killing his wife Vincenza Angrisano, aged 42. His two children, aged 11 and 6, had been present in the house. The children were first taken in by a local emergency reception centre, before being placed in the care of family members. At Vincenza Angrisano’s funeral, a letter was read by the woman’s eldest son who remembered her as “the person I love most in the world”.
Anna Costanza Baldry, a psychotherapist, criminologist, and volunteer of the association DiRe (Women’s Network Against Violence), calls these children “special orphans”. They are orphans of femicide: children whose fathers killed their mothers.
Baldry emphasises the lack of recognition and support for the people involved in such scenarios. Both the children of femicide victims and the families taking care of them are left somewhat to themselves: “What were these children told? How does the law help? And those adults who opened their homes, what psychological support have they received, even before economic support, if any […] ? And how are the orphans doing now?” The psychologist says many questions are unanswered.
Orphans of femicide: who are they and how many?
To understand how the orphans of femicide are coping, we first need to know who they are and how many there are. But this information is currently not available. Just as in Italy there is still no definitive data on femicide itself, there is also no national database providing numbers on the children of victims.
These shortcomings were already highlighted in 2015 by Switch-off.eu, a European project involving DiRe anti-violence centres and study groups from Italy, Lithuania and Cyprus. The Italian data was thus analysed with a view to identifying the needs of femicide orphans and drafting guidelines for governments. In 2021, a subsequent parliamentary commission published a survey of the femicide cases that occurred in Italy in 2017 and 2018. It identified 169 orphans, 39.6 percent of whom were minors, and 17.2 percent of whom were present at the time of the murder.
Updated data was then published in November 2023 by the non-profit “Con i Bambini per l’iniziativa A braccia aperte”. In 2021 it had selected four projects in Italy with the aim of supporting orphans of femicide.
One focus during these last two years has been the collection and analysis of this latest data on orphans of femicide. The numbers concern children and young people taken into care by projects funded by Con i Bambini (157) or by partner associations (260). The data is therefore only partial, taking into account only those individuals helped by the associations or with whom it was possible to establish an ongoing relationship. Nevertheless, it is an important point of reference to start framing the phenomenon.
Among the most interesting findings: in 36 percent of the cases the children were present at the time of the femicide; 65 percent of the families were not being followed by social services, despite warning signs; and 95 percent of the orphans had Italian citizenship.
“There are no official statistics, nor do the juvenile courts identify and deal with these specific issues,” laments Fedele Salvatore, president of Irene’95. This cooperative NGO is in charge of the Respiro project in southern Italy, one of the four projects mentioned above.
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Salvatore explains how his NGO identified the orphans of femicide in the NGO’s zone of operation (Italy’s south and islands): “We did a sort of reconnaissance in a rather artisanal way, drawing on data on femicides from anti-violence centres and going back through the news reports of the last 15 years. We identified about 305 orphans under 21 years of age and of these we managed to talk to 220.”
The protections of the law
The services provided by these associations are not the only form of support available to the children of femicide victims. In 2018, in fact, law No. 4 was passed. This protects economically dependent children – and indeed adults – who were orphaned “as a result of domestic crimes”.
Specifically, the law provides for access to free legal aid; the seizure of the suspect’s assets for damages; provisional compensation (of 50 percent of the total that can be given before liability is established); free counselling; the right to change one’s surname; and access to scholarships and job training.
It took two years before an implementing decree made these measures concrete facts. “It is a good law, the first in Europe”, says Fedele Salvatore. “But we are beginning to see its limits and it needs a lot of adjustment. Much responsibility is still being left on the shoulders of the foster families. Usually there are maternal grandparents or uncles and aunts, but sometimes also paternal ones. They are not always aware of the resources and assistance to which they are entitled, or how to apply for them.”
The procedures involved are cumbersome and time-consuming. For many, just navigating the legislation can be complicated: foster families often do not have the financial or emotional and relational tools to manage an orphan of femicide.
The law today provides for a monthly allowance of €300 per child taken into care, but this is not enough for many families. Meanwhile it is the associations which take charge of supporting the caregivers, who often do not recognise the importance of their psychological well-being, particularly if their attention is monopolised by financial hardship.
The importance of training
Training on the issue of trauma is necessary for all those who come into contact with orphans of femicide, in particular social workers, police officers and teachers. For this reason, the Respiro project has created basic training courses for all professionals who come into contact with the children of femicide victims. Their approach takes into account both the traumatic event itself and the so-called ‘witnessing violence‘: in practice, femicide is almost always preceded by a history of abuse and mistreatment of women in various forms, and to witness this as a child or young person can have an impact on one’s physical, cognitive, relational and behavioural development.
It is mainly those in communication with orphans who need to have such preparation, but in any case there is no clear and unambiguous procedure to follow.
Salvatore explains: “There is no intervention procedure that defines who does what and, above all, with what competences. By law, whenever minors are involved, the intervention of the social services and the juvenile court is triggered. But there is no specific protocol for complex issues like that of the orphan of a femicide. Instead it is left to the good sense of those in the front line of contact with the children. But this is not enough. In the literature, and also our practice, we now have evidence of how the first days and weeks are crucial. It is essential to know how to communicate the news to the children in the right way and without lying.”
Despite its gaps and weaknesses, law No. 4 undoubtedly represents an important step forward, especially when compared to the regulatory and institutional vacuum faced by orphans of femicides prior to the 2020 implementing decree. Olga Granà was murdered by her ex-husband in 1997 when her son Giuseppe Delmonte was 19 years old: “From the next day I started working”, Giuseppe recalled, explaining that he had to do everything alone and could only count on the help of a few family friends. He points out that his father “has had a psychologist since the week after” he entered prison “and then every week for 26 years. I, on the other hand, was only able to afford it four years ago out of my own pocket.”
“Unbelievable” is how Fedele Salvatore describes the situation he found when the Respiro project began working with orphans of femicides that occurred in the last 15 years: “There were kids who had never been approached by the social services or who never received subsequent follow-up. Then there were others to whom the cause of their mother’s death, which may have occurred five or six years earlier, had not yet been properly disclosed.”
“We know that so many of these ‘special orphans’ are still unable to access the support provided,” says Senator Valeria Valente, who from 2019 to 2022 served as president of the Commission of Inquiry on Femicide. “We must all work together – institutions and civil society – so that the critical issues are overcome.” Valente argues that it is also important to incorporate this issue into the wider phenomenon of gender violence: “In tackling violence against women we must always, by necessity, also take into account” orphans of femicide as well as “sons and daughters who witness abuse and violence in the family”.