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Femicide leaves the sufferer behind

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On October 6, 2015, 20-year-old Giordana Di Stefano was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in her hometown of Nicolosi in Sicily. She left a baby daughter, Asia. The time immediately after Di Stefano's death was excruciating. Di Stefano's mother, Vera Squatrito, tried to explain to Asia that she would not be coming home. First, Asia's grandmother told her that her mother was an angel or a star in the sky.

Asia, now nine years old, is one of Italy's Orfani Speciali, or special orphans – children and adults whose mothers have been killed by their husbands, partners, ex-partners or stalkers. Researchers estimate that around 1,600 children and adults in Italy were orphaned by domestic violence between 2000 and 2015.

In January 2018, Italy became the first country in Europe and one of the first countries in the world to pass a law that takes into account the specific needs of these orphans: scholarships, legal aid and funding for medical and psychological care. A decree in November 2019 released around USD 13.5 million in funding for Italy's Orfani Speciali. The money was allocated and made available in early July this year.

A law specifically designed for these orphans is a novel concept. With the exception of a few sporadic studies, little data has been collected on the children left behind by domestic violence or femicide. While there are issues that Italian law does not address – it cannot speed up the judicial process – it is nonetheless a major victory for the Orfani Speciali and their supporters. The legislation could also serve as a model for other countries. In the past decade, many states – particularly in Europe – have started recording data on femicides and have introduced laws to punish perpetrators. But almost none have codified ways to deal with the consequences of these crimes for their living victims.

Italy's law is unique in that it takes into account almost every aspect of orphan's life: assistance through civil litigation, free therapy, and the provision of the means to gain further education and entry into the world of work. At the same time, the law ensures that the Orfani Speciali receive their inheritance and prevents the perpetrator – if it is a spouse – from receiving a survivor's pension. The law also allows them to change their last name, which is more important than economic aid, according to some adult orphans named after the father who murdered their mother.

The Italian government has released the funds for Orfani Speciali as concerns about femicides grow worldwide. Restrictions on movement due to the coronavirus pandemic have led to an increase in incidents of domestic violence. A study by the Violence Policy Center showed that intimate partner violence-related homicides increased steadily in the US from 2014 to 2017 after decades of decline.

The other three countries with laws in the books for caring for orphans are in Latin America. Argentina, Peru and Uruguay have also passed decrees providing monthly allowances, medical and psychological care for orphans with femicide. (More recently, Luis Abinader, who was sworn in as President of the Dominican Republic in August, proposed a program to assist orphans of domestic violence.) However, Italian law goes a step further to include orphans' rights to property and the state protect pension funds from their mothers. In addition, a femicide is clearly defined as the killing of a woman by a husband, ex-husband, partner, ex-partner, or someone she lives with, thereby preventing the exclusion of orphans whose mothers were not killed by their fathers .

Italy's public funding for Orfani Speciali amounts to € 14.5 million until 2020 and € 12 million for each additional year until 2024, intended for scholarships, medical and psychological assistance and vocational training, as well as a monthly support grant of € 300 for families Care for the orphans. The law provides 70 percent of the funds for minors, while 30 percent are intended for adult orphans who are not economically self-sufficient.

The legislation was partly inspired by the experience of its author, lawyer Anna Maria Busia. In 1998, a woman in Busia's hometown in Nuora Province was murdered by her husband, leaving behind a six-year-old daughter, Vanessa. Busia said she took the case "practically for free" and the next 20 years of litigation – first to get Vanessa's mother's survivor's pension and then to get the right to her family's home – showed Busia that Italy had the legal tools to do so lack of help for victims like Vanessa, who eventually won both cases.

"Our (legal) system deals with the perpetrator of the crime," said Busia. "It's about punishment, it's about conviction, it's about imprisonment, but it's not about protecting the victims."

Busia, then a regional advisor in Sardinia, drafted the law on Orfani Speciali in 2017, initially to close the loopholes that allowed the perpetrators to inherit from their deceased spouses. Roberto Capelli, a lawmaker from Busia's party, the Democratic Center, became the first to sign the law, and others soon pledged their support.

Amendments were added during the parliamentary debate based on groundbreaking research by Italian psychologist Anna Costanza Baldry, who died in 2019. She found that only a third of the orphans she and her team interviewed had received psychological help. More than 60 percent of the nurses stated that they had received neither economic nor any other support. Based on Baldry's guidelines, the changes provided funding for medical and psychological expenses, scholarship funds, and professional training.

Long before the national government approved the legislation, regional governments and local, privately funded organizations were already filling the void.

Lazio was the first of only a few regions in Italy to set up a fund for the families of Orfani Speciali. Introduced by a law in 2014, the money became available in 2016. (Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Campania, Piedmont and Lombardy now have similar provisions.) The Lazio Fund distributes 10,000 euros per child in the first year after the mother's death and 5,000 euros for each year up to the age of 29.

When Patrizia Schiarizza founded il Giardino Segreto in 2015, a Rome-based organization that helps orphans and their families, she planned legal and psychological help. But she quickly realized that their needs were different: one needed a job, another needed shelter, and a nervous grandmother needed confirmation over the phone.

Orfani speciali often fall into the care of grandparents, aunts and uncles. One of the grandparents who received support from Schiarizza's organization was Squatrito, who is now raising Asia. "She thought (her mother) left her because she was a brat," Squatrito said, adding that Asia was becoming rebellious and emotionally closed.

In Lazio, Rossana – who has asked for anonymity – has been looking after her two granddaughters – now nine and six years old – since 2015 when her daughter's partner killed her before killing himself. The grandmother came to il Giardino Segreto for advice about her older granddaughter, who was afraid of breaking up with her grandmother.

Raising femicide orphans also brings financial difficulties. The cost of school and extracurricular activities add up, and both grandmothers paid for private therapists. Squatrito said although the state gave her brief psychological support after her daughter's death, "As soon as you finish the course (treatment), they will leave you."

While regional funding helps Rossana, she's still worried about money. After her daughter died, she applied for her old-age pension in advance. "I've emptied all of my savings," she said. "If I retire soon, I'll get a ridiculous amount and I don't know how to raise these girls. And that's an extremely serious problem."

Giordana Di Stefano and Asia in 2014 (L); and Vera Squatrito and Asia this September.Family photos

Both grandmothers wanted to make sure that their granddaughters were treated the same as their peers. When Asia asked for dance lessons, Squatrito said yes, although this increased the financial burden. For Asia it was a connection with her mother who was also a dancer. And after finding out that her seven-year-old grandchild was searching for her mother's name online, Rossana called for the “right to be forgotten” – an EU provision that allows people to remove personal information from search engines.

Some proponents already foresee problems with Italian law, particularly the cumbersome process of raising funds from the government: victims or their guardians must submit an application to a local government before it is sent to Rome and approved by the central government. There is no standard form that orphans can use to apply for funds, Schiarizza said. In addition, the funds must be formally renewed each year, with the documents signed by the "parent exercising parental responsibility" – in many cases the father in prison.

Since the law was passed, il Giardino Segreto has received many inquiries about the promised funds. For more than two years, Schiarizza had to tell families that the money was not available and now she is still thinking about how to navigate the system that was put in place in July. "These resources, as modest as they may be, are still useful," said Schiarizza. "These families have so many needs that any sum is good at this point."

Mara Carfagna, vice-president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, published a letter in July expressing similar concerns about the bureaucratic process. "There shouldn't be any complicated procedures, stamped paper inquiries, and medical loan refunds," Carfagna wrote. The government has said it is working to simplify the process.

According to experts, Italy's law, particularly in the European Union, could be adapted for other countries. Italian law could also serve as a model for other countries where the laws also pose problems in implementation. For example, a report earlier this year found that few families had received their provisions under the Argentine law of 2018, indicating “poor interpretation of the law, judicial errors, confused or misogynistic judgments, bureaucratic labyrinths, and lack of support and access to rights is due. "Since the report was published, the monthly allowance has increased to about $ 218, but only a fraction of the estimated 3,000 children in Argentina orphaned by femicides in the past decade have received funding."

Busia said a "common shortcoming" in other countries' laws was "the lack of protection for crime victims". She hopes Italy will inspire other countries to create instruments that prioritize the special needs of these “special victims”, including specific provisions to change their surname and guarantee of a survivor's pension.

Many adult orphans and their families have now dedicated their lives to speaking out against domestic violence. Squatrito travels through Italy to tell the story of her murdered daughter and to educate children about domestic violence. Sometimes her feelings still overwhelm her. "It's like you're living a parallel life yourself," said Squatrito. "From that moment it was a different life for me."

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