“Where’s mom?,” asks Sgt. Roberto Mercado at the doorway of the light green house, located in the La Fuente neighborhood, in the town of Florida.
Behind the window, a 2-year-old boy responds by looking down at the floor next to him.
“For me, it was a sign that his mom was dead,” says the Puerto Rico Police negotiator about the femicide that he had to handle on the afternoon of June 30, 2018.
Emmanuel Córdova Vendrell had shot and killed his partner, Loren Figueroa Quiñones, 30, in front of her youngest son after hours of holding her hostage. The woman’s 8-year-old son had escaped the house during the argument. After carrying out the crime, the murderer committed suicide. Everything happened in front of the young child, who — with his feet soaked in his mother’s blood, dressed in shorts and shirtless — opened the door to the agents. Mercado carried him, while he wept, and handed him over to his maternal grandmother.
Nineteen days later, in the early morning of July 19, 2018, in Cabo Rojo, in the southwest coast, a 9-year-old girl saw her mother’s partner, Jonathan García Rosa, stab her mother in the back. Her sister, 11, and her brother, 6, were sleeping in the same house. The girl and her older sister, who woke up to the screams for help, have an unforgettable image of her mother, Annette García Arroyo, 31, trying to call for help.
Loren and Annette are two of the 71 women victims of intimate feminicides — the murders of women perpetrated by partners or ex-partners — registered in Puerto Rico since Hurricane María hit the archipelago on September 20, 2017, according to studies by non-governmental organizations Kilómetro 0, Proyecto Matria and the Gender Equity Observatory.
Official data on the murders of women in Puerto Rico are not reliable. Consequently, there are no figures that correctly reflect the impact of gender violence on surviving families, especially the children of murdered women who were mothers.
Of these 71 women counted by the three NGO, an investigation by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) and digital media Todas after reviewing Police reports, press releases, and data collected by the organizations, showed that at least 49 had children and at least 101 people lost their mother. An estimated 55 were minors. They are children and teens who have also survived long periods of instability due to socio-natural disasters. The hurricane is compounded by a prolonged economic crisis, school closings, earthquakes, Government instability, and now, more than a year-long pandemic.
Lost in the system
Although the Puerto Rico Department of the Family insists that it coordinates therapeutic resources for some child survivors of femicide, it does not separate them from the rest of the population of minors to whom it offers services, nor does it follow up on all of them, the CPI and Todas confirmed. The agency doesn’t know either how many of the children they serve have lost their mothers to domestic violence.
“We don’t have a statistic … information that says, ‘the child lost their mother to femicide or for any other cause ’,” said Glenda Gerena, head of the Department of the Family’s Administration of Families and Children (Adfan), during an interview for which Family Secretary, Carmen Ana González Magaz, was also present.
The Department of the Family does know the number of minors removed from their homes due to domestic violence. There have been 231 between 2018 and March 2021. Furthermore, when protection orders for domestic violence are issued, the Police and the courts gather information on the children.
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice’s Office of Compensation and Services to Victims and Witnesses of Crimes, keeps a registry of compensation paid by the State to victims of murder crimes. From fiscal year 2018-2019 to the present, it has paid out 22 compensations to relatives of victims of domestic violence murders. It states that, of these women, 12 were mothers and, because of the crimes, 24 minors were orphaned. Two other minors were also killed along with their mothers.
The office only counts the children of victims whose families have been compensated and does not have information available prior to fiscal year 2018-2019.
To receive compensation, the petitioner or the family making the request must meet several criteria, including completing an application and submitting it to the Crime Victims Compensation Division within a maximum period of one year after the crime. Not all victims are included in their statistics.
Need for the visibility of children in domestic violence situations
The need for a statistic is part of a claim that several organizations have been making for several years so that the government of Puerto Rico can follow up on these minors and provide them with the necessary resources to get ahead despite the traumas.
In 2014, the Red por los Derechos de la Niñez y la Juventud (Children and Youth Rights Network), participated in the drafting of a bill before the Senate Committee on Women’s Affairs to order the collection of statistical data and that it be published to facilitate the work of organizations that serve children who survive in domestic violence situations.
“Where are these children? Who are they? We don’t know. If there’s no data, we cannot properly attend to them,” said Marcos Santana Andújar, president and founder of the Network, in August 2021, when he testified in a public hearing before the Prevention, Support, Rescue and Education Committee (PARE, in Spanish), an organization appointed by the governor Pedro Pierluisi in January 2021, to work with the problem of gender violence in Puerto Rico. In his presentation, Santana Andújar made the same claim that was already in the draft of a bill dating back to 2014.
“We don’t see the problem of the boys and girls who are in this context of gender violence because they are invisible,” he said.
The PARE Committee, created through the executive order Pierluisi issued to declare a state of emergency due to gender violence on January 25, 2021, has the goal of recommending to the Executive branch specific measures to prevent and eradicate the problem. Consistently, since November 2018, feminist organizations, led by the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, and other political and civil organizations have demanded the declaration of a state of emergency considering the surge in domestic violence cases and the absence of a comprehensive public policy on the matter.
Work that is just beginning
The executive order’s compliance officer, Prosecutor Ileana Espada, assured that giving attention to children as secondary victims of gender violence is part of the PARE Committee’s agenda. She acknowledged that public policy before the declaration of the state of emergency, in January 2021, did not take this into consideration. There was not even an official recognition of the term “femicide.” It was not until August 27 of this year that “feminicide” and “trans femicide” were incorporated as crimes of murder in the first degree in the Puerto Rico Penal Code. Both terms began being used more through the initiatives of the Matria Project, Kilómetro 0 and the Gender Equity Observatory, which had also pointed out that the murders of women were not typified.
However, this task of compiling official statistics on feminicides and secondary victims of gender violence, and for which a statistics subcommittee has been created within the PARE Committee, is just beginning. The first meeting of the group was October 7.
“Part of what is being worked on is to start identifying what data is important to begin to address all aspects of what gender violence is,” said Espada.
“It’s not that there’s a lack of data, it’s that we’re probably collecting it somewhere else, and we aren’t interconnecting it, which is what the PARE Committee is trying to do, which isn’t an easy task,” she added, without certainty of where the information may be.
The importance of knowing
Analyst and researcher at the Gender Equity Observatory, Debora Upegui, a doctor in social psychology, is responsible for collecting the data that the entity publishes periodically.
In her reports, Upegui lists the names of the victims of intimate femicides, trans femicides, femicides under investigation, family femicides, and indirect femicides. She includes data on the victims, as well as the place of the crime, and data on the person suspected, arrested, or accused of the femicide. Based on the information published in the press, she also records whether the victims had children and their ages.
For Upegui, gathering these data is part of establishing that violence is not only carried out against the direct victim.
“Violence affects the whole family, has effects and leaves indirect victims, family members and children. They’re the ones who suffer that grief, who have to move on with their lives knowing that their mother is no longer present,” said Upegui.
She stresses that ignoring indirect or secondary victims of femicides contributes to maintaining intergenerational cycles of violence. By not addressing the traumas generated by the violent experience in a timely manner, children and teens can engage in problematic and harmful behaviors, such as dropping out of school, substance abuse, or mimicking the violence they witnessed.
Adverse experiences with long-term effects
Children who face adverse childhood experiences, such as surviving in an environment of domestic violence or experiencing the loss of their mother because of femicide, may suffer long-term physical and mental health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes, as documented by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Adverse Childhood Experiences (known as ACEs) can also have a great impact on victimization and perpetuation of violence in the future, and on the health and life opportunities of the person who has suffered them, the CDC states.
Hilda Rivera, a Ph D. social worker, points out that the violent loss of the protective person, such as the mother, is one of the most traumatic and terrible events that a child or teen can experience.
“It’s very difficult to accept,” said the associate professor at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras Campus.
It is not unsurprising, she said, that this minor could generate feelings of rage and helplessness for having lost a loved one because of another person who was supposed to have given them love and affection, as in many cases, a biological, adoptive or a stepfather. In addition, that minor, many times, could develop difficulty handling conflicts.
“It does not mean that this young person cannot overcome it, because they can overcome it, they can find healing. But yes, it definitely affects them, it significantly affects the one who loses their loved one as a result of a homicide,” says Rivera.
“There’s evidenced that the earlier you address the trauma as a result of violence, the better the result, the greater the probability of healing and of being able to rebuild your life,” adds Rivera, who is also co-director of Siempre Vivas Metro, an initiative attached to the UPR in Río Piedras for the eradication of gender violence in which survivors also find group support.
Rivera emphasizes the importance of the coordinated work of five agencies in particular: Education, Family, Housing, Sports and Recreation, and Health. That integration, she noted, is crucial both for the prevention of gender violence from an early age, and for the follow-up and monitoring of children who are secondary victims of this problem.
She also believes that emotional and social support is key to increasing minors’ sense of physical and emotional security, and bets on programs that help in conflict resolution.
“These children have lost the element of security in their home. Their home is not a safe place, so you have to work with that a lot and with strengthening social skills and self-esteem.”
That work must also integrate managing emotions and traumas, conflict resolution and respect.
Those who work directly with this population recognize that to better coordinate the care, it is necessary to have data that exposes the needs of children who have lost a mother because of femicide, as well as those who survive in domestic violence situations.
“I believe that we, as a country, can’t just complain about the lack of resources and do nothing about it. We must see where we’re going to set our priorities. We must believe that boys and girls and youth must grow up healthy. They have to be fine.”
Government negligence in collecting statistics transcends
But the problem of collecting statistics in Puerto Rico is not new and transcends the issue of gender violence. For many years, the Police collected official data on femicides as murders due to domestic violence.
Retired social worker Carmen Castelló keeps a more specific count from her apartment. It is based on press reports and compilation of articles in regional newspapers to document the murders of women perpetrated by their partners or ex-partners. She regularly posts the data on her Seguimiento de Casos Facebook page.
In 2019, the organizations Kilómetro 0 and Proyecto Matria found that the retired social worker’s methodology and data was much more rigorous and accurate than that of official agencies. They compared the statistics that she had collected between 2014 and 2018 with information on causes of death in the Demographic Registry’s mortality database and with those of the Police. They found that, per year, the Police reported 11% to 27% fewer women murdered than the results of their investigation. The organizations’ conclusion is part of the report published in 2019, “The Persistence of Indolence: Femicides in Puerto Rico 2014-2018.”
The Proyecto Matria and Kilómetro 0 report is one of several attempts to incorporate the use of the concept of femicide to name the murders of women in Puerto Rico. In early 2020, leaders of feminist organizations, called upon by former Women’s Ombudswoman, María Dolores Fernós, formed the Puerto Rico Gender Equity Observatory, to monitor cases of gender violence, and investigate and produce knowledge on issues of this particular type of violence.
The need to put into effect a public policy for the collection of vital statistics for the population and to meet the needs of Puerto Rican society became more latent after Hurricane María struck Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017.
Disasters and their mismanagement by government authorities worsen the living conditions of the most vulnerable populations, such as women and children in contexts of violence, as documented by multiple international studies.
However, in Puerto Rico, there are no figures that specify the magnitude of violence against women in the months following Hurricane María, since none of the government agencies in charge of registering them were open, according to the Inter-Women’s study, “Voces de Mujeres: survival and mutual strengthening strategies after the passage of hurricanes Irma and María.”
Part of the effect that the hurricane may have had on the safety of women in contexts of domestic violence could be identified during the year following the hurricane, 2018, when there were 24 intimate femicides, according to the research data from Proyecto Matria and Kilómetro 0. It was a 42% increase versus the average of intimate feminicides reported by the same organizations during the previous five years.
The same happened with cases of child abuse, Santana Andújar noted. After the collapse of Puerto Rico’s electrical and communications system, because of the hurricanes, there was no way to communicate. Telephone calls are the main vehicle used to report child abuse, Santana Andújar said. Still, 2017 closed with 16,000 abuse referrals.
“That’s alarming,” said Santana Andújar. For federal fiscal year 2012-2013, which is the prior information available, 34,264 referrals were registered, according to the Profile of Child Abuse in Puerto Rico, published by the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics in 2015. Institute Director Orville Disdier published information on the website indicating that, after that report, the Department of the Family has denied them access to the data of referrals and cases of abuse. The agency has made available the data for the years following Hurricane María, accounting for 12,870 referrals of child abuse in 2018, 15,633 in 2019, and 10,833 in 2020.
“Natural, political, economic and social disasters are incessantly besieging children in contexts of violence and children in general,” highlights Santana Andújar.
“Boom, boom, boom, boom,” he says, simulating a sequence of blows.
Santana Andújar is also a domestic violence survivor. He was born in a battered women’s shelter when his mother was fleeing his father’s abuse and he lived in another one of these homes for the first eight years of his life.
Santana Andújar grew up, volunteered for an organization that provides services to women and their children, and later founded the Children and Youth Rights Network.
Based on that personal experience, Santana Andújar and the Network have advocated for a comprehensive government plan to offer services to children in contexts of violence.
Santana Andújar says a much-needed integration of the Department of the Family, the Courts Administration, and the Department of Health’s systems, would provide a clearer picture of the children who survive in domestic violence situations in Puerto Rico. It wouldn’t take a large allocation of funds, he says. Even so, cases not brought to the attention of the Department of the Family or that are filed in the courts would still have to be found and counted.
Whenever he has the chance, he tells his story and assures that having those experiences, while painful, was a “privilege.”
“Not everyone has the opportunity to get to a shelter. I did. I had the chance to study, graduate, and go to college because I had the support of my mother and people. I met people along the way who supported me and, I admit that not everyone has that.”
Cristina del Mar Quiles reported this story while participating in the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund.
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