true crime

Every year we lose women to men's violence. But what about the children left behind?

The following contains details of murder and may be triggering for some readers.

"Today your dad is going to kill me. I love you, please don't cry for me."

A daughter received the above message on November 7, 2021, in Alice Springs.

Hours after that text was sent, the 34-year-old who penned it died from severe burns. 

Her partner is accused of pouring accelerant under the door of the room she was hiding in, before setting it alight.

The age of her daughter hasn't been publically shared, all we know is that she's "young." 

This was her final interaction with mum. Her last memory.

According to Destroy the Joint, 43 women were killed by violence in 2021. More than half were mothers. 

While some of their children were already adults, there were also babies, toddlers, kids and teenagers in that mix. Many of them not only grieving the death of their mother, but the loss of their father, who is the accused in a shockingly high number of cases.

The children left behind.

Kelly Wilkinson's three children were all under nine years old when their father allegedly murdered her in front of them in April, 2021.

They live with her sister now. But as she shared just before Christmas, they still ask for Kelly "every second or third night."

Kelly Wilkinson was killed in her Gold Coast backyard by her ex-husband, after months of abuse and unanswered calls for help. Image: Facebook. 

Rachel Wake's two teenage children witnessed her murder on Christmas Day in Hobart. 

Her ex-husband, their father, is accused of taking her life.

"Dear mum," wrote her daughter on Facebook. "I love you, and I miss you dearly. I wish we could have spent more time roller skating, rock climbing, and going to local theatre and screaming songs in our late night shopping runs.

"I’m going to miss your over filtered photos, your hugs as I had a bad day, and our cooking. I wish our last hug was one bit tighter."

Rachel Wake was murdered on December 25. Image: Facebook. 

21-year-old Jennifer was injured in the same incident that killed her mother in Inverell, NSW, on June 30.

Neville Michell is accused of murdering his wife Michelle before turning the knife on his daughter and then killing himself.

She survived, but lost both her parents.

Michelle Michell was the 23rd woman to lose her life to violence in 2021.  

In November, Mary Benedito's accused killer allegedly abducted her 11-month-old son after leaving her critically injured.

She died a few days later in a Queensland hospital bed. Days earlier that little boy also lost his maternal grandmother.

Mary's son was only 11-months old when she died in November. 

Every story is heartbreaking, gut-wrenching and hard to comprehend. And yet they are the stories of children in our communities, neighbourhoods and schools. All left to try to pick up the pieces of their lives while grieving the unimaginable - some before they're even old enough to comprehend what's happened to them.

We're only three weeks into 2022, and already history is repeating itself.

Poonam Sharma was allegedly murdered by her husband on January 13. Her six-year-old daughter was killed in the same attack, leaving a 10-year-old without her mother, sister and father.

Poonam is the second woman to lose her life in 2022. There will be more. Image: Facebook. 

As The Benevolent Society’s Michelle Thiele, Team Leader of Child and Adolescent Family Counselling at the Centre for Women’s, Children’s and Family Health tells Mamamia, the systems that are currently in place do not provide adequate support and protection for children.

It leaves them not only vulnerable to the unthinkable, but exposed and unsupported when the worst case scenario comes true.

"Australia’s current laws do not provide the protection or support women and children require when experiencing domestic and family violence. Consent laws and Family Court processes keep women and children locked into situations where they become more vulnerable and at further risk, as these processes and laws provide support and protection to the perpetrator’s rights and remove the voices of women and children fighting to achieve a sense of safety," Michelle shares.

A complex trauma.

As research undertaken by Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse showed in 2012, the severity of the impact on children is similar regardless of whether they witness violence or experience physical violence themselves.

The Benevolent Society’s Michelle Thiele tells Mamamiawhen a child loses a parent to another parent, they will experience a great deal of shame that they are "different". 

"[They will experience] a strong sense of fear about others knowing their story and the judgements and rejection they experience from this can be debilitating."

"Children who have experienced this type of domestic violence trauma will experience a great deal of grief and loss around the family life they had hoped for, [and] the lifestyles they see their peers enjoy," she adds.

It's always the preference in this scenario, that the child stays with extended family.

Image: Getty. 

Michelle explains that's because, "children placed with family maintain a strong sense of belonging and connection to their family of origin. Through the relationships, stories and shared history that is preserved by remaining with family, children can grow to have a strong sense of identity and self-worth."

But sometimes that's not possible, and that's where the foster and adoption systems come in. But as Michelle shares, "this is an extremely complex area that requires a multilayered systemic response, which is unfortunately not commonplace in our current foster care system."

When a child experiences this level of upheaval and pain, Michelle says it leaves them vulnerable to experiences of social isolation, rejection and bullying alongside psychological difficulties outlined in the Clearinghouse research like anxiety, depression, and high levels of general distress. They're also at a significantly higher risk than their peers of substance abuse and other risk-taking behaviours. 

It's these behaviours that often lead to long-term vulnerabilities, such as unemployment, homelessness, entry in justice systems, and poor relationship outcomes continuing through to their adult lives, says Michelle.

Researchers in Sweden were able to follow a large group of children whose fathers killed their mothers in the first study of its kind in 2016.

Those who were under 18 years of age at the time, showed a six-fold increase in hospitalisation for major mental health or substance use disorders or engaging in self-harm. Those over the age of 18 showed a four-fold increased risk of completed suicide. 

Both groups showed an increased risk of conviction for a violent crime.

Creating a safe space. 

As Grieflink reiterates, support is often the key to helping children through an experience such as this. But it's a difficult balance.

"In many families, a desire to protect children or young relatives from the trauma can leave them feeling scared and confused. Witnessing the sadness and shock of the adults around them can be difficult for children seeking comfort from their usually stable supports," the resource explains.

In order to help children go on to live normal, balanced lives after trauma such as the murder of a parent, Michelle says they require, "safe and stable homes with carers that can provide secure and loving attachment relationships through consistently safe, predictable and responsive parenting."

"If children are provided the opportunity to have safe, stable, long-term placements with responsive – rather than reactive – care giving, alongside long-term therapeutic support that enables them to integrate their trauma experience, then they can go on to achieve healthy relationships and future success," she says.

In the foster system that means ideally placing siblings together with carers who are able to provide long-term consistent care - a luxury Australia can't always guarantee. 

When we look at the amount of women and children killed year on year in Australia by men, the numbers are harrowing.

As Dr Denise Buiten, a senior lecturer in sociology and social justice at The University of Notre Dame tells Mamamia, "We think of domestic violence as an issue for women...and it is. But it's more than that.

"We forget children are there and that violence against them is intertwined with violence against women."

Those numbers - 43 a year. 58 a year. 63 a year - only represent the women, not the ripple effects felt by their children. Not the pain and suffering experienced by the ones left behind. 

We can help these children go on to live great lives with the right support. But we can help them more, if we make sure their mothers aren't murdered in the first place.

That's why it's so important we get the government's 10-year national plan to end violence against women and children, (which is currently in public consultation and feedback stages), right.

We get it wrong - we keep telling this story. 

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home. 

You can also call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

You can keep up to date with Gemma Bath's articles here, or follow her on Instagram, @gembath.

Feature image: Getty.

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