Who is looking out for the kids amid Puerto Rico’s surge in domestic violence?

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By Cristina del Mar Quiles

Puerto Rico is facing an ongoing emergency caused by gender violence. In response to more than three years of feminist claims and demonstrations on the streets, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi issued an executive order in January 2021 in which he pledged to bring together the island’s agencies and organizations to deal with the crisis.

The move came in response to the increase in gender violence in the archipelago since Hurricane María passed through Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. It remains the most devastating natural disaster in the modern history of Puerto Rico. It destroyed more than 70,000 houses and caused the collapse of roads and electrical infrastructure, resulting in the death of 2,975 people, according to official estimates, although a study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health placed the figure at 4,645.

In this context of disaster and lack of protection, we know that at least 60 women have been murdered by their partners or ex-partners, and dozens of children were left orphaned. We do not know how many they are, where they are or who takes care of them. 

My current reporting project, supported by the Center for Health Journalism’s Impact Fund for Reporting on Domestic Violence, aims to focus on child victims and survivors of domestic violence amid recurrent trauma in Puerto Rico, as well as their caregivers, who are often their maternal grandmothers. Also, I’ll report on how the government considers children — or doesn’t — in its plans to address gender violence.

The investigation will be co-published by the Center for Investigative Journalism, where I work as a reporter on recovery issues, and Todas, the outlet I founded with colleagues in 2018 to report on gender justice and equity. It will be published in Spanish and translated into English.

Puerto Rico’s statistics problem

When talking about child victims and survivors of domestic violence, numbers and data are important. But government statistics in Puerto Rico have historically been unreliable.

We know the number of women killed by their partners or ex-partners thanks to the work of independent researchers, such as Carmen Castelló, a retired social worker who, from her apartment, has been running her own database of femicides and disappearances of women in Puerto Rico since 2011. Through her Facebook page Seguimiento de Casos, she voluntarily reports crimes against women and the status of the judicial proceedings in cases of femicides.

“I understand that it is important to do it and to make the complaint, and, along the way, I have had people who support my work, and that gives me strength,” Castelló said about her work in an interview for Todas, in 2019.

Different organizations use the data she has collected as a reference because her figures for murdered and missing women tend to be different from those of the police.

Non-governmental organizations Kilómetro 0 and Proyecto Matria have taken on the task of expanding the work of Carmen Castelló to reach a more accurate number of women murdered between 2014 and 2018. They were able to verify that the Puerto Rican police recurrently undercounts the murders of women due to domestic violence. Between 2014 and 2018, the official number provided annually by the police was 11% to 27% less than the numbers found through the independent investigation carried out together by both organizations.

The tracking problems go beyond this lack of government precision. After Hurricane María, the collapse of the electrical and communication infrastructure made it even more difficult to have accurate statistics, especially in the immediate wake of the disaster. Organizations that provide services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, however, have reported an increase in violence against women since the hurricane, according to an investigation by the Center for Investigative Journalism.

The government’s inaction in the face of the problem mobilized groups of women human rights defenders to demand the declaration of a state of emergency. Other groups joined to create the Gender Equity Observatory in 2020, which has continued to collect statistics on femicides in Puerto Rico.

Cristina del Mar Quiles

Their work allows us to better understand and describe domestic violence not as a private or individual matter, but as a social, collective problem, and one in which children are also the victims.

When a father is guilty of femicide and a mother has been murdered, who takes care of the children? That is one of the answers that I intend to find as part of this investigation.

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