Vicarious Violence: The Insidious Crime That Affects Thousands of Families in Mexico

Vicarious violence is a form of abuse in which fathers use their children to harm their mothers. New legislation criminalizes the practice, but for mothers and children, its effects linger.

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Vicarious Violence: The Insidious Crime That Affects Thousands of Families in Mexico

Illustration by María Conejo

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MEXICO CITY, MEXICO — In April 2021, Jennifer Seifert Braun’s ex-husband took their two children on vacation for Holy Week and didn’t bring them back as planned. Unbeknownst to her, he had initiated criminal proceedings against her for domestic violence. She wouldn’t be reunited with her children for nearly two years.

Seifert’s ex-husband took their daughter and son, who were 12 and 8 at the time, to testify at the public prosecutor’s office, the government agency responsible for investigating and prosecuting crimes in Mexico. The accusation legally prevented Seifert from approaching her children until she proved her innocence and succeeded in having the case recognized as a form of vicarious violence, in which a father uses children to cause harm to their mother.

The separation, the violence and the involvement of the judicial system that was brought down on the family left not only Seifert but also her children with psychological effects. She has sought professional help for them so they can overcome the emotional difficulties.

“My children returned to their school and the classes they had been taking before, which is helping their emotional state,” Seifert says. “There are times when I can see they’re sad, but going out with their friends or cousins helps them.”

Mothers and children who experience vicarious violence and reunite often go on to face emotional and psychological changes caused by the separation. These cases have come to the fore as Mexican legislation has recently recognized vicarious violence, and children abducted by their fathers are increasingly returning to their mothers’ homes.

“There are times when I can see they’re sad, but going out with their friends or cousins helps them.”

In November 2023, the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Mexico’s Congress, approved changes to the General Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence and the federal criminal and civil codes to address vicarious violence and impose penalties of up to five years in prison for offenders. The reforms went into effect in January and published in the nation’s official gazette, through which the government makes the country’s laws, decrees, agreements and other documents available to the public.

Meanwhile, Frente Nacional contra Violencia Vicaria, a nonprofit founded by Seifert and Alexandra Volin-Bolok to support women through this situation both legally and psychologically, has already helped 82 mothers to successfully recover their children. The group has registered more than 4,000 mothers who are trying to reunite with approximately 8,400 minors.

The lingering effects of vicarious violence

Vicarious violence impacts the mental health of children and adolescents. The problems it causes can manifest as “lack of trust in others and anxiety about relationships, or intense symptoms of depression, which can develop during the time they experience the violence or in their adult lives,” says Bárbara Porter, a psychologist who specializes in this field. In her opinion, the effects children experience are “the most overlooked aspect of vicarious violence.”

Porter goes on to say that some signs of vicarious violence can be identified before a forced separation occurs because, in many cases, the father carries out smear campaigns to turn the children against the mother. Adolescents and pre-adolescents are particularly vulnerable to this type of manipulation due to the natural developmental processes they are going through, she adds.

Seifert recalls how, prior to the forced separation, her then 12-year-old daughter complained to her because she had asked her father to pay the child support debt he had accrued. In Mexico, parents have a legal obligation to pay child support for their children who are minors to ensure they are cared for and develop well. She also says both children were pulled into the criminal proceedings and instructed as witnesses on the recommendation of her ex-husband’s attorneys.

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Mar García, GPJ Mexico

Jennifer Seifert Braun poses for a portrait at her home in the State of Mexico. She co-founded a group to support women whose children have been taken from them by their father.

Sonia Vaccaro, a clinical and forensic psychologist from Argentina who coined the term “vicarious violence,” describes the practice as one in which the father uses “the children to continue to harm the woman” when he can no longer do so directly.

In October 2022, before members of the Supreme Court of Mexico, Vaccaro said that in the cases she had studied, “the children were considered objects for these violent individuals and were treated as such; to [the father], they were objects in the service of continuing to harm the mother, knowing that for that woman, the children were the most important part of her life.” She also pointed out that vicarious violence implies child abuse.

Now that she has proven her innocence and recovered her children, Seifert has focused on obtaining psychological treatment for them. Under recommendations from mental health specialists, she does not ask them about any aspect of their stay with their father, an effort to avoid causing them to relive the violence they experienced.

“That would be revictimizing them, and I have no intention of doing that for any reason,” Seifert says. “I even asked my entire family not to ask them about it. Since they came back, it’s been as if the last day we saw each other were yesterday. And if someday they want to talk about it, it will be their decision.”

‘My daughter grew up very quickly’

Children who have been separated from their mothers with physical violence are more likely to develop separation anxiety disorder, Porter says. This condition is characterized by severe emotional distress and can manifest in the form of nightmares, constant worrying, headaches, stomach pain and panic attacks.

“The vast majority of children reject the aggressive parent and remain alert to the danger, fleeing from it,” Porter says.

Viridiana Cruz and her daughter are grappling with the effects of this type of separation. Three years ago, Cruz’s ex-husband violently abducted her daughter.

“My ex-husband arrived at my parents’ house with his sisters, and when my daughter sensed the violence, she ran to her uncle’s room. [Her uncle] embraced her to protect her,” she says. “The father pulled at her, managing to take her away, and in the process, a loose tooth fell out of her mouth.”

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Mar García, GPJ Mexico

Jennifer Seifert Braun reviews documents for her legal case at her home in the State of Mexico. She spent nearly two years defending herself from judicial charges before she could reunite with her children.

Authorities recovered Cruz’s daughter after a week — a short period compared to situations in which more than a decade goes by before mothers and children are reunited. Nevertheless, the family noticed a change in her behavior afterward and decided to seek psychological treatment.

Now that some time has passed and the child has come to terms with what she went through, she wants to help other minors who have experienced vicarious violence. Her aim is for them to be able to understand what is happening to them and how they can respond to it.

“My daughter grew up very quickly,” Cruz says. “Now, at age 8, she is planning to make podcasts so other children who have gone through the same situations know what vicarious violence is and understand what’s happening to them. She tells me, ‘I need a psychologist to be the one who explains what we went through.’”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that the reforms to the General Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence and the federal criminal and civil codes had not gone into effect. The reforms were published in the nation’s official gazette and became effective in January. Global Press Journal regrets the error.

Ena Aguilar Peláez is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mexico.


Shannon Kirby, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.