Jessica Rosenbeck had just settled down in front of the television when her phone rang.
A little while after letting it go to voice mail, she played back her brother's message.
"Dad just shot mom," he said.
"I literally was in shock. I couldn't feel my arms or my legs," recalled Rosenbeck, then 21 and staying with an uncle in California. "I felt like I wasn't even in my body."
Minutes earlier, at a home thousands of miles away in Terryville, 15-year-old David Magnano heard four gunshots and saw his mother's body slumped on the front steps. He checked for a pulse. Nothing.
His father, wielding a pistol, got into his mother's van and drove to a nearby park, where he shot himself.
"I watched it happen, and I was just in shock," Magnano said of his mother's murder in 2007. "I felt responsible. I wished I had done something."
Magnano and Rosenbeck are among the children experts call silent victims. They are the survivors of homicide and domestic violence whose lives are forever changed. They may go on to live with relatives or be placed in foster care. The trauma of their experiences has lasting effects on their lives.
The weeks that followed were a blur of grief and confusion for Magnano and Rosenbeck. Magnano and his 9-year-old sister, Emily, who also was in the house at the time of the slaying, were placed in a group home under the care of the state Department of Children and Families. Rosenbeck returned from California to be with her siblings.
"We just cried," she said. "We didn't know what else to do."
The three moved several times after the Aug. 23, 2007, deaths of their parents. Rosenbeck went to live with an aunt and uncle before getting a place of her own. David and Emily lived with various relatives until David went away to college at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. Emily was adopted by an aunt and uncle.
They supported each other through the pain.
"It was surreal. It was so difficult," Rosenbeck said. "It's like someone pulled the rug right out from under you and no one understands."
They're not alone. Many of the domestic violence-related killings that occurred in Connecticut over the past year have involved children.
Last summer, James Morrin fatally shot his wife, Alice, at their Vernon home before shooting himself. The couple's two daughters, aged 9 and 15, were inside the home during the shootings.
In January, Selami Ozdemir, who had a history of domestic violence, shot his wife to death at her West Haven residence and then killed himself, police said. The couple's two sons, a 6-year-old and a 7-month-old, were inside, though it is unclear if they witnessed the shootings.
Less than a month later, Dia Wells Palafox, 30, was found stabbed to death in her New Britain home. Her estranged husband, Juan Palafox, has been charged with murder. Police believe the couple's three children — two boys, aged 6 and 5, and a girl, 2 — were in the house when their mother was killed, but were not aware of what had happened.
In all of the cases, the children were not physically harmed. But for some, the emotional scars run deep.
History Of Violence
Years of bearing witness to domestic abuse came to a head for Rosenbeck and Magnano in the summer of 2007. Before the murder-suicide, the two had seen violence erupt in their home almost daily. Scott Magnano, David's father and Rosenbeck's stepfather, once kicked their mother, Jennifer Gauthier Magnano, in the ribs so many times she was hospitalized.
Rosenbeck remembers being 13 or 14 when she first heard her mother get beaten.
"There would be kicking, hitting. We heard it, but we didn't see it," she recalled. But, she added, "We knew what was going on."
Rosenbeck and her siblings were "very cut off" from others, she said. Her stepfather often wouldn't allow them to attend parties or gatherings, and it was difficult to make friends.
At home, little things triggered his temper.
"It was tense all the time. I felt like I was constantly being watched [and] walking on eggshells," Rosenbeck said. "School was probably the safest place. Rather than being like the kids who love snow days, I hated them."
Tensions boiled over when Scott Magnano struck Rosenbeck with an open hand in front of her siblings. The move prompted Jennifer Magnano to take her children and flee to California four months before the killing. When she returned to Connecticut for a custody hearing, Scott Magnano shot her four times at close range, then killed himself.
Growing up in a home rife with domestic abuse and witnessing the violent death of one or both parents can affect children for life.
"It's not unlike what you hear about people coming back from war," said Faith Vos Winkel, an assistant child advocate for the state. "Their ability to assimilate and cope can be non-existent."
The experiences can hamper their social lives, school or job performance, or even their physical health, she said. Some children develop anxiety, difficulty sleeping and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"The way that batterers impact kids can be very dramatic [or] subtle," said David Mandel, the statewide service administrator for DCF's domestic violence consultation initiative. The initiative is a network of domestic violence experts who consult with DCF workers.
In many cases, children who lose parents to murders or murder-suicides were exposed to some form of household abuse beforehand, Mandel said.
"This is coming on top of [witnessing] other violence or even being abused themselves," he said. "There are all these little things that are cumulative and profound."
In the same way that breathing secondhand smoke can lead to cancer, research shows that a child who sees the physical assault of a parent is as likely to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct victim of abuse, said Betsy McAlister Groves, founding director of the Child Witness to Violence Project at Boston Medical Center and author of "Children Who See Too Much: Lessons from the Child Witness to Violence Project."
"There's a whole group of children that we don't typically consider victims," McAlister said. "They are children who are bystanders to violence, who are not physically injured, but they're profoundly affected by the violence. They are silent victims."
Children left behind in the wake of the death of one or both parents may go on to live with relatives or be placed in foster care, said Gary Kleeblatt, a spokesman for DCF.
"We're looking for alternative forms of permanency," he said. "When there are no relatives that could give appropriate and adequate care, we're looking to get that child adopted."
A range of services are also available for dealing with trauma, including therapy.
"The implications are lifelong," Vos Winkel said. "For someone close to them to die in such a horrific way — people are going to need some kind of support."
Coping with their mother's death has been an uphill battle for Jessica Rosenbeck, now 24, and David Magnano, now 18.
"At first I kept thinking: I can't go on. I can't do this," Rosenbeck recalled. "I didn't know what to do with myself."
She threw herself into caring for her brother and sister. Picking out an urn after her mother's cremation and helping to write her obituary were "surreal," she said. A cloud of sadness seemed to follow her everywhere.
"I cried a lot. There was a lot of disbelief. A lot of taking it day by day," Rosenbeck said.
Eventually, she returned to work. David and Emily resumed school, and David later enrolled in college. Rosenbeck and her brother also sought counseling.
As time passed, the cloud of sadness began to dissipate. But the memory of their mother remained.
"It's strange, you know, when you wake up and it's an average day and you hear a song or see a picture, and you realize: 'I'm 18 and I'm never going to see my parents again,'" Magnano said. "To lose someone who's supposed to be around for the next 40 or 50 years of your life, it's a strange feeling."
Both he and Rosenbeck still draw strength from their mother.
At first, Rosenbeck said, "I couldn't think of her in a happy way. I couldn't think of her without being sad. Now I can think about her and feel happy." She now keeps a photograph of her mother on her desk at work.
Magnano said he has come to terms with her death.
"Every once in a while I get upset about it," he said. "But she made us stronger people. Just the memory of her keeps us going."
Looking ahead is sometimes difficult for Rosenbeck.
"It's very hard thinking about getting married and having kids when my mom's not here. I feel like growing up, becoming an adult, that poses enough issues as it is. But now my confidant and best friend is gone," she said.
Still, the bond she remembers sharing with her mother gives her strength.
"She taught us to be strong and go after things. I don't want anything we went through to be in vain," Rosenbeck said. "I want to be stronger than that."