Ask How the Pets Are Doing, Family Counselors Learn

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Manhattan resident Tanya McLeod credits her beloved Labrador retriever mix for saving her life more than a decade ago. McLeod, now 41, was a battered young mother who thought about leaving her abusive husband, but knew domestic violence shelters wouldn’t take her beloved dog and refused to leave Brownie behind.

Then her husband killed the family pet, and McLeod finally fled with her three children, testifying in court to send him to prison and then divorcing him.

McLeod tells this story in a training video for service providers that debuted earlier this month at a New York City Bar Association panel on the connection between animal cruelty and domestic violence – a strong, often predictive link that’s becoming better known to the general public.

About 50 advocates, attorneys and animal lovers were transfixed by the experience of McLeod, who works on domestic violence service system reform as part of the Voices of Women Organizing Project. Back in the mid-90s when Tanya went to the police, they wouldn’t take a report about a dog. But since 1999, it’s been a felony to intentionally kill or seriously injure an animal with aggravated cruelty, according to panelist Carol Moran, a Brooklyn deputy district attorney, who has prosecuted animal cruelty cases for more than two decades. Nationwide data from a pioneering researcher in the field, Frank R. Ascione, shows that 71 percent of pet owners in domestic violence shelters reported that their pet had been threatened, hurt or killed.

The video rough cut of McLeod’s testimony, interspersed with compelling statistics, is the first product of a new project spearheaded by the family violence prevention agency CONNECT, to find ways to protect both survivors of domestic violence and their pets. It got rolling when CONNECT executive director Kala Ganesh approached A Kinder World Foundation for funding to examine the link between domestic violence and animal abuse, with the goal of creating collaborative model programs and community education projects. The time was ripe, as New York became one of the first states to adopt a law to include pets in orders of protection in July 2006.

With the grant, CONNECT hired two consultants to develop a working group with the mission of examining barriers to safety for victims and their pets across the city and then mitigating those obstacles. Animal-loving social workers Susan Urban and Elaine Wolff, both with extensive city human services experience, launched the Alliance for the Safety of Animals and People (ASAP) eight months ago. It includes members from both governmental and nonprofit human service and animal welfare agencies. The first hurdle to better serving domestic violence survivors is that none of the city’s domestic violence emergency shelters take animals, which contributes to some victims and their families choosing to remain in unsafe situations.

On average, across NYC each day police respond to more than 600 domestic violence incidents, and the city’s domestic violence hotline answers more than 340 calls daily. Meanwhile, more than half of all New Yorkers own a pet, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

ASAP is working with the city’s domestic violence hotline
(1-800-621-HOPE) to make sure that the questions asked of hotline callers include whether they have, or had, a family pet. To further educate those on the helping end of the conversation, CONNECT is also incorporating lessons about the link between animal cruelty and family violence into its core training, and ASAP is developing a curriculum for human service professionals that includes training on assessments and how people can keep both themselves and their companion animals safe.

Until now, the Mayor’s Alliance for Animals, a public-private partnership of more than 100 animal rescue groups and shelters, has saved the day when domestic violence victims have reached out for assistance with their four-legged friends. Alliance president and panelist Jane Hoffman recalled one survivor and her children who escaped into shelter, leaving their miniature pinscher at home since the batterer was in jail. They visited the dog every day. Then a domestic violence survivor who worked at Min Pin Rescue contacted the Mayor’s Alliance, and they were able to house Maggie for nine months at a vet’s office, a boarding facility and a foster home. Every weekend, the mom dressed up her two children to take the dog for a walk in the park. When the family found housing, Maggie was reunited with them.

“We need to recognize that pets are part of the family, and we need public and government support to fund this – this is a real need that makes a real difference for families in domestic violence situations,” said Hoffman, noting the average $20-per-day price tag for boarding these animals.

In other jurisdictions, domestic violence shelters have partnered with animal care and control agencies, animal shelters, veterinary clinics and private boarding facilities to arrange for temporary placement of pets, while a few shelters across the country have on-site kennels. But in New York City, challenges to keeping pets with their owners include the fact that many shelters have common shared areas, like living rooms and kitchens, where other residents may not want pets. Also, the limited stay (up to 135 days) in emergency shelter can leave families without permanent housing, and who can’t find space in a transitional domestic violence shelter, resorting to the homeless system which does not accept animals.

At the very least, deputy D.A. Moran suggests placing a pet with a family member, boarding it with a local veterinarian for a few weeks, or surrendering it to a local rescue group. “Leaving the pet with the batterer can be dangerous because violence often escalates when the victim and children leave the home and the batterer begins to lose control of the family. The batterer may kill or injure the pet to manipulate the family or out of raw anger or aggression. And to break the hearts and will of the victim and children,” Moran says.

Victims also can make an advance safety plan for how to protect a pet, similar to what advocates recommend for women, says panelist Urban. This can include packing a bag of critical items to leave in a safe place.

On a broader note, an audience member who works in a shelter stated that the huge number of homeless people should take priority over animals. She also pointed out that domestic violence survivors have no shortage of stressors as they rebuild their lives, from being the sole breadwinner to mental health issues, so that caring for a pet can be challenging.

Despite the obstacles ahead, all seemed to agree that the benefits of these friendly companions are priceless: “That mother said those kids could keep their life together and stability because they could see Maggie the dog on the weekend,” says Hoffman.

Christina Alex is a freelance writer and licensed master social worker who has worked in the domestic violence field in Connecticut and New York City.

– Christina Alex

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