AWI Courts Awareness About Animal Cruelty at National Judges' Conference

One of the important goals of AWI’s Animals and Interpersonal Violence program is to reach judges—especially judges who interact with juveniles and families. AWI has enjoyed a good working relationship with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), which has facilitated AWI’s efforts to help judges become more cognizant of the importance of animal cruelty in the home and community—how to recognize it, how to ask questions about it, and what resources are available once it is identified.

At the invitation of NCJFCJ, Nancy Blaney and Dr. Mary Lou Randour of AWI conducted a seminar entitled “Animal Cruelty: Predictor and Early Intervention for Families and Youth,” at the group’s national conference, held in Chicago this past July. In this presentation to a sizeable group of engaged and curious judges, Nancy and Mary Lou discussed the well-established science that witnessing violence—including to animals—is a traumatic event, with biological, psychological, and social consequences. In fact, new research indicates that in the case of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there may even be an intergenerational genetic transmission—i.e., witnessing violence may affect one’s children not only via environmental factors such as living with someone with PTSD, but also via inheritance (by playing a role in how certain genes are expressed in the offspring).

Given such evidence, the US Department of Justice recently released a “Polyvictimization/Trauma Symptom Checklist” to court personnel that included witnessing animal cruelty as a potential cause of trauma. During the AWI presentation, Nancy and Mary Lou suggested some additional questions that could be asked: “Do you have a pet?” “Have you ever had a pet?” “Tell me about them; what happened to them?” “Has anybody ever tried to hurt your pet? What happened?” The information gleaned from these queries could help judges understand the extent of violence in the home, identify children at risk, choose more effective interventions, and protect animals from current and future abuse.

The AWI presentation elaborated on the importance of making proper assessments of the perpetrators of animal cruelty to determine if the behavior is pathological and if so, the level of pathology. Some examples of animal cruelty scenarios were presented for discussion by the group.

AWI also briefed the judges on federal, state and local policy responses to these issues, such as the passage of an amendment to the Animal Welfare Act, of which one section prohibits animal fighting. That section was expanded so that it now includes language that “causing a minor to attend” an animal fight is a separate offense. Another important policy reform has been the rapid adoption by states of laws that authorize judges to add pets to orders of protection. Twenty-seven states now have such provisions, in addition to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

As Nancy and Mary Lou listened to the judges’ comments and questions, they themselves learned how AWI might offer the judicial community more resources. One judge remarked that he did not really know what factors to consider when deciding to place a child in a foster home if there was a dog in the family; an interesting discussion ensued. After the conference, AWI contacted other partners in the legal profession to inquire about developing guidelines for judges making these decisions.

Judges Go to the Dogs

Throughout the day, in another area of the conference facilities, Safe Humane Chicago was showcasing its successful Lifetime Bonds program. The program team consisted of Safe Humane Chicago’s founder and director, Cynthia Bathurst, and a number of volunteers, including students, two young men who had graduated from the program, and three dogs. Lifetime Bonds provides opportunities for at-risk youth and at-risk dogs to help one another. Youth in disadvantaged communities learn how to care for, socialize and train shelter dogs by using positive, reward-based training techniques. They also get to participate in positive, beneficial activities with them. By doing this, the young men gain confidence and skills, develop constructive behavioral patterns, and learn about potential work in the pet care industry. The dogs also benefit by becoming better behaved and therefore more adoptable.

The adage that it is never advisable to work with dogs or children—as they draw all of the attention—turned out to be true. Many judges broke away from the conference to hear about the Lifetime Bonds program, with approximately 100 judges visiting throughout the day. But that was the point: for judges to learn about a positive program for incarcerated or at-risk youth that pairs them with shelter dogs to everyone’s benefit. All of the judges who visited expressed curiosity and an interest in learning more. Some were so inspired that they asked for contact information so that they might inquire about how to initiate a similar program in their communities.

The Lifetime Bonds dogs charmed all by their demonstration of behaviors that they had learned—from basic commands such as “sit,” “down,” and “stay” to “roll over,” “shake paws,” “give a high five,” and other gestures of friendship and enthusiasm. The dogs were ambassadors for their species and the program by their friendly behavior throughout the day. One was more lively than the other two and wanted to play; the other two took a more relaxed position and were content to hang out, allowing themselves to be petted (one, without a trace of self-consciousness, rolled over to have her belly petted—which it was, many times).

The two young men who graduated from the Lifetime Bonds program grew more confident as they gained experience making brief presentations to the judges about the program and illustrating with one of the dogs the outcome of their training techniques. One of the young men explained to the judges what he learned from the program: “The dogs are like us. They get hungry. We get hungry. They get tired. We get tired. The want to be loved. So do we.” In those simple statements he summed up the basic message: two-legged animals and four-legged animals are very much alike and we can help one another.