A Coordinated Community Response to Animal Abuse

Meredith is a new animal control officer. She has been directed to visit a particular home on multiple occasions because of complaints from neighbors of dogs barking or running loose. During each visit she has spoken with Andrea, who lives in the home with her partner, Joel, and three dogs. Meredith has observed that the dogs do not seem well cared for; they have matted fur, one looks as though she has a skin condition, and all are thin. Meredith has offered Andrea suggestions and help with taking better care of her dogs and Andrea has seemed agreeable to the suggestions. During one visit, Meredith noticed that Andrea had a black eye. Another time Andrea had her wrist wrapped, as though she had a sprain. Meredith received training on the link between animal neglect and abuse and domestic violence, so she is aware that she should look for signs of domestic violence when making home visits. However, she is not certain exactly what her next steps should be.

Should Meredith approach Andrea about her concerns? If so, how? What factors should she be considering? What agencies should be involved in this situation? These are some of the questions being raised and discussed by an AWI-led initiative to encourage cross training and communication between animal control/humane law enforcement agencies and domestic violence groups.

AWI assembled a panel presentation entitled “Making the Case for Incorporating Animal Abuse into the Family Violence Paradigm” for the 22nd International Summit on Violence, Abuse & Trauma, in September in San Diego. The composition of the panel—Glenna Tinney, a domestic violence advocate; Dan DeSousa, director of San Diego Animal Services; and Nancy Blaney and Dr. Mary Lou Randour of AWI—underscored the theme of the presentation: the need not just to cooperate but to collaborate, to understand how best to work together to ensure the safety of all family members. The audience included representatives of law enforcement agencies, domestic violence and child welfare service providers, mental health professionals, and violence prevention advocates. Mary Lou reviewed the research that definitively makes the case for a close and important connection between animal cruelty and other types of violence. Glenna stressed the value of coordinated community response (CCR), a domestic violence response model that relies on coordination between law enforcement personnel, advocates, health care providers, child protection services, media, clergy, and local businesses to produce a system that works better and faster for victims. AWI proposes that two more groups be added to the CCR model: animal control agencies and veterinarians. Thus far, only Georgia has a CCR team that includes veterinarians and animal control agencies.

Dan provided many examples of the benefits to domestic violence agencies and their allies from collaborating with animal services. As seen in the opening case study, animal service officers can often gain entry to a home where law enforcement may not; typically they are viewed with less suspicion and are trained to use an educational rather than confrontational approach. When visiting a home to inquire about a pet-related complaint, an animal control or humane law enforcement officer may notice other things in the home that raise suspicions: a child with bruises, a woman with a fractured arm. The welfare of animals and people alike would be enhanced by providing these officers with training by domestic violence advocates on how to approach such a situation so that the person in question is helped and not put in further danger. By the same token, domestic violence agencies may need the help of an animal services agency in removing or relocating a pet while other family members seek safety.

Nancy discussed the ways in which public policy is catching up with research and experience to strengthen laws dealing with animal cruelty and provide better resources to domestic violence victims and their companion animals.

This message of the need for and value of a coordinated community response toward all types of violence was reinforced by a similar panel put together by AWI for the annual training conference of the National Animal Care and Control Association in October in Virginia Beach, Virginia. This time, Nancy and Glenna teamed up with Michelle Welch, senior assistant attorney general for Virginia and chief of the attorney general’s animal law unit, to talk about cross training and cross reporting and demonstrate how to put that into practice.

While cross training and communication between animal control agencies and domestic violence groups does occur, it is not yet as systematic and consistent at it could be. Heightened awareness that a link exists between domestic violence and animal abuse is an important first step, but domestic violence experts must also train animal control agencies, other animal welfare groups, and veterinarians on the dynamics of domestic violence situations so there can be informed assessment of the risks involved in making any kind of intervention.

Likewise, domestic violence advocates and service providers are encouraged to recognize the special bond between domestic violence victims and their pets, ask questions about pets at all stages of their interaction with victims (e.g., “Do you have a pet?” “Do you need help with finding a place to keep your pet safe?”), and be prepared to provide assistance when needed. Domestic violence agencies should get to know their local animal services provider, whether an animal control agency, humane law enforcement agency, or shelter. Having an established relationship before an emergency will enable all parties to more effectively help domestic violence victims and their pets.

AWI has resources to assist all groups working in the nexus of animals and family violence. AWI maintains a zip-code searchable database of “safe havens”—sheltering services that help victims of domestic violence place their companion animals out of harm’s way so that they may seek safety for themselves. Also available on the “animals & family violence” section of the AWI website (www.awionline.org/animals-family) are suggested steps for safety planning for pets, questions to ask domestic violence victims about their pets, and questions to ask children who may have been exposed to animal abuse or other abuse in their homes. 

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