In Conversation: Katherine Darke Schmitt, US Department of Justice Animal Cruelty Working Group

In recognition of National Justice for Animals Week (February 16-22, 2014), the Animal Welfare Institute is pleased to share with you an interview with Katherine Darke Schmitt, policy advisor in the Office of the Assistant Attorney General, Office of Justice Programs (OJP), US Department of Justice (DoJ), and facilitator of DoJ’s Animal Cruelty Working Group. The creation of this Working Group was a defining moment in the quest to raise awareness about animal abuse within the law enforcement community and a most welcome development. We asked her to share with us some insights into the Working Group’s genesis and its work, and into what makes this work important for her.

How did the Animal Cruelty Working Group come about? Was there one “precipitating event” or were there several things that came together to which a Working Group seemed the right response?
What is now the Department of Justice Working Group emerged from a passion our former Assistant Attorney General (AAG) Laurie Robinson had for the issue. In 2009, she convened a group of Office of Justice Programs (OJP) staff to discuss the evidence about what researchers and advocates call “the link”—the connection between cruelty to animals and other kinds of violent and delinquent behavior. OJP funds many programs that serve victims of such crime and supports the investigation and prosecution of offenders. Former AAG Robinson wanted to make sure we were using the evidence on animal cruelty to inform how OJP programs were designed and implemented. Since then, the working group has expanded to include staff from across the Department and branched out to establish collaboration with other federal agencies. The current AAG Karol Mason continues to support the group and its evolving role.

What is your role with the Working Group and who serves on it?
I inherited my role as the convener and facilitator of the group when I joined the AAG’s policy staff in 2010. The group’s members include program managers and researchers from OJP, attorneys from the Department’s litigating branches, representatives from federal law enforcement, and policy advisors from across DoJ.

What have its activities been to date? Have there been “ripple effects” from the “listening session” that was held with DoJ staff and members of the animal protection, child welfare, domestic violence, and law enforcement communities in 2013?
Our initial activities centered on coordinating information about OJP and DoJ programs that touched the issue of animal cruelty—most of which pre-dated the working group. For example, the Bureau of Justice Assistance had been funding the National Animal Cruelty and Fighting Initiative for the Prevention and Reduction of Violent Crime managed by Animal Welfare Institute and the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys to provide training and other resources to courts, law enforcement, and animal welfare professionals. Likewise, the Community Oriented Policing Services Office (COPS) had already begun disseminating a series of training tools for law enforcement related to prevention of dog fighting. The working group hosted brown bag sessions for DoJ staff and invited experts to educate us about trends and emerging issues in the field.

By 2010 other DoJ staff outside OJP and COPS had heard about our working group, and joined us, bringing with them the particular interests of their offices. We continue to function as an information sharing group, and have initiated new communications mechanisms to make sure DoJ and other federal resources knowledgeable about animal protection are accessible to program and litigating staff.

In 2012 the group convened a listening session on animal cruelty for Associate Attorney General Tony West. This was the first time the Department had brought together a group of experts to speak to DoJ leadership about their work and the challenges of protecting animals. The listening session brought much more exposure to the issue of animal cruelty to DoJ staff. I met National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) Deputy Executive Director John Thompson at that listening session. I have since heard him say that attending that session was an impetus to fuel his efforts to spark a broader conversation with law enforcement about this issue, one about which he himself is passionate.

What is planned for the future?
The working group plans its activities as particular issues arise. We look forward to continuing to learn from each other and from experts in the field about animal protection as a means to do our own jobs better and with more awareness. For example, OJP is developing a new web site to educate our constituents about what resources are available to address animal cruelty at the state and local level.

How does the working Group relate to others in law enforcement and the courts; the domestic violence, child and elder protection, and animal welfare communities, social workers, etc.?
The working group and its members have benefited from the willingness of experts in fields like law enforcement and the courts, domestic violence, veterinary science, child and elder protection, and animal welfare communities to educate us about their work. We follow with interest the NSA’s plans to promote attention to animal cruelty issues and are heartened by the enthusiastic participation of folks from a broad range of disciplines and organizations.

What is your view of the state of the enforcement of animal cruelty laws? What areas seem most in need of improvement?
State animal cruelty laws are evolving. Some states have very broad protections for domestic and farm animals with felony penalties, and others do not. Enforcement varies, too, across states and communities, driven by resources and local priorities. DoJ does have resources available to state and local law enforcement and court personnel to help educate them about “state of the art” animal protection strategies. Other organizations, like Animal Welfare Institute, the Humane Society of the United States, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the National District Attorneys Association, and the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys are also examples of organizations that offer resources to states to help them build and enforce strong protection laws.

In establishing the Working Group and in supporting training efforts, DoJ has acknowledged that animal cruelty crimes are serious in and of themselves and because of their relationship to other forms of violence. What does the Department see as necessary steps to reducing animal cruelty crime?
From my perspective, raising awareness is key. All states have some legal remedies to protect animals on the books; some states have comparatively strong laws. The next priority should be to make sure that professionals across disciplines know the laws and know how to access expertise and resources needed to protect people and animals. I personally am interested in how professionals who serve victims of violence—particularly victims of family violence—can be educated about signs of animal cruelty in the communities they serve. The research suggests that a child welfare investigator or a domestic violence advocate or a law enforcement officer who proactively asks questions about animals in the home and people who might be hurting those animals may be able to discover harm (or prevent future harm) to humans. For example, take the work of Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell at Johns Hopkins University on the connection between violence against household animals and risk of lethality for victims of domestic violence or the work by Dr. Frank Ascione on the link between children’s cruelty to animals and other antisocial behavior.1

You have been very passionate about this issue and also have a history of working with the domestic violence community. How did this passion develop for you and what brought you to DoJ?
I was thankful to have the opportunity to come to work for the Department of Justice 15 years ago because I was working in the field of research on and evaluation of interventions for victims of violence, much of which was funded by DoJ. I knew from early work by domestic violence researchers and advocates, like Lenore Walker, that cruelty to animals is a tool batterers use to control their partners. I then spent several years of my DoJ career in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, where my work centered on protection of child victims and an emerging awareness in that field that child abusers use violence towards and threats against pets as a means to coerce and silence their victims. But long before I came to DoJ I was the kid with a houseful of rescued animals and an enormous interest in people who worked with animals. To lead the working group has been a thrilling opportunity to marry those two interests. I come home every night to two dogs rescued from Afghanistan on my husband’s last deployment, a blind cat from a local rescue organization, and a tank with the one-eyed goldfish I saw at the pet store that I was worried would never be bought.

Going to work in the morning is an extension of my respect and care for them. Hanging in our office are gorgeous posters of a rescued fighting dog that were designed by one of the working group members. The posters say “Protecting the most vulnerable…includes those without a voice.” I believe that is part of our mission, and am grateful to be part of that voice for animals.

1. See, for example: Campbell, Jacquelyn, et al. "Assessing risk factors for Intimate partner homicide." NIJ Journal. no. 250 (2003). (accessed February 6, 2014). Ascione, Frank. US Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, "Animal Abuse and Youth Violence." Last modified September 30, 2001. Accessed February 6, 2014.