The Hidden Victim

By Amanda Spencer

WASHINGTON–For Caroline Jones, it’s sometimes hard to realize the impact her work as president and CEO of Doorways for Women and Families, a domestic violence shelter in Arlington, Va., has on the survivors. That is, until she is faced with it firsthand. Jones remembers one client in particular, a woman who came into the shelter with her pets. This woman and her pets shared something in common: they were attacked by the same abuser.

“She felt like it was her fault that her pet had suffered that and that her abusive partner routinely would make her watch while he injured her pets because he knew nothing got to her more,” Jones said. “She had such a bond with these pets, they were really like her children. The first week that she got there, she insisted on sleeping in the kennel with her pets. She was so so so traumatized that she just really needed that and we didn’t have a rulebook for that, we didn’t have a way to do that, but we figured it out.”

Jones and her staff were able to set up a makeshift bed for the woman so she could sleep with her pets for the first few days of her stay. Cases like the one described by Jones are common. According to the Animal Welfare Institute, around 86 percent of women entering domestic violence shelters reported that their abuser had abused or killed their pet. This connection between animal abuse and domestic violence is causing animal welfare and domestic violence advocates to come together to try to solve the issue by lobbying for Congress to pass the Pet and Women Safety Act, or PAWS Act. The PAWS Act would allocate funds to domestic violence shelters to build on-site housing for the pets of victims like the one who came to Doorways for Women and Families.

Before building the animal shelter, Jones and other workers started to notice a pattern in the calls coming in through their domestic violence hotline.

“What we were hearing is people were calling the hotline in incredible danger,” Jones said. “They, or they and their children, were in danger and we would say, ‘ok, it sounds like you really need to come in,’ and we would start making arrangements for them to come to their safe house, to find out later in the call that they had a pet and they would refuse to come if their pet couldn’t be with them.”

For domestic violence advocates, this trend is alarming. The American Humane Association notes that between 25 and 40 percent of abused women have not sought shelter from abusive relationships because they worried about what would happen to their pets. After further investigation, Jones discovered that the reasoning behind why victims wouldn’t leave their pets often times had to do with the pet being abused as well.

Graphic by Amanda Spencer

“We heard horror stories of people who if they said if they were going to leave the relationship, the pet would be harmed or maimed and if they did leave, they were incredibly fearful, and rightfully so, that the pet would be killed,” Jones said.

In order to fix the problem, shelters including Doorways for Women and Families partnered with local animal shelters that gave temporarily house the victim’s pets while the victims were getting their lives back on track. These animal shelters are known as safe havens. Currently there are 1,436 registered safe havens spread across the country that are known by the Animal Welfare Institute. Yet Jones and other organizations found that some clients still refused to temporarily give up their pets to safe havens.

“Having the pet go not with the family but to the Humane Society was really terrifying for these survivors,” Jones said. “It was one more trauma that we felt we could avoid and more and more research on understanding trauma and how human-beings respond to it, there’s so much therapeutic value in keeping families together and having pets, who are definitely family members, as part of the healing.”

Jones brings up a mission that those who work with domestic violence share: trying to make the process of leaving their abuser as easy as possible. That’s one of the reasons why Jessica Katz created the Safe Haven Network. The Safe Haven Network serves as a connection between domestic violence victims and the animal shelters that serve as safe heavens. Instead of the victim having to call around to different shelters to secure a safe location for their pet, a member of the Safe Haven Network will do it for them. This allows the victim to focus on other aspects of his or her safety plan.

“It’s one less thing to worry about,” Katz said. “She’s got so many things to worry about. Based on what I see, eight to nine times out of 10 if they need our service they have kids too. Imagine being young and being relocated and not knowing where your pet is going. Now imagine being that kid’s mother. Everything is up in the air, but at least they know that their pet is safe. It’s kind of an anchor.”

When Katz or another member of the group submits for an animal to stay in a shelter, they can usually secure a spot for the animal for about a month, with the possibility of a two-week extension. However, this time frame doesn’t match up with the average stay for a woman in a shelter, which is double that at 60 days. Moreover, according to the Domestic Abuse Shelter of the Florida Keys, on average a woman will leave her abuser seven times, yet some safe havens have a one-time only policy. While those numbers make Katz’s job harder, in her mind it doesn’t change anything.

“However many times she comes back that’s how many times we’re going to help her,” Katz said. Our slogan is pets are family. When you’re in that situation, when your family is running for your life, you shouldn’t have to pick and choose which members of your families get safe and which don’t. We make sure that every member of the family is safe.”

The discrepancy in the average stay for domestic violence victims and in how long safe havens can keep pets are two examples of why shelters like Doorways for Women and Families have decided to make their own shelter for animals. Nevertheless, this brings about new issues of how to best help all the victims, not just some of them.

“We need to make sure that this is a space that works for everybody,” Jones said. “And having pets in a communal setting [with] other clients who are with us who like pets is very easy and it’s very positive. But at times we have people from a wide range of cultures and a wide range of backgrounds and life experiences that maybe don’t have a positive relationship with pets. So there’s a constant balancing act of how to make sure that we’re inclusive of everybody’s needs.”

Additionally, another issue shelters face has to do with funding. At Doorways for Women and Families alone, there has been a 53 percent increase in calls to their hotline. Nearly every day of the year their safe house has been full and operating over capacity, which leads to a problem of having enough funding. Jenny Nahrwold, the clinic operation manager for PAWS Chicago, cites this as the main barrier to domestic violence shelters building on-site animal housing.

“Most domestic violence shelters are small non-profits without much funding,” Nahrwold said. “They don’t have the resources needed to provide to their victims, let alone pets. We encourage shelters to build places for animals but it’s hard. There are so many regulations.”

That’s where the PAWS Act comes in. If passed, the PAWS Act would allocate funding to domestic violence shelters to build on-site shelters. As a Huffington Post article said, as of right now, less than 5 percent of domestic violence shelters have a place for women to bring their pets. This bill would remove the barrier of victims not wanting to seek help for fear that their pet would be harmed by their abuser. Instead, their pet would be able to join them and be a part of the recovery process. Furthermore, the PAWS Act would protect pets in interstate stalking, protection order violations, and restitution federal laws while including pets under protection orders.

The PAWS Act has attracted attention from animal welfare and domestic violence lobbyists alike, including the Animal Welfare Institute, a non-profit organization that works to end the suffering of animals at the hands of people. Nancy Blaney, the senior policy advisor, uses a variety of tactics to try to get legislation like the PAWS Act passed.

“It’s just a matter of really just working it, getting our members to contact their representatives and senators to cosponsor,” Blaney said. “Sponsoring briefings for staff so staff will go back and talk to their bosses. We talk about this at the prosecutors’ conferences. It’s just really a matter of talking to offices, getting those personal stories out there, getting other groups that sometimes have better entre than we do.”

When it comes down to it, Blaney sites cosponsors as one of the most important things needed to get a bill passed. Yet with 191 cosponsors in the House of Representatives and 27 in the Senate, a lack of cosponsors doesn’t seem to be the reason why the PAWS Act has yet to move out of committee. Instead, the problem might lie in the type of bill.

“Stand alone bills are having a hard time, because nothing’s getting done,” Blaney said. “It’s hard enough just to get the funding approved to keep the government operating. So, you have to find other ways.”

Even more important than cosponsors are the opinions of constituents themselves. For those who want to see animal welfare laws get passed, Blaney emphasizes the power of reaching out.

“Contact your congressman, contact your state legislators,” Blaney said. “When you get an email or something that says ‘we really need your voice,’ we really need your voice! When push comes to shove, it’s hearing from the constituents that really makes the difference.”

It can be challenging to get people on Capitol Hill to pay attention to animal welfare issues in comparison to issues that deal with people. Still, according to Blaney the climate on the Hill has improved dramatically.

“In Congressional offices when I first started out you would try to find somebody who was working on animal issues and it was like, ‘well let me see who’s doing that,’” Blaney said. “But now you have a person on the roster. Animal welfare always has somebody assigned to it. And that’s a big big difference….things have changed remarkably if you kind of take a long view. But on a day-to-day basis, you’re still kind of butting heads with a lot of obstacles.”

Currently, Jones acknowledges that not a lot of victims need the service the on-site animal shelter provides. However, those that do need it make it worth it.

“Maybe 10 to15 percent of clients come with their pets,” Jones said. “But that’s 10 to 15 percent of clients that we would be turning away each year if we didn’t have it. So I look at it that way. When it’s not occupied it’s very cost neutral so it’s something that is pretty easy to provide to make that path of help just a little bit wider.”

At the end of the day, there is a lot of work to be done relating to not only domestic violence and animal abuse, but all kinds of animal welfare issues. Anna Payton, the Executive Director of the Naperville Area Humane Society in Naperville, Ill., encourages people to take the time to think about what issues are prevalent in the community and then do something about it.

“I just would encourage other shelters, other organizations, to take a look at their community and see if there’s not a program in their area to help and partner with the family shelters or women’s shelters and see if you can fill a void where it’s really needed,” Payton said. “And, encourage people to keep having these conversations and realize that there is a connection between domestic violence and animal abuse or violence against humans and animal abuse, and take it seriously. That’s again where we’re going to see change, when people start to recognize and change their mindset and outlook on things. That’s where you’re going to see any type of social change.”

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