In civil protection order cases or criminal family violence cases, judges and court staff naturally focus on determining appropriate remedies and consequences for the humans involved. They are always the named parties, victims, witnesses, or protected persons. However, it is likely that if the family home is violent, and if companion animals live in that home, the humans are not the only victims. Child abuse, elder abuse, intimate partner abuse, and pet abuse all intersect under the same roof and within the same walls.
We all know a pet owner. The American Humane Association (AHA) reports that more American households have pets than children.
Some studies have shown that between fifty to seventy-five percent of abused women with companion animals have reported that their pets have been threatened and/or harmed by an intimate partner. According to the AHA’s Facts About Animal Abuse & Domestic Violence, many women who experience abuse in their intimate relationships have reported a reluctance to leave their homes out of fear of what will happen to their pets.
Most domestic violence shelters are not equipped to take in animals because of concern for liability, allergies, or a lack of capacity. Fortunately, the Humane Society of the United States maintains a state-by-state directory of “safe havens”—domestic violence shelters that accept both people and animals. Many U.S. domestic violence shelters now partner with local animal protection organizations to offer foster care for pets while the victim and children stay in the shelter.
American Humane Association (AHA) “Facts About Animal Abuse & Domestic Violence”:
Humane Society of the United States Directory of Safe Havens for Animals Programs:
Many abusers attempt to control or retaliate against family members through animal abuse.
State legislatures have addressed the overlap of intimate partner violence and cruelty to animals. Indiana’s definition of “domestic or family violence” (Ind. Code 31-9-2-42 and 34-6-2-34.5) includes “beating, torturing, mutilating, or killing a vertebrate animal without justification with the intent to threaten, intimidate, coerce, harass, or terrorize a family or household member.”
A petitioner may seek a civil order for protection on the basis that his or her abuser threatened to hurt—or did harm—the family pet, if the act occurred in the context described above. Some states’ civil protection order laws explicitly include protection for household animals; others, including Indiana, treat animals as personal property subject to removal and protection from harm.
Animal abuse can traumatize those who witness the incidents, especially children.
Researcher Shelby Elaine McDonald and her colleagues interviewed fifty-eight children, ages seven to twelve, about their experiences witnessing animal abuse, and in 2015 published their findings in the Journal of Child Abuse and Neglect.
Children described the warning signs of impending trouble and their steps to prevent pet abuse. “I would always hide my cat when my dad was drinking because I did not want him to hurt him. I would hide him in my closet with stuffed animals,” an eight-year old boy told interviewers.
“When I see my dad getting mad, I take the dogs outside or in my room before he starts to kick them,” reported a girl, age nine. Other children told of actively intervening in pet abuse. An eleven-year old girl recounted for the authors: “The day that my dad said he would burn my dog on the grill, I took him to my room and locked him in the closet with food and water until the next day.” An eight-year old boy recalled: “When my dad was trying to hurt my dog, I grabbed my dog and said, ‘No, Dad, No.”
It can be very dangerous for a child to insert himself or herself into a physically abusive situation, but the children’s actions demonstrate their close bonds with their companion animals.
Unfortunately, several children in McDonald’s study also reported instances in which they themselves, or their siblings, abused pets. Some children who engaged in this behavior were acting out—they lacked the means to express negative emotions in other, healthier ways. Others mimicked what they saw their parents do to “discipline” the animals.
Another set of children lacked empathy for the animals and engaged in acts of torture towards the animals. These findings supported previous research demonstrating children exposed to intimate partner violence and/or animal cruelty are more likely to engage in maltreatment of animals.
What are courts to do with this disturbing information? Juvenile court judges and probation officers who handle delinquency cases involving cruelty to animals must ask whether family violence is present in the home. If so, they should offer referrals to appropriate services in a parental participation order issued as part of a dispositional decree.
Likewise, those presiding over child maltreatment cases (CHINS, terminations) involving intimate partner violence should screen for animal abuse and refer both adults and children to trauma-informed services.
Simply asking whether the family has any pets can open an entirely new discussion, and provide the opportunity to gain valuable insight into the dynamics of power and interpersonal relations within a family.
In civil protection order cases, judges can inquire about pets when they decide where the parties will live and in dividing personal property.