The forgotten victims of family violence

by Jason Corey via Flikr

by Jason Corey via Flikr

It seems like finally in 2015 domestic abuse and family violence is being discussed out loud and openly in Australia. Conversations regarding the impact of domestic abuse have increased drastically over the last few years with everyone from the Prime Minister to the Australian of the Year urging that something must be done to combat the horrific cycle of violence.

Not only does more public awareness about the issue suggest that perhaps the stigma surrounding victims of family violence is finally being put to rest, it also means that there will be more funding and support for these victims. With Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed $100 million initiative to combat family violence that was announced in September and family violence victim Rosie Batty’s honouring as Australian of the Year in January, it definitely seems like a positive change for victims of domestic abuse is set to come.

But yet there is still so much to be done to end the cycle of physical and psychological abuse faced by far too many women in this country. According to data from Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety, one in three Australian women has been a victim of physical domestic violence. So far this year there have been 75 Australian women killed at the hands of a man or as a direct result of domestic violence. These women are named and remembered on the Facebook page ‘Destroy The Joint’ which lists every single woman killed in Australia as a result of domestic violence. Due to the growing number of deaths, the list updated every few days.

These horrific facts are a heavy burden weighing on the minds of many Australians. Our media is saturated by numerous articles about the murders of women and girls by partners or former partners. It is a sickening and depressing factor that seems outdated in 2015, yet the stream of victims never seems to end. Almost everyday there is a new story about family violence that has gone unnoticed for too long and wasn’t stopped before it was too late.

In many cases of family violence, the innocent children of the victims are either caught up in the abuse or observe it happening without being able to do anything about it. However, there is another unmeasured victim in many family violence cases. Just like children, animals can be the innocent victims of domestic abuse with a common trend of many perpetrators being the use of threats and violence towards family pets as a way to manipulate and control their victims.

Dr Lucy Healey is a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of social work at The University of Melbourne. She says that animal abuse is a far too common factor in family violence and one that often goes unnoticed in the media. “I’ve talked with a number of women over the course of various projects who have spoken about their ex-partner harming, even killing, pets to further terrify and hurt them and their children,” she said. Dr Healey said that abusive partners use animals as a tool of “coercion and a form of fear tactics to control family members.”

As for the psychological factors behind why women would be willing to stay in an abusive relationship if they own a pet, social worker and University of Queensland lecturer Dr Deborah Walsh suggests that in many ways women often consider their pets to be just as precious as their children. “If a woman in an abusive relationship is highly attached to their animal, their attachment puts the animal at great risk of being hurt. She’s not going to leave the relationship until she knows it will be safe,” she said.

In 2014, a study by the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found that women were more likely to stay in an abusive relationship if they owned a pet that could be possibly harmed if they left. 28% of women surveyed said they would have left their abusive partner earlier if they had not had a pet. 55% stated that animal cruelty was a major part of their experience with family violence and at some point their animal had experienced violence or threats of violence by a partner or former partner. Shockingly, a third of the women reported that they had experienced actual injury or death of an animal at the hands of a partner or former partner. There has not yet been a similar study conducted in Australia.

Earlier this year, the RSPCA called for the Royal Commission into Family Violence to also include animal welfare as a consideration. In a submission to the royal commission, the RSPCA said, “In many cases, animals are abused as a method of controlling partners while in the home, or they may be starved, abused or neglected when the victim flees the home.”

The RSPCA also made recommendations to the royal commission suggesting that “compulsory reporting of family violence by all Authorised Officers and training and reporting mechanisms for early intervention” could possibly help combat the problem. They also urged the government to consider providing more reliable funding for women’s shelters in order for them to supply suitable boarding for animals of victims. “Local governments should have a responsibility to provide welfare boarding for animals and this should not be a responsibility of charities,” they said.

With this topic gaining more attention, women’s refuges have begun to encourage victims to bring their pets with them when fleeing from family violence. However, many women’s shelters don’t have the necessary funds to provide resources to take care of animals. “Funding for welfare boarding is unreliable and often limited. Welfare boarding is only provided by animal shelters when they have the capacity to do so,” the RSPCA said.

Some change came in July when the Victorian Government announced it would fund a new program to shelter and care for animals of family violence victims. Run by family violence support centre Safe Steps – alongside the RSPCA and Animal Aid – the Pets in Crisis service will give women the chance to bring their animals with them to women’s refuges instead of leaving them in the care of animal shelters. The state wide service will be integrated into women’s refuges and will cost $100,000 over the next four years.

When the Pets in Crisis initiative was initially announced in July Families and Children Minister Jenny Mikakos said that the service was extremely important in ensuring greater access to similar services that already operate. “It is difficult for refuges to accept pets and we want to be able to provide them with the support to be able to place the pet with an animal welfare shelter. This program will give people greater confidence to seek safety and support,” she said.

Currently, there are approximately only 20 shelters across Victoria that have the appropriate resources to look after victim’s animals. However, there are some services already in operation that can provide temporary relief for the pets of victims. The Eastern Domestic Violence Service runs a program called Pets in Peril offering temporary accommodation for pets in a kennel and is used by over 100 women every year.

Although the Pets in Peril program is a beneficial short-term relief for women escaping family violence, accommodation is temporary and women are separated from their animals during an already difficult time. Dr Walsh said it is crucially important for women to know their animals are in a safe environment and preferably with them at a woman’s refuge instead of at an animal shelter. “Women and kids don’t want to be separated from their beloved pets at such a stressful time,” she said.

The Safe Steps Pets in Crisis initiative is “still in its formative stages” according spokesperson and Communications Manager Kristine Robertson, and for confidentiality purposes Safe Steps cannot “comment or answer questions at this time”. Meanwhile, Safe Steps are referring all family violence victims who wish to have their pets looked after to contact Animal Aid for their pets to be temporarily boarded in a kennel.

If you or anyone you know is suffering from family violence, please call the Australian Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).

This piece was published on the City Journal


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