Safety Planning for Domestic Violence Victims and Pets

Safety Planning for Domestic Violence Victims and Pets

When a client comes to us and explains that an abusive ex is threatening to steal or harm their pet, or that they can’t leave a dangerous situation because they refuse to leave a beloved companion animal behind, our hearts break for them. And we do everything possible to figure it out.

Here’s what we know about the overlap between animal abuse and intimate partner violence

 

Pet victimization, actual or threatened, is part of the landscape of terror to which some women are exposed.  – Ascione

 

All too often we’ve seen a pet become a pawn in the power games that abusers use to control their victims. They are used to blackmail and coerce, and can be abused by perpetrators to frighten partners, as a threat of further attack on a partner, as a means of controlling the victim, or as a twisted form of inflicting retaliation against or punishment on a victim. The bond between a victim and pet can be particularly intense in violent households because pets are such a comfort in moments of abuse and the priority of protecting abuse aimed at the pet can become even more important in IPV than the abuse aimed against you.  That bond can even create mounting jealousy by the partner if he or she feels the dog gets more care and attention than they do.

Studies have found that upwards of 71% of abused women reported that their pets had been threatened, harmed, and or killed by their partners*. According to the PALS Report: “The threat or actual harm of pets is a form of emotional control that serves as a barrier that often prevents survivors of domestic violence from leaving their abusive partners. The emotional attachment that adults and children have for their pets makes the animals “soft targets” that abusive partners may use as point of vulnerability that can coerce and control family members and exert their power over victims.”

We know that domestic violence, child abuse, and animal abuse frequently occur simultaneously in a household. And we know that women delay leaving abusive households because they fear for their pet.  They are afraid to take the pet because it causes logistical challenges with travel and finding a safe alternative residence, yet can’t dream of leaving their darling behind.

But it’s important to remember that even if physical abuse has not occurred, women may find themselves scared to leave a relationship because they fear retaliation: distributing naked images, spreading secrets, trying to get a victim fired from her job, or a frustrating struggle for custody of a pet.

Animals can also be a tool that stalkers use to terrorize. A pet can be a ‘soft-target’ used to manipulate and intimidate a victim. And taking a pet away is another tactic abusers use to isolate victims from their identity and support system.

Thankfully, an Order of Protection can help even if there has not been physical or hands-on abuse.

  • So, what does the law say?

Thanks to New York Family Court Act § 842, the animals owned by the petitioner of the Order of Protection – or a minor child residing in the household – can be included in a protective order. 

The law specifically allows a court to order the offender/abuser to refrain from injuring or killing any animal owned, possessed, or looked after by the petitioner or a minor child residing in the household.

In California, where we also practice, Cal. Fam. Code specifies that the court may include in a protective order a grant to the petitioner (victim) of the exclusive care, possession, or control of any animal owned, possessed, leased, kept, or held by either the petitioner or the respondent or a minor child residing in the residence or household of either the petitioner or the respondent. The court may order the respondent to stay away from the animal and forbid the respondent from taking, transferring, encumbering, concealing, molesting, attacking, striking, threatening, harming, or otherwise disposing of the animal.

In New Jersey, where we also have lots of experience getting Orders of Protection, the Domestic Violence Pet Protection Law authorizes courts to include pets in domestic violence restraining orders and prohibit the defendant from having any contact with any animal owed, possessed, leased, kept or held by either party or a minor child residing in the household.

Though it applies to a very narrow set of circumstances relating to a criminal Order of Protection, it may also be helpful to know that in 2018, the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act was signed into law. The PAWS Act added language to 18 U.S.C. §§ 2261-2266 pertaining to domestic violence and stalking and provides additional protection for animals in situations involving interstate stalking and interstate violations of protection orders (interstate stalking and interstate violation of protection orders are crimes under federal law).

 

  • Safety Planning for Domestic Violence Victims and Pets

It may be difficult to contemplate leaving when there’s a pet involved, but there are ways of staying safe and mitigating risks when extricating yourself from an abusive situation. We help many victims create a safety plan, and that often includes their pet. If you would like to talk about safety planning for leaving a relationship, get in touch here.

12 Safety Planning Tips for Domestic Violence Victims and Pets:

There are a few things you can do ASAP, if it is safe for you to do so.

  1. Stock up on food and meds for your pet in case the abuser cuts off your access to resources or tries to isolate you, or in case you need to leave in an emergency or urgent crisis
  2. Search and save the contact details for a local 24 hour emergency vet clinic
  3. Have a grab-bag ready for your pet that includes: medicine, a paper trail of ownership, leash, carrier, bedding, a few days worth of food, and favorite toys
  4. Try to establish evidence of your ownership of your pet by leaving a paper trail, e.g. saving the receipts from the adoption or purchase, having vet records put in your name and keep them somewhere safe, look at license to establish ownership, save vaccination records or rabies tags somewhere safe
  5. Have a backup plan for a different vet, just in case going to your old vet is no longer safe
  6. Keep up-to-date, clear photos of your pet and their paperwork on various devices; send them to safe friends in case you lose access to your devices
  7. If you are leaving, find a safe shelter for pet, somewhere that your abuser doesn’t know about (e.g. safe haven for pets program)
  8. Consider making arrangements in advance of your move-out date for your pet to stay with a trusted friend or relative while you are handling the logistics of physically moving;
  9. Emotionally brace yourself for your ex accusing you of stealing the pet and them focusing on needing to see the pet as a way to demand access to you.  Practice not feeling guilty.  And practice not giving in to a joint custody arrangement
  10. Consider the places and times at which you walk your pet (change your route and, if possible, don’t walk alone)
  11. Keep your pet indoors when possible, and supervise them when they are in the yard or at the park
  12. If you have a dog walker or dog sitter, make sure they know not to hand the dog to anyone else – even if the dog appears to know the person

Finally, you can reach out to a law firm who has experience handling safety planning and protective orders that encompass pets, can bring their experience of abuser behavior and psychology to assess risk and threat-level, and can advise on what evidence to preserve and what notes to take to strengthen your case for ownership.

Get in touch with our team here.

Q&A

Reminder: the law is complicated, and each case is totally unique, so we highly recommend talking to a lawyer ASAP about how to extricate yourself and your pet in the safest way possible.

Animals are abused by perpetrators to frighten partners, as a threat of further attack on a partner, as a means of controlling the victim, or as a twisted form of inflicting retaliation against or punishment on a victim.

Even if physical abuse has not occurred within a relationship (to neither person or pet) someone may find themselves scared to leave a relationship because they fear retaliation: distributing naked images, spreading secrets, trying to get a victim fired from their job, or a frustrating struggle for custody of a pet.

Isolating a victim from their pet is just another one of the ways that an abuser can manipulate and intimidate a victim and isolate them from their identity and support system.

According to New York law, pets are property. Recently, a New York judge added some much-needed nuance to the definition of pets as property.

The good news/bad news of this legal decision is that if you acquired/adopted a dog with the person you are planning to leave – you don’t automatically get ownership of the dog, even if the purchase or adoption contract is in your name. The law is more complex than whether your name is on the pet’s paperwork.

It is *generally* acknowledged in NY that the presumption of ownership goes to the person who brought the dog into the relationship.

If the dog was purchased/adopted while you were in the relationship, even if your abuser’s name is on the paperwork then you might be able to (legally) still leave with the dog. You can’t get arrested for kidnapping if you take the dog, as it is considered a civil property issue and not a criminal issue. However, an abuser could use you taking the dog to retaliate and entangle you. So it’s extremely important to make a safety plan and have a strategy in case they try to accuse you of stealing the dog or retaliate by harming you.

Thanks to New York’s Family Court Act § 842, companion animals owned by the petitioner (aka a person seeking an order of protection), or a minor child residing in the household, can be included in a protective order.

The law specifically allows a court to order the offender/abuser to refrain from injuring or killing any animal owned, possessed, or looked after by the petitioner or a minor child residing in the household.

An experienced attorney can guide you through how to gather evidence and advocate effectively for a pet to be included in a Family Court Order of Protection.

  • Comprehensive safety planning that includes pets
  • Bring experience of abuser behavior and psychology to assess risk and threat-level
  • Advocacy in family court to assist victims in listing their pets on protective orders
  • Advice on what evidence to preserve and what notes to take to strengthen your case for ownership

In California, where we also practice, Cal. Fam. Code specifies that the court may include in a protective order a grant to the petitioner (victim) of the exclusive care, possession, or control of any animal owned, possessed, leased, kept, or held by either the petitioner or the respondent or a minor child residing in the residence or household of either the petitioner or the respondent. The court may order the respondent to stay away from the animal and forbid the respondent from taking, transferring, encumbering, concealing, molesting, attacking, striking, threatening, harming, or otherwise disposing of the animal.

In New Jersey, where we also have lots of experience getting Orders of Protection, the Domestic Violence Pet Protection Law authorizes courts to include pets in domestic violence restraining orders and prohibit the defendant from having any contact with any animal owed, possessed, leased, kept or held by either party or a minor child residing in the household.

The Safe Havens Mapping Project is a searchable directory for pets of those experiencing domestic violence, created and managed by the Animal Welfare Institute. For a national listing of all types of safe havens for pets services, see AWI’s Safe Havens Mapping Project. Safe havens come in many different shapes and sizes. In some safe havens, pets do share the same space with the domestic violence survivors. Click here for a list of these types of programs and information on starting one. Confidentiality of the pet’s location is highly guarded to protect the pets and their family members.

You can donate pet food and toys to animals and people fleeing domestic violence through the amazon Wishlist of Ahimsa House, an organization we love. Ahimsa House was founded in 2004 after the founder lost a pet to domestic violence. It is dedicated to helping the human and animal victims of domestic violence reach safety together. It costs the approximately $500 to care for one victim’s pets. Often, the cost is much higher when victims have multiple animals, or when animals require extensive veterinary treatment due to abuse, injury, or neglect.

You can also donate here to the PALS program and URI. PALS Place is the only co-living shelter in New York City in which every apartment unit has been designed to shelter pets alongside their families in the same safe, secure space.

You can also donate to our pro-bono fund for clients who cannot otherwise afford assistance. Get in touch here to do that. 

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We are not your attorney. Nothing on our website, blog, or social media should be interpreted as legal advice or the creation of an attorney-client relationship. You should not act or rely on the basis of information on this site without seeking the advice of an attorney. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. Please keep in mind that the success of any legal matter depends on the unique circumstances of each case: we cannot guarantee particular results for future clients based on successes we have achieved in past legal matters.