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Law School Clinic and the Verizon Foundation Team Up to Assist Pet-Owning Domestic Violence Victims

By Ilene Fleischmann

Release Date: February 26, 2012

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Domestic violence victims often remain in abusive relationships to prevent their partner from harming or killing their pets. The University at Buffalo Law School Women, Children, and Social Justice Clinic's new project, Animal Shelter Options for Domestic Violence Victims, is designed to remove this barrier to safety for individuals and their pets.

With funding from Verizon and collaboration from the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), law school faculty and students are working to provide individuals seeking emergency shelter with resources to help protect their pets as well as raise awareness about barriers escaping domestic violence faced by victims who have animals. UB Professor Suzanne Tomkins, who directs the clinic, explained "we know first hand from catastrophes like Katrina that individuals will not seek safety if they have to leave their pets behind. Our goal is to reduce a very real barrier for abused individuals seeking safety by knowing their pets are cared for and safe."

Data demonstrate the reality of the link between domestic violence and pet abuse. Seventy-one percent of pet-owning women entering shelters reported that their batterer had harmed killed or threatened family pets for revenge or to psychologically control victims. Likewise, between 25 and 40 percent of battered women with pets feel helpless to escape abusive situations because they worry about what will happen to their animals should they leave.

Other startling statistics: 100 percent of serial killers started out by abusing animals; 52 percent of aggravated assaults started out by abusing animals; 48 percent of rapists started out by abusing animals; 46 percent of sexual murderers started out by abusing animals; and 30 percent of pedophiles started out by abusing animals. Although an increasing number of shelters have added kennels or instituted animal foster care programs in an effort to protect victims, their children, and their pets, more needs to be done.

In October 2010, three regional seminars hosted by the DCJS' Violence Against Women's Unit along with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the New York State Humane Association examined these issues and how they impacted New York. Shortly afterward, DCJS started a survey seeking information on existing relationships between domestic violence shelters and animal shelters to provide emergency shelter for pets. The UB Law School's Women, Children, and Social Justice Clinic was brought on board to create a more formal survey, administer it to domestic violence agencies and animal shelters across the state, and develop the database.

This database, which is the first its kind in New York State, is available online at http://law.buffalo.edu/familyviolence/petProject.asp. Organized by county, it provides domestic violence victims, domestic violence agencies, law enforcement and advocates with information on programs that can either house victim's pets or include direct referral systems to agencies that will accept a victim's pets. The database also includes animal agencies that, even if they don't yet have a direct partnership with a domestic violence organization, will provide shelter for domestic violence victim's pets. As Kim Oppelt, program specialist in the Violence Against Women unit of DCJS, remarked "As we consider how to locally address this nationwide dilemma, we are excited that the UB Law School clinic is helping develop a New York database to ease this very common problem facing domestic violence victims."

The clinic's work will have immediate, practical impact. For example, a link will be made available in the "Domestic and Sexual Violence" section on the Law Enforcement Suite of eJusticeNY to aid officers in assisting victims of domestic violence at the scene. With this new database, officers will have viable options for victims and their pets at the time of the incident.

In addition to creating and implementing the database, the UB Law School clinic is working closely with the surrounding counties comprising Western New York to bring awareness to this project and to demonstrate ways in which communities can provide temporary shelter for pets. Clinic faculty and students will travel throughout the region demonstrating the capabilities of the database and to present on the laws associated with the protection of pets of victims of domestic violence.

As UB law student Karalyn Rossi said, "This clinic project allows me to work in two areas of law that excite me -- animal rights and domestic violence. It is so rewarding to know that my research is being applied directly to help victims with pets as they seek shelter."