Protecting Pets and Families

Protecting Pets and Families

Stories/501 , Issues/Women , Issues/Violence
South Australia, Australia
30th May 2019
Protecting Pets and Families
Safe Pets Safe Families provides support for those fleeing domestic violence.

CW: This article deals with themes of assault and domestic violence.

Roughly ten years ago, Jennifer Howard fled from domestic violence (DV) with her children. She couldn't, however, take her dogs Bulzie and Missy to the DV shelter, and her feelings of guilt and grief for the pets she never saw again still linger to this day.

"It was absolutely heartbreaking," she says, "they were my first children."

Animal protection is a critical yet sorely under-appreciated aspect of tackling domestic violence. Many women stay in abusive situations or return to them out of fear for their pet's safety. Others even have their pets used as an emotional weapon against them.

Towards the end of Jen's eight-year relationship, she recalls, "things got pretty bad". Her partner would threaten her with a knife and kick her until she was black with bruises. Then firearms became involved. As much as she wanted to stay for the dogs, it got so dangerous that she escaped with her two-year-old son, four-year-old daughter and the clothes they were wearing.

Her dogs ended up "shoved in the pound", probably euthanised, and she laments now how scared they must have been.

To protect other victims and animals, Jen took matters into her own hands by establishing "Safe Pets Safe Families" (SPSF) in 2013.

Growing rapidly to meet demand, the charity relies on small grants, fundraisers and volunteers. Its primary aim is to foster pets for women who escape to shelters that forbid animals or for those who are recovering from injuries in hospital.

Amber, for instance, suffered unspeakable violence from her husband.

"Pretty much crossed off every kind of abuse there was," she says.

She stayed way too long because of her three dogs, Rufus, Ruby and Red.

Finally escaping with her baby boy, she continued to endanger herself by visiting the dogs, who had saved her life.

"[This] obviously adds another layer of stress onto everything in the situation," Amber recalls. She lived in fear of her husband catching her or carrying out his threats to hurt them.

Then a women's service handed her a SPSF flyer and she called the charity immediately. They fostered out her dogs for nearly three months until she found a pet-friendly rental property where she now lives with them and her three-year-old son.

"It was a massive relief," she says. "They're a big part of my life, my dogs."

Pets can be an enormous source of comfort for people, Jen says. "They can cry to them, laugh to them, and so for someone to lose their pets is very traumatic. And it's traumatic for the animals as well."

Although initially supporting victims of domestic violence, Jen quickly recognised a need to help pet-owners who are homeless or have mental illness.

Two years ago, she created 'Paws and Pals', a pop-up clinic that treats animals belonging to homeless people. Enlisting volunteer vets, it has expanded to five clinics that have helped more than 150 clients and 200 pets.

Unexpectedly, the clinics reached isolated victims of domestic violence.

"It's amazing just how sheltered people are; they just suffer a bit too long before they know what's available to them," Jen says.

One homeless woman had escaped an abusive situation and was sleeping in her car with her dog. "She was really shaky", lacking confidence and social skills, Jen explains. "She just isolated herself to the car and had been sleeping rough for so long."

Now the woman's dog is in foster care, and she sees it regularly. Currently couch surfing, she has a team of workers supporting her and is on a priority housing list.

"She's such a different person now since we've been working with her," Jen smiles before adding, "heaps more confident."

SPSF now has around 150 animal foster carers - kept separate from the pets' owners - and another 140 volunteers who work directly with clients. This includes case managing and connecting people with Housing SA and other services.

They offer counselling via student placements, and mental first aid to equip their volunteers for helping people in crisis. Their team includes police, psychologists and child protection workers.

Although the organisation is a nationally registered charity and provides support services all around Australia, their hands-on work currently happens in South Australia.

Striving to have a deeper impact, Jen traced the roots of domestic violence back to childhood experiences. Research reveals that children who witness animal abuse or family violence at home are up to eight times more likely to become perpetrators.

To address this, the charity is now developing an empathy program to intervene and help break the cycle with children.

For Jen, their success is somewhat daunting. She recalls a women's safety services worker saying she doesn't know where they would be without SPSF's services.

"That's a heavy load to carry - it's exciting but scary at the same time that we've actually got people's lives in our hands," she says. "I've got it to a point that if I go back to work, the whole charity would collapse."

Jen puts in 60 hours a week and is supported by a single parent pension. Centrelink is understanding, she adds - they even refer clients to them, as do the RSPCA, Department of Child Protection, SA Health, Anglicare, ambulance services, police and many more.

"It's definitely a success model but it's not sustainable without funding."

She's proud of how far the organisation has come, however, she says. "There's so much to it, and it's so important to recognise how important the animals are."

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