In an emergency situation, people prioritize by importance when deciding which items to take with them: wallet, cellphone, documents. How about the family pet? For victims of domestic violence struggling with the decision to leave an abusive situation, whether or not a pet can come along could decide whether they stay or go.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and Ventura County shelters have launched “Paint it Purple,” a global awareness campaign created by The Pixel Project that asks participants to wear purple and raise funds to bring attention to violence against women around the world. Locally, Interface Children and Family Services based in Camarillo is planning to participate as well. Opened in 1973 as the first women’s shelter in Ventura County, Interface is also the first shelter in the county to offer accommodations for victims seeking shelter and their pets through its Sheltering Pets and Families Together program.
An oft-overlooked problem, domestic violence victims are more likely to have a pet than the national average (65 percent of American households have pets; 70 percent of domestic violence victims report having a pet) according to numbers provided by RedRover, a national nonprofit animal welfare organization. Up to 71 percent of those victims entering shelters reported that their abuser had threatened to harm or kill the victim’s pet.
Nicole Forsyth, CEO of RedRover, says that domestic violence shelters have only recently begun thinking about what pets mean to victims, including asking those who call for help whether or not they have a pet as part of the screening interview.
“As shelters have become more aware of not just how bad it is for the pets but for the people who won’t leave because of the pets being used in retaliation, or being used as a pawn in the entire abuse situation, [shelters] are asking people if they have pets,” said Forsyth. “Before, people were calling for help but would give up if there were no pet services.”
RedRover recently received an anonymous donation in the amount of $433,000 for its Relief Domestic Violence Assistance Program, which will allow the foundation to assist more shelters nationwide in providing safe pet boarding and veterinary care. The Safe Housing Program grants provide up to $20,000 to domestic violence shelters.
“The link between family violence, abuse of pets, abuse of children and abuse of spouses — they’re all related and tend to go hand in hand,” said Forsyth.
In 2015, Interface received a grant from RedRover totaling $6,000 to build accommodations for victims seeking shelter with a pet. Interface installed kennels, replete with houses and mats, on premises. Thus far, the shelter has played temporary home to three dogs, one cat and a pair of adult rats with 15 babies. Interface can accommodate fish, birds, rabbits, hamsters and reptiles as well. A donation to sustain the program annually, covering the cost of pet food, veterinary care and facility maintenance, was given to the shelter by a donor who visited and saw the kennels.
According to data released in 2016 by the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health’s KidsData.org, the Ventura County rate of reported domestic violence cases is the highest in the state in a county with over 650,000 residents, and sixth-highest when accounting for all counties. The county receives twice the number of reported domestic violence calls as the statewide average.
“We realized the extent of the need for this type of service while working with a family two years ago,” said Nicholle Gonzalez-Seitz, director of family violence intervention services at Interface. “A woman and her small child came into our emergency shelter after a violent incident with her husband the previous evening. She wasn’t aware of any resources for her dogs and left them at home with her husband.”
Gonzalez-Seitz says that days after the family’s arrival, the victim was informed that her husband had threatened to stop feeding the pets if she didn’t return home. Interface coordinated with local community resources and removed the pets from the home to a safe location, where the family and pets were reunited.
Interface was put in touch with RedRover via Tara Diller, director of Ventura County Animal Services, says Gonzalez-Seitz, adding that they “have been very supportive of our efforts to become pet-friendly and it has been a great collaboration between our two agencies.”
“Sheltering victims with their pets will not only reduce the risk of future violence for them both, but also provide therapeutic relief to help the family begin to heal from their trauma,” said Gonzalez-Seitz.