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Shelters Seek To Heal Trauma Of Domestic Violence With Aid Of Furry Friends

Alex Smith
Heartland Health Monitor
Kimberly Pearson says she put off escaping an abusive relationship because of worries about what would happen to Serenity, pictured here, and her two other dogs.

Many pet owners expect to be able to bring their furry friends everywhere – to restaurants, to the grocery store, on planes – and now some want even more doors to open up.

Increasing numbers of domestic violence shelters are accepting the pets of owners who have experienced abuse, and a federal proposal would set up funding for even more to do so.

There’s more a stake that just keeping owners and pets together. Supporters say accommodating pets can be a matter of life and death.

When Kimberly Pearson first met her now-former husband, it seemed like love at first sight.

“I could’ve sworn this was my soul mate,” Pearson says. “That’s how much I cared for him.”

But Pearson says her husband, who’s in the construction business, became a different person when he started drinking.

“His attitude started changing,” Pearson says. “And then he’d get uptight because of work. He’s very organized, and if the tools wouldn’t get back in place, he’d call and be cussing me out on the way home because the tools didn’t get put back in place by his employees.”

Pearson, a health care worker, says he eventually became physical abusive.

But during some of those scary situations, she realized she had allies: her big Labrador retrievers. She’s got three of them: Miko, Serenity and Sissy.

“My dogs would protect me,” Pearson says. “If he would come towards me, they would be right in front of me. He couldn’t come past them.”

Pearson knew she needed to get away, but her husband intimidated her.

“Every time I would leave him, he would tell me, ‘I’m going to kill your family,’” Pearson says. “’I’m going to kill your son and your grandbaby, your parents. And I’m going to make you watch me kill them, then I’m going to kill you and I’m going to kill myself.’”

Pearson says that when she was away, her husband would turn the dogs loose to roam on a nearby highway.

But even as things grew worse, Pearson says she had a hard time imagining taking the steps she’d need to be safe.

“When someone said ‘Go to a shelter,’ I looked at them like, ‘What? I’m not going to a shelter!’ ’Cause I felt like I had to be trash, or I had to be poor,” Pearson says.

And there was another worry: What would happen to her dogs?

Sadly, Pearson’s dilemma is not uncommon.

“Abusers will often target the animal as a way of intimidating, frightening, threatening, in some cases punishing a woman for something she has done that is not to the liking of the abuser,” says Frank Ascione, a scholar-in-residence at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work who’s studied the link between domestic violence and pets.

He says between a quarter and a third of women in shelters say concerns about their pets had delayed them from going to a shelter.

“Women were often endangering themselves - sometimes their children - by staying in an abusive situation because they simply did not know what to do to be able to ensure the safety of their companion animal,” Ascione says.

Ascione is an advocate for the Pets and Women Safety Act, or PAWS, a proposed federal law that would create $3 million in funding for domestic abuse shelters to accept pets. It would also extend protection orders to include pets, among other provisions.

Matching PAWS bills were first introduced in House and Senate in 2015 but haven’t made much progress. Supporters are hopeful that 2017 might be their lucky year, but their hopes are shadowed by concern about the future of public funding, not just for the proposed bill, but for domestic violence programs overall under the incoming Trump administration and a fiscally conservative Congress.

Monica McLaughlin is the deputy director of public policy for the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

“Three women are murdered every day in this country at the hands of a partner or former partner, and so we’re incredibly concerned that the programs would be hit with budget cuts, because if they don’t have enough money, they can’t open their doors to survivors who are fleeing,” McLaughlin says.

The current proposal seeks funding through the Department of Agriculture, rather than the Justice or Housing and Urban Development departments, which fund many domestic violence programs. McLaughlin says that’s partly to make sure funding for existing domestic violence programs won’t be affected.

But McLaughlin and other supporters, including Ascione, say that even if lean times are ahead for domestic violence programs, funding to accommodate pets shouldn’t be dismissed. That’s because it can actually lead to more people taking steps to seek shelter.

“It eliminates one significant worry that women and children who are considering leaving an abusive situation about what’s going to happen to their pets,” Ascione says.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Kimberly Pearson and her three dogs paid a visit to the Rose Brooks Center in Kansas City and played catch in the yard.

The Rose Brooks domestic violence shelter has been accepting pets since 2012. It has a kennel and veterinary services that are funded with help from Bayer Corporation, and it’s considered a national model.

After leaving her home and abusive relationship, Pearson spent seven months at Rose Brooks, and she says having her dog there helped her recover.

She is now back home with Serenity, Sissy and Miko, but she still gets choked up remembering the hours she spent with them within the safety of the shelter’s gates.

“If you’re upset, they’re there for you,” Pearson says. “They comfort you. They help you go through the hurt. They fill that emptiness for you. I would not come here without my dogs.”

Alex Smith is a reporter for KCUR, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @AlexSmithKCUR

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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