NATIONAL CENTER FOR PROSECUTION OF CHILD ABUSE
How the Dynamics Between Animal Abuse and Child Abuse Affect the Forensic Interview Process
By Allie Phillips1
I love my pets very much and I couldn’t live without them.
When I’m sad, they always make me glad that I have them.
My pets don’t put me down and they’re always by my side.
They always love me. Why can’t some people return their love?
They always return ours.
William, Grade 4 2
Studies have shown a frightening connection between animal abuse and family violence in the home.3 In fact, one of the first studies to address the link between child abuse and animal abuse discovered that 83 percent of homes with abused or neglected children also had abused and neglected pets.4 Many law enforcement and child protection professionals are now aware that children or adults who abuse animals were often abused themselves as children. Research has also shown that people who abuse children often abuse companion animals5 in the home.6 This article will take a unique approach regarding the connection between animal abuse and child abuse by outlining (1) the relationship between children and their companion animals and how children of abuse may protect and seek comfort from their companion animals during cycles of abuse; (2) how abusers in the home may use and fulfill threats against companion animals to seek compliance and silence from child victims of sexual and physical abuse; and (3) how animal abuse in the home can be explored in the forensic interview to learn if companion animals are used as targets against children in the home, as well as to assist children to disclose their own abuse.
From Abusing Animals to Abusing Children and Beyond
Law enforcement, domestic violence and child protection professionals must be aware of animal abuse occurring within homes for several reasons: (1) Animal abuse displays serious antisocial behavior by the offender (whether child or adult); (2) Animal abuse is a relatively common occurrence in the lives of many children; (3) Animal abuse witnessed by children has potential negative developmental consequences for the child; (4) Animal abuse is related to interpersonal and family violence; (5) The well-being of companion animals is at risk in violent homes; and (6) If animal violence is reduced, this could help achieve a less violent society for children and adults.7
Recognizing these issues, many states are now moving toward mandating animal control officers to report evidence of child abuse or domestic violence when investigating animal abuse cases.8 Animal control officers are often in a position to observe a neglectful environment, shared by humans and companion animals. These same states are cross-training child protection workers, domestic violence professionals and animal control officers to work with each other to report both child and animal abuse discovered in the home. Many states are now bringing law enforcement officers, domestic violence and child protection professionals, and animal control officers together in a coordinated response to help protect children, domestic partners, and companion animals from abuse in the home. Doing so will help to marshal and coordinate treatment and services for the entire family (including companion animals), all in an effort to end the cycle of family and animal violence in the home.
The Relationship Between Children and Their Companion Animals
The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that 70 percent of American homes with children under the age of 6 have at least one companion animal (primarily a dog or cat); that 78 percent of American homes with children over the age of 6 have at least one companion animal; and that 72 percent of companion animals with children in the home have women as their primary caretakers.9 Ask young children who their best friend or favorite “sibling” is, and many will cite their pet. Companion animals often provide comfort, security and unconditional love to frightened and abused children. A story written by a second grade student named Melissa describes this relationship: “My rabbit is quiet. I feed him and give him water. He keeps me company when I’m mad, sad or angry. I tell my secrets to him. He listens quietly. I don’t know what I would do without him.”10
How Offenders Use Companion Animals to Seek Compliance and Silence from a Child
An abusive parent or member of the household may exploit the loving bond between child and companion animal to threaten the child into silence regarding the abuse, or to compel compliance from the child. The abuser may threaten to harm or kill the family pet to ensure the child’s silence or compliance. By silencing the child, the abuser also seeks compliance with future occurrences of abuse. Some children may even allow themselves to be victimized to save their companion animal from being harmed or killed.
Many women in abusive homes are hesitant to flee with their children to a place of safety because of prior threats made by the abuser toward companion animals in the home. If a companion animal is left behind in the home, abusers may use the pet as a pawn to force their domestic partners or children to return home. When companion animals can be placed in a safe environment (at a no-kill humane shelter or a pet-friendly family violence shelter11), abused family members are more likely to leave the abusive home. Training police officers, animal control officers, domestic violence and child protection professionals to ask children or other family members whether companion animals have been injured or killed in their presence, or whether the abuser has verbalized threats against pets, will enable these front-line professionals to take appropriate action for the safety of the entire family, and to provide necessary counseling and other services.
The Forensic Interview Process
Depending on the age of the child and severity of the abuse, some children are withdrawn and hesitant to disclose abuse to a stranger, such as a forensic interviewer or a law enforcement officer. In the rapport-building stage of a forensic interview, finding avenues to provide comfort and security to the child is essential. By asking a child about a companion animal during the Rapport or Abuse Scenario phases, the forensic interviewer may learn of abuse, killing or threats of abuse toward the family pet. This discussion may lead the child to disclose his or her own abuse.12 In some situations, allowing the child to have the companion animal present during a forensic interview may also help the child to disclose. The Mississippi Children’s Advocacy Center went one step further by providing a trained therapy dog to sit in therapy sessions with children and sit at their feet while they testify in court.13 The Center now has a cat named Pookie that assists children during forensic interviews and therapy sessions.
The Boat Inventory on Animal-Related Experiences may be helpful in formulating appropriate questions for the forensic interview.14 These questions provide an avenue to help children disclose animal abuse in the home, their own abuse, and whether they have abused an animal. The Inventory explores whether the child’s pet has been a source of comfort to the child, whether the child has felt afraid or worried for the pet, and whether the child has lost a pet as a form of punishment or to make the child do something. Forensic interviewers may wish to start a discussion regarding companion animals by asking the child: (1) Do you have a pet? (2) Tell me about your pet. (3) Is your pet happy? (4) Is your pet safe? These questions are simply provided as suggestions since each forensic interviewer must formulate questions that are appropriate for the child’s developmental level and circumstances. Providing any person, particularly a child, the opportunity to talk about a companion animal often yields a great deal of personal information, in turn allowing the forensic interviewers and front-line professionals to understand the dynamics of abuse in the home and assist in stopping the cycle of violence.
“Enhancing our awareness and knowledge about the relationship between violence to animals and violence to children provides a unique opportunity to enhance our services to both.”15 Children who have been victimized by physical, sexual or emotional abuse and who have difficulty with disclosure in the forensic interview process may find comfort in discussing their companion animals. Asking a child about companion animals and possible abuse of those animals can also help child protection professionals understand the dynamics of violence in the home and gather evidence to aid in the prosecution of the abuser and treatment for the family.
Dr. Barbara Boat and Allie Phillips, J.D. will be presenting on this topic at APRI’s Beyond Finding Words Conference in Charleston, South Carolina, from October 11-14, 2004. Please contact APRI’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse or National Child Protection Training Center for more information.
1 Allie Phillips is a Senior Attorney with the American Prosecutors Research Institute in Alexandria, VA working with the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse and the National Child Protection Training Center. The author wishes to thank Caitlin Parkinson, NCPTC intern, for her research and assistance on this article.
2 Raphael, Pamela; Colman, Libby; & Loar, Lynn. Teaching Compassion: A Guide for Humane Educators, Teachers and Parents. (The Latham Foundation for the Promotion of Humane Education, 1999, p. 6).
3 Arkow, Phil. Breaking the Cycles of Violence: A Guide to Multi-Disciplinary Interventions. (The Latham Foundation for the Promotion of Humane Education, 2003, p. 8-9).
4 Boat, B.W. "Links Among Animal Abuse, Child Abuse and Domestic Violence." Social Work and the Law. (Haworth Press ,2002, p. 35); Ascione, Frank R., Ph.D.; Weber, Claudia V., M.S.; and Wood, David S. "The Abuse of Animals and Domestic Violence: A National Survey of Shelters for Women Who are Battered." Society & Animals, Vol. 5, No. 3 (1997), pp. 205-218. In this study involving 48 shelter programs, family violence shelter workers reported that 85.4% of women entering the shelter disclosed animal abuse occurring in the home, and 63% of children also spoke of animal abuse in the home. Yet only 13 of those 48 shelters specifically ask questions about family pets during the intake process (Ascione, Weber & Wood, 1997).
5 The terms “companion animal” and “pet” will be used interchangeably throughout this article.
6 Boat, Barbara W. "Abuse of Child and Abuse of Animals: Using the Links to Inform Child Assessment and Protection."Compassion for Prevention and Intervention. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1999, p. 83-108.
7 Flynn, C.P. "Why family professionals can no longer ignore violence toward animals." Family Relations, Vol. 49, No. 1, (2000), pp. 87-95.
8 California currently mandates that animal control officers report suspected child abuse; Colorado mandates that veterinarians report suspected child abuse; Maine and Ohio require agents of humane society shelters to report child abuse; and the following states require that all persons (which would include animal control officers, humane society agents, and veterinarians) report child abuse: Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wyoming.
9 Arkow, Phil. Breaking the Cycles of Violence: A Guide to Multi-Disciplinary Inventions. (The Latham Foundation for the Promotion of Humane Education, 2003, p. 7-8).
10 Raphael, Pamela; Colman, Libby; & Loar, Lynn. Teaching Compassion: A Guide for Humane Educators, Teachers and Parents. (The Latham Foundation for the Promotion of Humane Education, 1999, p. 9)
11 Some family violence shelters are now allowing women and their children to bring their companion animals to the shelter. Others contract with local humane shelters to house the pets until the family can be safely reunited. For example, in 1999, PetSafe, a safe shelter program, was created in Maryland for animals coming out of abusive homes while other family members are placed in family violence shelters. Shelters in Lansing, Michigan, and Cincinnati, Ohio, list questions regarding family pets on their intake form so that women and their children can leave an abusive home and take the family pet(s) with them into safety. Still, only 6 of the 48 shelters surveyed (see endnote 4) collaborated with animal shelters or veterinarians to provide housing to animals. (Ascione, Weber & Wood, 1997).
12 This technique, called “moving in and away,” acknowledges that children can often talk about outside issues (what has happened to someone else) before they can talk about what happened to themselves.
13 Vachss, a German shepherd, was honored with the Hero of the Year Award in 1994 for his work with the Mississippi Children’s Advocacy Center in Jackson, Mississippi.
14 Formulated by Barbara W. Boat, Ph.D., The Childhood Trust, Department of Psychiatry at University of Cincinnati. For a full version of the Inventory, please contact APRI.
15 Boat, Barbara W. "Abuse of Child and Abuse of Animals: Using the Links to Inform Child Assessment and Protection." In, Ascione, F.R. & Arkow, P., eds.: Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, and Animal Abuse, Linking the Circles of Compassion for Prevention and Intervention. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1999, p. 92.