Sheltering Women -- And Their Pets, Too

By Bridgid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 8, 2007

Allie Phillips was prosecuting a domestic violence case in Michigan in the late 1990s. She was ready to go to trial when the victim came to her and said, "I can't do this. He's already killed my dog. I still have two other dogs and a goat. I've got to go back and protect them."

The victim didn't testify. Phillips lost the case. And to this day, she doesn't know what became of the abused woman or her beloved animals. "That was my first awareness that people will go back into abusive situations because of their pets," she said.

So when Phillips because director of public policy at the American Humane Association, which works to protect children and animals from cruelty, abuse and neglect, she decided to tackle the issue head on.

"I thought, what if we get the animals out, too?" she said. "Then [the victims] won't be forced to show up in court and recant. If we can get everyone out, why would they ever go back? That could end the cycle of violence."

Phillips came up with the Pets and Women Shelter, or PAWS, a national education campaign to raise awareness about the issue and to encourage shelters to do something about it. Her first project is with the Doorways for Women and Families Safehouse in Arlington. PAWS awarded Doorways a $5,000 grant to turn an old shed in the back yard into a kennel and animal shelter.

"By housing the animals on site with the women and children, it maintains the human-animal bond," Phillips said. "When they've lost everything, their home, and all they have is the clothing on their back, feeding the dog, going for walks gives them a sense of normalcy. What better way to get comfort?"

Doorways, like many shelters across the country, helps women with pets by housing the animals in temporary kennels or foster care. "But the women and children can't visit for safety reasons," Phillips said. "That adds to the trauma."

Marielle Filholm, director of Doorways' domestic violence program and the safe house, said she has become increasingly troubled by the number of battered women who are reluctant to leave their pets behind, even though their lives may be in danger.

She said she has known women who have failed to leave or delayed leaving abusive relationships because they worry about what will happen to their pets. She said she has known women who do leave but then return, thereby endangering themselves, just so they can check on a beloved cat, rabbit or horse. She talks of women who have returned because their abusers threatened to kill their pets if they didn't come back. It took several months to convince one woman, who rescued abused animals, that she was better off leaving her abusive relationship. Social workers spent many more months planning where to move all the animals once she left the abuser.

Doorways Executive Director Linda Dunphy said that because of the strong connection between animal abuse and domestic violence, the shelter has started asking women about pets as part of a regular safety assessment. When women who call the shelter hotline are asked what prevents them from leaving, many mention pets. "We've been successful partnering with the Arlington Animal Welfare League, but they can only take dogs for two weeks, and it's not on site," Dunphy said. "That can be traumatizing for the women, children and the pet. There's concern about what will happen after two weeks. Now, having a pet on site will be very therapeutic and healing for the woman and her children."

The shelter can keep up to three dogs without needing a special kennel permit, Dunphy said. The shelter houses 11 to 13 people at any one time. "We're hoping that this becomes a way for women who ordinarily would not leave to have an option," she said.

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