As a former police officer and veteran animal services officer for Loudoun County, Chris Brosan has seen firsthand the devastating ways in which family violence and abuse affect all members of a household, people and animal alike.
He investigated a case involving two young brothers, both victims of child abuse by a family member, who repeatedly kicked the family dog until it finally died from internal injuries. He responded to a call about a violent husband who, seeking to intimidate his wife, lifted her dog into the air by the scruff of its neck. Brosan’s department has worked with many women and children who fled dangerous homes with beloved pets in tow, all in need of safe shelter.
As local and national organizations across the United States have sharpened their focus on the link between domestic violence and animal abuse, a growing program in Loudoun aims to do the same, encouraging a holistic approach to combating all forms of violence and abuse within families.
Brosan and the Loudoun Department of Animal Services founded the Stop Abuse and Violence Effort (SAVE) program last year, after working on several cases that emphasized the connection between child and domestic abuse and animal abuse.
“We had a couple of specific cases involving juveniles that really set the wheels in motion, where all the juvenile offenders involved had allegedly been physically or sexually abused,” Brosan said. “We realized that if organizations and departments that deal with family violence don’t communicate, then so much can be missed without the opportunity to help those involved.”
National organizations such as the National Link Coalition and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have tracked the correlation between domestic and family violence and animal abuse, underscoring that family pets are also victims and important indicators of other significant problems in a household.
Pets are also often used as powerful manipulative tool by an abuser: More than 70 percent of abused women report that their abusers hurt, killed or threatened pets as a means of control and intimidation, according to the National Link Coalition. And children who are abused or exposed to domestic violence have been found to be three times more likely to be cruel to animals, according to the National Link Coalition and the ASPCA.
Brosan and Loudoun Animal Shelter administrator Amy Martin wanted to ensure that authorities who respond to a call reporting domestic violence or child abuse weren’t missing a chance to help an abused pet, and vice versa.
“As animal control officers, we’re mandatory reporters of child abuse. But unfortunately, in [Virginia], it’s not mandatory that people like [Child Protective Services] report animal abuse,” Brosan said. “We’d really like to legislatively change that.”
In May 2013, Martin and Brosan met with Loudoun’s Child Protective Services to discuss the connection between child abuse and animal abuse.
“It was our goal to make sure that we were communicating with them. and they were communicating with us, and after we met with them, we started to receive an influx of reports from CPS about animal issues,” Brosan said. “We realized that there was a need to formalize this connection and make sure we had a name we could attach to it, so people could understand what it is and why it’s so important.”
The SAVE program was born and quickly led to more thorough cross-reporting methods, Brosan said. Through an online form, the Loudoun Sheriff’s Office can now immediately refer cases to animal control if there is any concern about animal involvement. Other county agencies, including CPS and Adult Protective Services, are also including questions about animals in the home on initial interview forms. Local probation officers have also started inquiring about animal cruelty in their interviews, Brosan said.
Martin noted that animal services officers have also expanded their outreach into county schools, reaching 5,000 students last year with presentations about animal care and compassion.
“We’ve taken a different approach to our humane education. Instead of us standing in the room speaking, we have conversations to really get a feel for how empathic they are,” Martin said. “Are they really deadpan when they look at pictures that are maybe a little more disturbing, or show an animal in compromised situations? And if that’s the case, that’s an indicator to us that something is going on, and we maybe need to have a deeper conversation.”
By casting a wider net across the community, fewer cases are slipping through the cracks, Martin and Brosan said. “On all fronts, we’ve got people asking the right questions now,” Brosan said. “It has naturally resulted in more for us to investigate, but that’s what we want.”
The result can often be heartbreaking work, particularly in circumstances in which authorities are compromised in their ability to help. “The hardest part is encountering a situation where you feel that your hands are tied; I hate that feeling,” Brosan said. “So I think Amy and I worked hard to develop this program so that we never have to combat that situation — so when there’s an animal or family in need, we are able to provide them with what they need to get out of a difficult situation.”
Martin said the department has also strengthened its ties with the Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter, offering the shelter’s clients housing for their pets during times of crisis. The women’s shelter is also working with animal control officers to develop a way to house families and their pets together, Martin said.
“We’ve been able to put things in motion that allow us to really help people in a way that Loudoun hasn’t been able to help before,” Martin said. “That’s the really rewarding part, to be able to see something that we put together really pay dividends in the community.”