By BY NATHANIEL FIELDS
One in four women has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime, and domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness among families. Additionally, intimate partner violence costs the U.S. economy $8.3 billion per year through a combination of medical costs and lost productivity, according to the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence. This issue is truly a national public health crisis.
In light of these shocking statistics, Congress must seize the opportunity it currently has to make a tremendous difference in the lives of victims of domestic violence. The Congressional Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations is considering H.R.1258, The Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act, which, if passed, will provide greatly needed protections and funding to both victims of domestic violence and their pets.
The bill, co-sponsored by Reps. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), proposes several measures to assist domestic violence survivors and their pets. It prohibits threats or acts of violence against pets via stalking or violating an order of protection and mandates restitution for veternary costs for the pet of a domestic violence survivor. It also provides critical funding for programs focused on housing and support services for survivors of domestic violence and their pets.
The public and even organizations that provide domestic violence services often overlook the connection between pets and domestic violence. When I first started working with survivors of domestic violence over 20 years ago, no one ever mentioned the possibility of bringing pets into a shelter. Today, two-thirds of U.S. households have a pet and, as a result, many sufferers of domestic violence are forced to consider the lives and well-being of their vulnerable pets in addition to their own. As many as 48 percent of domestic violence victims stay in abusive situations because they don’t want to leave their pet behind, resulting in further physical and emotional abuse of both the owner and their pet. The funding, services, and protections provided by the PAWS Act would mean that fewer people would have to make the heartbreaking decision between escaping to safety and staying in an abusive situation to protect their pet.
The Urban Resource Institute’s URIPALS (People and Animals Living Safely) program is the only program in New York City and one of the few nationally that allows domestic violence survivors to co-shelter (live in a domestic violence shelter apartment with their pets). In the more than two years that URIPALS has been in operation, we have learned a great deal about how abusers often harm pets in order to exercise control. In one such instance, a caller to URI’s emergency shelter hotline reported, “After he abused her, [her partner] grabbed her cats by the throat threatening to throw them out the window because he knows she loves her cats.” Abusers often also go beyond threats of violence toward pets. Another URIPALS client reported, “He would put my cat in the microwave and tie him up with twine if I didn’t come straight home from work.” Thirty-four percent of URI shelter residents who had a pet at any point while in an abusive relationship said their abusive partner inflicted physical harm on their pets.
In addition to the momentum it is gaining in the House, the bill has also received support in the Senate. Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) have signed on as sponsors, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) recently voiced his support for the legislation. In addition to elected officials, leading domestic violence and animal welfare organizations including the ASPCA, The Humane Society, and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence have thrown their support behind the bill.
Passage of the PAWS act would be a huge step forward in providing essential services for domestic violence survivors and their pets. At URI, we’ve seen firsthand how pets support the healing process for not only their owners but also for other families within a domestic violence shelter. The bill would also help to raise much needed awareness about the connection between domestic violence and pets, which many people do not yet understand.
Domestic violence is a public health crisis. If PAWS is passed, it will give much needed hope and assistance to the hundreds of thousands of families (pets included) who are forced on a daily basis to choose between staying in an abusive situation and leaving their beloved pets behind.