Domestic Abuse Bill

Written evidence submitted by Dogs Trust (DAB07)

1. About Dogs Trust

Dogs Trust is the UK’s largest dog welfare charity. We have twenty rehoming centres across the UK, through which we care for approximately 15,000 dogs each year. We invest substantial resources in information services, community outreach programmes, and education on responsible dog ownership. Since Dogs Trust was founded in 1891 (formerly National Canine Defence League) we have always campaigned on dog welfare issues, and we played an instrumental role in the introduction of the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

2. Executive Summary

· Dogs Trust Freedom Project supports people fleeing domestic abuse by offering a free pet fostering service, as well as raising awareness of how pets can often be used as a tool by perpetrators to abuse their partner/family member.

· Available research evidences a link between abuse to pets and abuse to people in the context of domestic abuse. Dogs Trust Freedom Project recently carried out research which found that almost nine in 10 professionals working in the domestic abuse sector have seen cases where a pet has also been abused. The survey also found that 49% of domestic abuse professionals had been aware of cases where pets had been killed. It is also recognised that if a perpetrator abuses a pet, this is considered an increased risk factor for the victim.

· Dogs Trust recognises that pets play an important part in their owners’ lives, particularly when they are going through difficult times. Perpetrators know that owners love and care for their animals and will use this bond to abuse their partners by physically abusing or threatening to harm the animal, as well as controlling how the owner is able to care for the animal.

· Scotland recently implemented the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, which recognises that abusive behaviour within the context of domestic abuse should also include behaviour towards pets, who are often used by perpetrators as a tool to control and coerce their partner.

· The Explanatory Notes on The Domestic Abuse Bill currently  include behaviour to pets under Clause 59, Sub Section 2 & 3, however this disappointingly refers to Northern Ireland only. Dogs Trust strongly recommends that the perpetrator’s behaviour towards pets should be identified and that the wording in relation to this should also be applicable to England and Wales.

3. The Freedom Project

The Freedom Project is a scheme run by Dogs Trust providing a free and confidential dog fostering service for people escaping domestic abuse. As the majority of refuges are unable to accept pets, owning a pet can often be a barrier for someone needing to flee their home and access refuge/emergency accommodation. A recent survey that we carried out found that more than nine in 10 domestic abuse professionals (95%)4 said that they are aware of cases where survivors will not leave their home without knowing their pet would also be safe.

Dogs Trust recognised that there was emerging evidence of the links between pet abuse and abuse to people and also the lack of available pet fostering services in the UK. As many refuges are unable to accept pets, Dogs Trust created the Freedom Project in 2004 to support people who needed to flee their homes but were unable to take their pets with them.

The Freedom Project currently runs in Greater London & Home Counties, North of England and Scotland, and has fostered over 1700 pets since the service launched in 2004. Through our work, we have become increasingly aware that pets can often be used a tool by the perpetrator, with many perpetrators using threats to the animal to coerce and control their partner. This also includes economic abuse, such as perpetrators restricting a survivors’ ability to provide veterinary care for their pet and deliberately not feeding a family pet to cause distress. This is a form of control, whereby perpetrators will restrict the survivors’ ability to care for their pet as a tool to attempt to maintain power and control over them.

4. Identify behaviour towards p ets within the context of Coercive Control

Save Lives recognises that "threats to damage the property and cause injury to pets" is one of the characteristics of coercive control (Safe Lives, 2014). Research has also shown that acts of animal abuse may be used to coerce, control and intimidate women and children to remain in, or be silent about, their abusive situation (Ponder & Lockwood 2000). Endeavour, a Domestic Abuse Service, found that 75% of those who have family pets have had violence used against them as a threat or means of control (Endeavour, 2017). Through our experience we are also aware that pets will often be used as a tool within coercive control. We have worked on multiple cases where the pet owner has experienced:

- The perpetrator has threatened to harm or kill the pet if the owner leaves the home, for instance to visit friends or family. This results in the owner becoming more isolated as they are less likely to leave the pet alone with the perpetrator out of fear of what may happen. This also causes emotional distress to the owner and is emotionally abusive. In a similar situation a perpetrator would carry out the same threat in a less obvious way, by opening the front door and letting the dogs out onto the road every time the woman left the home, resulting in the woman never attempting to leave the home.

- The perpetrator has restricted the amount of time the owner was allowed to walk the dog for. In one case, the owner would be timed and allowed out of the house for 10 minutes per day to walk the dog.

- We have worked on multiple cases where the perpetrator would restrict the owner from getting their pets access to veterinary care. The pet owner may be experiencing economic abuse and may therefore be unable to pay for vet care themselves, or they may not be allowed to leave the house to attend the veterinary practice. For any pet owner, not being able to care for their dog sufficiently would cause emotional distress. In addition, in some of these cases, the perpetrator would continue the emotional abuse further by calling them a bad pet owner and threaten to report them to an animal welfare enforcement agency.

- After the owner has fled the perpetrator may attempt to find the pet in order to maintain that power and control. This can include threatening friends and family members who they believe have the animal or know the owners’ whereabouts. In some cases where the pets have been left behind with the perpetrator, the owner will be threatened that they must return home or else their pet will be harmed or killed.

"If she barked at the door, he would pull her collar and make her choke. Generally, it was my ex-husband that would feed her but then some days he wouldn’t, and he would shout at me for not feeding her, it was like he was just trying to catch me out. I couldn’t physically walk her; he wouldn’t let me out of the house some days and he refused to walk her too. He knew how much she meant to me and that he could really get to me by hurting her. I experienced some financial abuse myself, but I had a separate credit card that he didn’t know about. This credit card was just so that I could make sure she didn’t go without. I used this to buy her food and pay her vets fees to make sure she had everything she needed" – Freedom Project Client

"Due to my ex-husband’s financial control, I didn’t have any access to money, and I was only allowed to buy groceries with it so this meant it was difficult for me to get my dog to a vets if he needed it" – Freedom Project Client

"My partner started in the beginning by calling me a ‘bad dog owner’. If I visited friends or family, he would try to make me feel guilty for this, and say upsetting things about how I cared for my dogs. This later progressed into him actually threatening to harm my dogs if I left the house. At times he would lock me in the house or take away my car keys, but the threat of the dogs being harmed made it impossible for me to leave the house. He didn’t want me to see any friends or family and tried to keep me isolated – so he used the dogs as a way to keep me at home"– Freedom Project Client

Responses in relation to pets and coercive control received during our Freedom Project Domestic Abuse Professionals and Practitioners Survey 2019 included:

"There has been cases where a perp has refused to allow the pet to be fed when he is trying to manipulate a situation. There are threats made to harm or kill pets if the woman ever leaves the relationship. In one case a perp abused the dog and would only let the dog go to the toilet when he allowed it to, if the dog went to the toilet in the house he would physically abuse it"

"Perpetrators can threaten to beat a pet, not feed them, keep them indoors or remove them from the family unless the perpetrators wishes are met"

"As above the perp takes control of the pet and also financial situation so the pet may not be fed, watered or checked by the vets meaning the victim will not leave. The bond between the victim and their animal can be very strong and it is used as leverage to get the victim to do as the perp wants"

"I have recently worked with a case where the father was alleged to have held the pet rabbit up and threatened to slit its throat during an argument with the mother"

"For example, a perpetrator has ensured that the dog is pregnant and has a litter so that the victim has to care for them (e.g. not leave the house etc), if they don’t, they threatened to kill the litter."

"A perp threatened to fling the dog out of the window. A perp flung kittens around the room and off the walls. A perp kicked the dog in the stomach while the victim was pregnant chanting this is what I'll do to you and your bastard. Victims have told me of dogs that they haven't seen the perp physically hurt but they defecate at the sight of him. I've worked in this field for almost 7 years the list would go on"

A well-known domestic abuse resource, The Duluth Power & Control Wheel also recognises that behaviour towards pets can be used to intimidate someone and maintain power and control over them. In our experience, we are aware that as well as being threatened, pets are often physically abused too, including being hit, kicked, burnt with cigarettes, choked with dog leads, thrown down stairs, stabbed with knives and ultimately, we are aware of cases where the animal has been killed. More recently common threats have included to throw pets off balconies or to set them on fire.

Domestic abuse agencies and other professionals working with someone experiencing domestic abuse assess their risk through a Domestic Abuse Safeguarding Harassment and Honour Based Violence (DASH). A number of high-risk factors have been identified as being associated with serious violence and murder through researching many cases. One question asked on the DASH risk assessment relates to pet abuse: Has (…..) ever mistreated an animal or the family pet?

Dogs Trust is aware that research shows that pets play an important part in domestic abuse, whether it is through them being used as a tool to coerce and control their owner, or used to intimidate, frighten and emotionally abuse the owner. In addition to this, and as the pet abuse factor is also considered when assessing someone’s risk of significant harm, Dogs Trust strongly recommends that behaviour towards pets should be recognised within the Bill in order to provide a complete understanding of pet owners experiencing domestic abuse and to better protect and support survivors and their pets.

5. Pets can be a barrier for people escaping domestic abuse

Many women accessing the Freedom Project confirm at the point of referring that they do not want to leave their home until they know that their dog will be safe too. We are aware that if the dog is left behind when the owner flees to refuge, then the dog may be at risk of significant harm. One study has found that 71% of pet owners report that their perpetrator had threatened, injured or killed family pets (Ascione et al. 1997). We experienced one case where a woman fled to a refuge in an emergency, leaving her dog behind temporarily but with arrangements in place for the dog to be collected the following day, however in that brief time frame the perpetrator took the dog to the vets and had it put to sleep. This caused extreme distress to the owner at an already frightening and upsetting time. We are also aware of a case in Flintshire where a woman was murdered in her home, and one of the reasons given as to why she did not move into a refuge was because she did not want to leave her dog behind.

A Freedom Project survey found that 52% of clients accessing the service disclosed that their pets had been physically abused or threatened with abuse. Pet Fostering Service and Domestic Abuse Service, Endeavour, found that in a survey of pet owners living in refuges due to domestic violence, two out of three said their abuser had threatened to harm their pets, while two out of five said he had actually harmed them (Endeavour, 2012). Clients who have accessed the Freedom Project have also confirmed that this fear kept them from leaving an abusive partner:

"The Domestic Violence Unit tried to persuade me to go into a refuge for 3 years but I refused because there was nowhere for my dogs to go. If I left he would probably have killed them" – Freedom Project Client

"He once tried to strangle my other dog – I had to kick him to get him off and he was then laughing about it. My dog could quite easily have been killed – he would hurt my dogs to get at me. You don’t realise how much domestic abuse affects pets – they’re suffering too" – Freedom Project Client

"One day my partner injured me so badly during an attack that the police got involved and I was taken straight to hospital. When I came out the next day my partner was still on the run and the police told me I should leave my home immediately as I wasn’t safe. I explained to them that I had my dog at home and that I couldn’t leave as I didn’t have anyone to look after her. – Freedom Project Client

We have also been made aware of situations where the perpetrator has acquired a pet for the owner to bond with purely for them use it as an abusive tactic and an additional barrier for them escaping:

"I was in a relationship on and off for 8 years and my partner bought my dog for me as a present. He was very violent towards me and he hospitalised me quite a few times. He tried to strangle me and he broke my ribs. He was only violent towards my dog once but that time he broke his leg. It was very distressing for me to see him hurt my dog like that." – Freedom Project Client

Responses received during our Freedom Project Domestic Abuse Professionals and Practitioners Survey 2019 included:

"They do not want to leave the family pet behind as this can result in the pet being harmed by the perpetrator. The perpetrator can threaten to harm the pet to coerce the woman to return"

"Our experience has shown us that owning a pet is a huge barrier for clients wanting to flee domestic abuse and a lot of women we support have not fled due to not having anywhere for their pets to go. Most refuges cannot accommodate pets and clients do not want their pets being left with the perpetrator as often the perpetrator abuses the pet. Many children do not want to go anywhere without their pet as they are part of the family and they worry what will happen to them. Some clients have slept in their cars somewhere with their pet as they cannot bring them to their accommodation when they flee"

"I am aware of cases where high risk victims have refused to go into refuge as they don’t want to leave their pets therefore putting their pets before their own safety. They know they are at risk but won’t leave their pets. Sometimes a pet is the only companion they have and they care more about their pet than themselves"

"Pets are like children to many people, however legal rights etc. are not the same so it is very easy for a perpetrator to assert control using animals. People know they will be in trouble with authorities if they abuse children however they know they can usually get away with it if they abuse pets, which makes a pet a really useful tool to a perpetrator"

Luke Hart and Ryan Hart, whose mother, sister and dog were killed by their abusive father, said:

"Pets suffer domestic abuse too. We only realised after our father had murdered our mother, Claire, and 19-year-old sister, Charlotte, that he had also killed one of our dogs, Max, just weeks before. Max had died suddenly when our father was alone with him, and our father claimed it was due to natural causes, however we have since learned that pet abuse is a common tactic for domestic abusers. Domestic abuse is lethal for pets. Our dogs meant so much to us and leaving them behind was never an option. The Freedom Project is so important because by helping pets flee to safety, it gives peace of mind to victims and allows the victims to escape too, knowing their dear pets are safe and sound."

Although Dogs Trust recognises that pets are a barrier to people escaping domestic abuse, we are aware that it is often not practical to house pets within a refuge. This may often be due to the shared accommodation set up of refuges, other children living within the refuge who may be fearful/allergic of dogs, as well as lease and license restrictions. We therefore promote Pet Fostering Services as an alternative option which can still effectively remove the barrier.

6. Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018

Given the recognised links between pet abuse and abuse to people, Dogs Trust welcomed the introduction of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 which came into effect on 1st April 2019. The Act has now made different types of abusive behaviour illegal, including coercive and controlling behaviour, as well as behaviour towards pets.

Section 10 of the Act sets out the ‘meaning of references to behaviour’ as below:

10 Meaning of references to behaviour

(1) Subsections (2) to (4) explain what is meant by the references to behaviour in this Part.

(2) Behaviour is behaviour of any kind, including (for example)-

(a) saying or otherwise communicating something as well as doing something,

(b) intentionally failing-

(i) to do something,

(ii) to say or otherwise communicate something.

(3) Behaviour directed at a person is such behaviour however carried out, including (in particular)-

(a) by way of conduct towards property,

(b) through making use of a third party,as well as behaviour in a personal or direct manner.

(4) A course of behaviour involves behaviour on at least two occasions.

Under the Explanatory Notes for the Act [1] further explanation is given as below:

52. Section 10 (2) provides that "behaviour" includes things said or otherwise communicated as well as things done. It also encompasses an intentional failure to do, say or otherwise communicate something (e.g. a failure to pass on times and dates of appointments or social occasions, or a failure to feed a family pet).

53. Section 10 (3) provides that behaviour directed at a person includes behaviour directed towards property. It is not a requirement that the property must belong to the complainer. It could, for instance, be shared property or property belonging to a third party, such as the victim’s parents. Property includes pets or other animals (for example agricultural livestock) whether belonging to the victim or others.

Dogs Trust welcomes the inclusion of behaviour towards pets in the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018. Based on our experience from the Freedom Project, as well as the available evidence, we believe that this Act will bring further protection to those experiencing domestic abuse as well as their pets. We strongly urge Westminster to follow suit and introduce similar wording in the Domestic Abuse Bill.

7. Recommendations to the Public Bill Committee

Dogs Trust strongly recommends that Sections 59(2) and 59(3) are widened to apply to England and Wales. Sections 59(2) and 59(3) on the Explanatory Notes on The Domestic Abuse Bill currently refers to Northern Ireland only:

Clause 59: Further provision about "behaviour"

236 Subsection (2) provides that behaviour includes saying or otherwise communicating something as well as doing something (including an intentional failure to do, say, or otherwise communicate something). This could include, for example, a failure to pass on times and dates of appointments or social occasions, a failure to feed a family pet or a failure to speak to or communicate with an individual.

237 Subsection (3) clarifies that behaviour is "directed at" a person if it is directed in any way. This would include, for example, behaviour towards property or behaviour that affects the ability to acquire, use, maintain money or other property or to obtain goods or services. This could relate to shared property or property belonging to parents. Property will also include pets or other animals (for example agricultural livestock) whether belonging to the victim or others.

We fully agree with the wording in Clause 59 (as above) and would strongly recommend this section be expanded to apply in Northern Ireland, England and Wales.

 

References:

Ascione, F.R., Weber, C. V. & Wood, D. S. 1997). The abuse of animals and domestic violence: A national survey of shelters for women who are battered. Society & Animals 5(3),205-218.

Dogs Trust. Pets and Domestic Abuse - Professionals and Practitioners Survey 2019. Results not yet published.

Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs. (2019).  Wheels - Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs . [online] Available at: https://www.theduluthmodel.org/wheels/ [Accessed 25 Oct. 2019].

Ponder, C. and Lockwood, R. (2000) ‘Cruelty to animals and family violence’, Training Key, 526, pp.1 - 5. (Published by the International Association of Chief of Police).

Safe Lives. 2019. Introduction to Coercive Control. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.safelives.org.uk/practice_blog/introduction-coercive-control. [Accessed 26 April 2019].

October 2019

 

Prepared 29th October 2019