Domestic Violence Victims and Their Pets

Z Family Law - Domestic Violence Blog

By Jennifer Prizeman, Esquire

Escaping Abuse

Leaving an abusive partner or seeking legal protection is a difficult and potentially dangerous time. You may want to discuss your situation and create a safety plan with a domestic violence organization and a knowledgeable attorney. If you believe someone might be monitoring your phone or computer activity, it is safer to use a trusted friend or family member’s device — outside your household and away from your abuser. If you are being harmed by a partner, help from the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Pets Are Often Used as Pawns in Domestic Violence Situations

It is common for an abuser to threaten a pet in order to manipulate and exert control over their victim. As a result, many victims of domestic violence are concerned about leaving their pets behind and may delay leaving. In an abusive situation, the difference of one day can be the difference between life or death.

A significant portion of domestic abuse victims report that concern for their pets’ safety caused at least some delay in them leaving. Researchers have found this to be the case with 34% to 48% of victims. Children and pets are often also abused in domestic violence situations, and an abuser may threaten to harm an animal if their partner leaves. In surveys of women in domestic violence shelters, 71% and 85% reported that their pets had also been threatened or harmed by their abusers.

Resources for Safety Planning with Pets

Firstly, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has many resources for abuse victims who are creating a safety plan to leave their abusers. Since abusers often exploit the bond their victim has with a pet in order to control them, shelters that accept pets can make it easier for domestic violence victims to leave more quickly. Recognizing this need, a growing number of shelters across the country allow pets. The Animal Welfare Institute’s Safe Haven initiative and RedRover’s Safe Place for Pets project have compiled searchable lists of organizations that either provide shelter for companion animals, have a relationship with one that does, or can provide referrals to facilities that accommodate pets. Thankfully there are numerous organizations in Maryland and the District of Columbia that support victims of domestic violence by accommodating pets.

If there are no shelters near you that accept pets and you are concerned for their safety, there may be other options available.

  • Local and county-run shelters or rescue organizations will often accept the animal on a temporary basis. They may also be able to arrange for a temporary foster.
  • A local veterinarian may be able to take care of the animal or know a kennel that can shelter the animal temporarily.
  • Temporarily boarding pets or placing them in a kennel. If you need to board your pet while you are at a domestic violence shelter, RedRover has a Safe Escape grant program aimed at financially assisting victims with these costs. A representative from your current domestic violence shelter, or one you are planning to enter, can help you apply for this grant.

Maryland Protective Orders Can Address Pets

Under Maryland law, where you have some type of domestic relationship with your abuser, you can seek civil legal relief by filing for a Protective Order. The Court can include several types of relief in a protective order, including awarding temporary custody of children, ordering the abuser to leave the home, and ordering the abuser to surrender any firearms.

Recently, Md. FAMILY LAW Code Ann. § 4-501, 4-504.1, 4-505, and 4-506, which pertain to domestic violence protective orders, were amended to address pets. Lawmakers added provisions to authorize judges and district court commissioners to award temporary possession of pets in Protective Orders. With this change, a domestic violence petitioner can be awarded temporary possession of a household pet as part of an interim, temporary, or final protective order. This allows the status of any household pets to be determined quickly.

Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act

U.S. lawmakers recognized the demand for shelters that can accommodate pets, and that shelters need additional funds to begin offering this resource to victims of domestic violence. As a result, they passed the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act, which was signed into law in December 2018. This federal law provides grants for the construction and operating expenses of new and existing accommodations for pets in domestic violence shelters.

Few shelters nationwide have resources for pets of domestic violence victims, and this bill aims to expand the resources available across the country. The law also provides for restitution for veterinary services that are needed when an abuser physically harms a pet. Further, it broadens the federal criminal code’s definition of “stalking” to include “conduct that causes a person to experience a reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury to his or her pet.”

An Experienced Advocate by Your Side

Christy A. Zlatkus, Esquire is an experienced domestic violence attorney who guides her clients through their legal options and helps them create a healthy path forward. If you are the victim of abuse, contact Z Family Law, LLC to learn about obtaining legal protection for you and your family.