Justice Today

A Conversation With Nancy Blaney: Shelter Services for Survivors and Their Companion Animals

October 12, 2023 Office for Victims of Crime Season 2 Episode 17
A Conversation With Nancy Blaney: Shelter Services for Survivors and Their Companion Animals
Justice Today
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Justice Today
A Conversation With Nancy Blaney: Shelter Services for Survivors and Their Companion Animals
Oct 12, 2023 Season 2 Episode 17
Office for Victims of Crime

Learn how the need for secure housing for victims of crime and their companion animals led to the creation of the Emergency and Transitional Pet Shelter and Housing Assistance Grant Program.

Office for Victims of Crime Director Kristina Rose and Nancy Blaney, Director of Government Affairs at the Animal Welfare Institute, speak about how this program is ensuring that victims and their pets can access shelter services. 

Show Notes Transcript

Learn how the need for secure housing for victims of crime and their companion animals led to the creation of the Emergency and Transitional Pet Shelter and Housing Assistance Grant Program.

Office for Victims of Crime Director Kristina Rose and Nancy Blaney, Director of Government Affairs at the Animal Welfare Institute, speak about how this program is ensuring that victims and their pets can access shelter services. 

NARRATOR: Welcome to Justice Today, the official podcast of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, where we shine a light on cutting-edge research and practices and offer an in-depth look at what we're doing to meet the biggest public safety challenges of our time. Join us as we explore how funding science and technology help us achieve strong communities.

VICTORIA JOLICOEUR: On this episode, Office for Victims of Crime Director Kristina Rose talks with Nancy Blaney, Director of Government Affairs at the Animal Welfare Institute, about OVC's Emergency and Transitional Pet Shelter and Housing Assistance Grant Program and the impact of programs that secure housing for victims of crime and their companion animals. This production contains material about family violence situations that may be triggering for some individuals.

KRISTINA ROSE: Nancy, I want to welcome you to our podcast today. We are thrilled to have you with us. And the reason we have you with us today is to talk about one of OVC's grant programs. It is called the Emergency and Transitional Pet Shelter and Housing Assistance Grant Program, which we affectionately refer to as PAWS. So many victims are hesitant to leave their abusive situations if they have a pet because they don't want to leave the pet behind. They are worried that something will happen to that pet based on the violence that they have experienced or that the pet has experienced in that situation. And most domestic violence shelters are not equipped to be able to take pets. So it can lead to survivors making the decision not to leave, leading to further violence as we know. So the PAWS program is really important to us because it addresses this gap and ensures that shelters and transitional housing services can accommodate victims of domestic violence and their companion animals. When we talk about companion animals, I want to make sure it's understood that under this program, that means pets, service animals, emotional support animals, and horses. OVC was part of an earlier working group that was created called the DOJ Animal Cruelty Working Group. And it was that connection that led us to Nancy Blaney and the Animal Welfare Institute. The working group was created to further the dialogue and the coordination within the criminal justice community on animal cruelty issues and that linkage to violent crime. And it was there that our current Principal Deputy Director, Katherine Darke Schmitt, was a member of that working group and met Nancy, and the rest is history. So we're thrilled to have you with us today. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to do this work?

NANCY BLANEY: Sure. And, Kris, thank you for this invitation. I'm just really delighted to be here. The work that your office is doing in this field is really tremendous. I'm Director of Government Affairs for the Animal Welfare Institute. I have been in the animal protection community for more years than I am going to acknowledge to anybody at this point. One of our programs is Animals and Family Violence. We have a psychologist, Dr. Mary Lou Randour, who heads that, where we help to provide resources to service providers in dealing with this link between animal abuse and domestic violence, and domestic violence in all of its forms, in spousal abuse, child abuse, abuse of elders. And we have been very excited to see how quickly this program took off once it was authorized by Congress and the work that your office has done.

KRISTINA ROSE: Can you tell us a little bit more, based on your experience, about the need for a grant program like PAWS?

NANCY BLANEY: Absolutely, Kris. Thank you. And you did a great sort of intro to where we are right now with this and the exciting involvement of DOJ in all of this. But it kind of goes back to the beginning of the animal welfare community looking at this problem and sort of anecdote meets research, back in the late '90s when research really started to take off looking at the connection between animal abuse and other forms of violence and then more specifically, how that relates to family violence, domestic violence, spousal abuse, child abuse, abuse of elders. The population we see is primarily women, and often women with children would be reluctant to get out of a situation because they're so afraid of what will happen to their pets with good reason. A large percentage of women who come into domestic violence shelters reporting that their animals either were threatened or, in fact, killed or harmed. Rather than go someplace where they couldn't bring their pet, they would sleep in their cars, they would sleep on the streets. So you have the homelessness and domestic violence and pet issues all rolled into one as well. So as the research developed, the animal protection community started reaching out to the domestic violence community to talk about this connection. And one of the first things that developed was looking at the inclusion of companion animals on protection orders. So that was one of the very first things that happened was, in 2005, Maine was the first state to actually pass a law that allowed pets to be included on protection orders. There was nothing there that said they couldn't, but judges were saying, "We want to know that we can do this. We want that authority," so there was no real question about whether they could do this or not and have problems down the road. And from there, you know, it kind of took a while before we had got the next one, but we now have 37 states and the District of Columbia who have laws that include pets on protection orders and/or include pet abuse in the definition of domestic violence, so that it is an element of domestic violence, which is another aspect of this.

KRISTINA ROSE: It seems like we've come a long way when it comes to making sure that pets are considered in these situations. Unfortunately, having pets and companion animals are often a barrier to housing for anyone who may be unhoused, including those trying to leave a domestic violence situation. We've seen that in the PAWS Project and we've heard about it also through the Domestic Violence Housing First research project, which OVC was a sponsoring partner of that research. So what are you seeing in the field?

NANCY BLANEY: We are seeing exactly that, and the responses are becoming much more encouraging, because for a long time there was just nothing there for these individuals. If they were looking for some way to bring their pet with them, there was nothing they could do. But now we have many more answers. It started to grow kind of organically at the community level, where shelters realized that they were not able to service individuals who were calling them. The director of the shelter in my hometown of Arlington said it dawned on them that they were getting calls from women that they had to turn away because they had no way to help with their pets. And so from that, you had organizations like RedRover, like SAF-T that Allie Phillips developed that keep animals and their families together. So these things would grow organically to help shelters provide those services, whether it's onsite, whether they provide foster care, but looking at animals not so much as a barrier to getting services but as a critical element to the healing that the individual or the family has to go through to get past this. That that pet can provide so much emotional support, that for them to lose that really can undermine the whole process of healing from the trauma that they're experiencing. So the—keeping them together or knowing that they can be reunited at some point became very critical. And, again, we see that. Just so many more services now. And certainly with the PAWS grant, just, you know, having that federal attention on this has just, you know, really opened up the world of awareness on this.

KRISTINA ROSE: Nancy, as I was listening to you answering the last question, it made me think about how the PAWS program and just this general awareness around the linkage between animal abuse and violent crime is something that—it crosses a lot of different components, and that it probably has opened up the eyes of individuals and community groups that may never have known about this connection. Are you able to speak to any of that?

NANCY BLANEY: Happy to. I'm glad you asked. And that's absolutely true. We are taking active steps to get out there and talk to community groups. Not just domestic violence service providers, but all social service providers, child and family services, adult protective services. And Animal Welfare Institute itself has sponsored a number of different workshops for those groups. For instance in Ohio, Ohio passed a law requiring cross-reporting by all of these stakeholders, and so we have provided workshops for these individuals to get them comfortable with this new responsibility because as you can imagine, everyone is overworked. But when they hear about how this helps their clients, how this helps the community, so it's not just, you know, dealing with an individual family but it's a community violence problem as well, people really get onboard. We encourage community—coordinative community response teams to include animal control and humane law enforcement with those so that they're all talking to one another as well. Because people are more often likely to call because there's a dog tied up out back than if they see children who don't look good because that's a step they don't want to take, but they'll call about an animal. So if animal control goes in and they see situations like hoarding, where you've got umpteen animals who are in bad shape and there are children in that situation, that they will then notify Child Services and say, "Listen, this may be something you want to look at." They don't have to become experts in child abuse. The child and family service people don't have to become experts in animal abuse. They just need to talk to their colleagues when they feel—you know, something in their gut just tells them that there's something wrong, and, you know, generally, they're right.

KRISTINA ROSE: So just being able to have the connection or develop those relationships, right, so important. So much of our work is about that relationship-building. We don't all have to be experts in everything, but if we know the right people, that can be life-changing for someone. Would you tell us a little bit about the legislation, the Pet and Women Safety Act, from which the name PAWS came from. It was signed into law in 2018, and that was part of the farm bill, and it was the impetus for the funding that we received at OVC. But I imagine that, as a result of just the passage of that act, that you have seen some pretty big changes. Would you like to tell us a little bit about that?

NANCY BLANEY: Sure. The advancements, the improvements, the greater awareness that we have seen in the ensuing couple of years really has been just so encouraging and uplifting for all of us. So Congresswoman Clark in the House and Senator Peters in the Senate introduced, you know, two versions of the standalone legislation. The House bill had 250 co-sponsors, which is astounding. The Senate bill had 41 co-sponsors. So you're talking about a bill that appealed to so many because they saw the need for this. And we were able to make the case that while there were community responses popping up, you know, the resources weren't there. And there's nothing like the federal government taking an interest in something to kind of open up the gates for other money to come in and be helpful. So the legislation was added to the farm bill. As you know, the funding has been there over the past five years, and DOJ has done just a tremendous job getting that money out the door, getting it into the hands of service providers who are providing services, doing training, and really building that awareness within their communities and across the country, because it's the federal government saying this is an important thing. 

KRISTINA ROSE: That's one of the nice things about being a federal employee or working for the federal government is sometimes you can't—from where you sit, you can't see some of the change that is happening day-to-day, but you can have an impact on national change and eventually you hear about those things, and that can be a really good feeling. Some of our listeners may be surprised to learn that the PAWS program is made possible because of a transfer of funds from the US Department of Agriculture or the USDA to the Department of Justice. So, at OVC, we are not using our typical crime victims fund to pay for this program, but we are using USDA dollars. We love being able to have that relationship with the USDA. And OVC has, over the years, since the fiscal year 2020, we have been able to fund 23 awards and in a couple of weeks, we'll be making additional awards. And these awards total to more than $7 million, which is great. But I also know that we received many more applications than we were able to fund, which just goes to show what the need is in the field.

NANCY BLANEY: Oh, absolutely, Kris. Service agencies want this. They want to be able to do this now that they're—have become aware of this connection and the fact that, you know, the people who are experiencing animal abuse are also experiencing domestic violence and are their client—potential clients, they want to be able to offer those services. So, yeah, the demand just continues to grow.

KRISTINA ROSE: And we've seen that number grow over time, in terms of the—you know, the interest in this particular program. And this year, in fiscal year '23, we were able to make one change, and that is that we are now going to be funding a technical assistance provider. For the programs that we currently fund, having a TA provider makes a huge difference in being able to help our grantees solve issues, get peer support among their other grantee partners, and be able to access training on a regular basis. But, again, it also comes back to building those relationships and sharing what we have learned. You know, a lot of the grants that we provide through OVC are usually—they can be pretty big. And what we've found to be effective with the PAWS program is having smaller grants, because it doesn't have to be a huge amount of money to be able to make a change to a shelter or make an arrangement with an animal shelter and domestic violence housing. So we feel that this is one of those programs where a little bit of money can actually go a long way.

NANCY BLANEY: I think you're absolutely right. I think you're really onto something there, because I think the idea that you might have to apply for a lot of money, otherwise your application won't be taken seriously might be off-putting to some groups that are small. They have—they can do a lot with a little. And I think being able to spread it around a little more with those smaller grants that are going to have a big impact, I think, is really genius. I've been very excited to be able to ask you at long last is what are you seeing from what you have supported? You know, the grants that you have put out there, what kind of feedback are you getting? What are you seeing happening with your grantees?

KRISTINA ROSE: Oh, thanks for asking, Nancy. Well, first, just kind of a fun fact, but it—you know, when we think about the kinds of pets that individuals might bring with them, we think of dogs and cats. But, in fact, we have learned that there are many different kinds of pets. Some of them a little unusual. But rabbits and hamsters, snakes, tarantulas, various types of fish, tortoises, horses, parrots, pigs, lizards, goats, ducks, ferrets, cows, and chinchillas. So it just gives you a much better sense of—a pet does not have to be just a dog or a cat. Had you also seen—you must have seen a wide variety of pets in your work at the Animal Welfare Institute.

NANCY BLANEY: Oh, my goodness. You know, it's funny that you mentioned, you know, some of the—you know, the cows and the pigs, because one of the witnesses during the hearing on the main legislation, the one for the first pets on protection orders actually had more to do with animals on the farm than your typical dogs and cats. What the individual said was, "I knew if I left, that he was going to kill the cows and the sheep." So here—you know, her concern was about these animals. So it—yeah, it's not necessarily just, you know, your hamster and your dog that you're going to bring with you, but what happens when you have animals that are too large for that kind of thing? I think, Crisis Center North, which is one of your grantees, they have resources for larger animals and one of the few that does. So, you know, that's something else that has to be considered, and especially with horses being specifically covered under the law. Tarantulas, not so much. We have—haven't really come across tarantulas.

KRISTINA ROSE: Well, I think it's interesting that you say that because in some of our other grants when we are serving different types of communities around the country, we have to be so cognizant of the cultural differences and just the differences in what makes a community. Is it an urban community? Is it a rural community? So just being able to take into account those types of things. Naturally, there would be—you know, in rural areas, you would be probably thinking about larger animals. In the cities, maybe different kinds of animals or pets as well. So I think we need to also bring that cultural competence to this work. I did want to be able to respond to your question though about some of the things that we're learning from our grantees, and I'm just going to mention a few. There is one grantee, Unity House in New York, and we learned that through their collaboration with law enforcement, that many of the survivors that they encountered did not report animal abuse, let alone the abuse that they were experiencing, because they thought that they would be—they would actually get in trouble for not protecting their pets. And that was something that we didn't expect to hear. So I think that that's important to be able to validate that when we are hearing that from survivors.

NANCY BLANEY: I have to say that is news to me as well. That's not something that we've encountered, you know, in the research that we do, in the conversations that we have, that fear that if I report this and I haven't removed the animal or I haven't done something, that I'm going to get in trouble. And that's really an important piece of information for our community to have as well.

KRISTINA ROSE: Well, that's good to know that we can tell you things that—or from—you know, we can learn things from this program that—you know, that are new even to you who has probably heard just about everything. Unity House also, which is interesting, has a rural satellite office, and they have been able to arrange to have both a food pantry for humans but also a pet food pantry for individuals who bring their pets to Unity House and are in that rural satellite office. And one of the other things that I thought was pretty progressive about what they're doing with their rural satellite office is they are arranging to have a therapist go out there to ensure that—in doing the screening for housing, that they are able to ask questions about domestic violence or about harm that the particular individual has experienced.

NANCY BLANEY: Kris, I can't even emphasize to you enough how crucial that component is. That's something that we encourage too is ask questions, particularly of children. Ask them questions about pets in the home. That's going to give such an insight into what's going on, more so than, you know, direct questions about, you know, how the child is treated, but do you have pets? How many have you had? What happened to your pets? You know, asking those questions really is crucial. So that is just an interesting and unique component to a program.

KRISTINA ROSE: One of our grantees, the Urban Resource Institute, has a program called People and Animals Living Safely or the PALS program. And it's the only program of its kind in New York City and it's the largest in the US to provide co-living shelter for domestic violence victims and their pets. And they have shifted their training that they have been doing for the community, their community stakeholders to include trauma-informed training and the impact of trauma, so that that information, we're very familiar with it in our field of victim services, but in terms of getting that information out to the community, it's really helping others to understand the role and the impact that trauma, any kind of trauma can have on an individual or on a family, especially children, I would think.

NANCY BLANEY: Absolutely. DOJ is kind of already on it, recognizing that witnessing animal cruelty can be an adverse childhood experience. So I think this is kind of the next level in our awareness of the impact of domestic violence and the impact on children, particularly of witnessing domestic violence, witnessing domestic violence that also consists of animal abuse. There are some states actually that have enhancements in their cruelty laws if the cruelty is witnessed or perpetrated by a child. There are some individuals in domestic violence situations who force their children to participate in cruelty. So there are states that have laws that if that happens, then there is an enhancement to the penalty under their cruelty law. So recognizing that there is a unique factor here, a unique experience that children are going through, that, you know, may not manifest itself for some time. But, you know, for URI to be on top of it and knowing—having that trauma-informed training is going to address that, you know, kind of head-on.

KRISTINA ROSE: One of our grantees called Crisis Center North, and they're located in Pennsylvania, shared with us the story about one of their clients who had actually had her pet removed from the home because of the abuse that both she and her dog had been experiencing. And with the funding that Crisis Center North had, they were able to reunite her after she fled her abuser with her pet in a pet-friendly apartment that served as transitional housing for her. So it's just wonderful to hear about these changes that our grantees are able to accommodate in the lives of people who experience this abuse and make sure that they have an ability to be able to be with their pets again.

NANCY BLANEY: You know, that's why they don't want to leave their pet behind. They'll live in the car, if that's what it takes to stay together with the pet, because that pet has provided such emotional ballast for them. And the fact that under the grant, there are so many services that an agency can provide, including the transitional housing, the emergency shelter. There's so many ways to help and making sure that everybody stays together is really what this is all about.

KRISTINA ROSE: That's right. And even I would imagine, for survivors who are working with the shelter that may not have the pet housing onsite, just having that relationship with a pet shelter is beneficial because it allows them to know that their pet is being taken care of and is safe.

NANCY BLANEY: And that's one of the key things too is this is—as you know better than anybody, this is such a volatile situation. And for the domestic violence service provider to be able to have those relationships where that anonymity can be maintained, where the confidentiality can be maintained. It's knowing that somebody else is not going to be able to find where the pet is.

KRISTINA ROSE: Nancy, I want to take a moment to thank you for all of the work that you have done from where you sit in kind of a non-criminal justice, non-victim services place and be able to make it possible for those of us working in the field to assist domestic violence victims and their companion animals. So we thank you for the work that you do every day.

KRISTINA ROSE: Are there any final thoughts that you want to share about what we've talked about today or anything else that you think people listening to this podcast might want to know?

NANCY BLANEY: Just if anybody out there—you know, if your listeners, I'm sure include service providers in all kinds of human service fields, don't be daunted by the thought that, this is more than we can take on. It really works to the benefit of everyone. It works to the benefit of the animal clients, it works to the benefit of the human clients, and it works to the benefit of the community as a whole because, you know, dealing with violence—violence is violence. And animal cruelty is violence and domestic abuse is violence. And when you can deal with that in a—not just a reactive way but a proactive way, then you're making your communities safer.

VICTORIA JOLICOEUR: Justice Today is the official podcast of the Office of Justice Programs.