Thompson Rivers University

Research aims to reduce barriers for women fleeing violence

November 25, 2019

Monday, Nov. 25, marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.  According to the United Nations, violence is as serious a cause of death among young women as cancer, and a greater cause of injury than traffic accidents.

For women looking to flee domestic violence, there are supports within the community, but those supports don’t always take into account the needs of women with companion animals. As a result, some women delay exiting violent relationships, or return to those relationships out of concern for their animals, putting themselves at great risk of harm.

Dr. Rochelle Stevenson, assistant professor of sociology, is working alongside the University of Windsor’s Dr. Amy Fitzgerald, Dr. Betty Barrett, and Dr. Patti Timmons-Fritz on research that explores the intersection of violence against women and violence against animals, and their research has illuminated a gap in services for women wishing to leave abusive relationships.

The goal of their research is not only to create a better understanding of the barriers that exist that prevent women from leaving violent homes, but also to work directly with service providers to address some of these complexities. The research not only assesses the scope of animal abuse as it intersects with intimate partner violence, but will determine the best strategies for addressing the needs of abused women, and the researchers will share that information with practitioners and policymakers in order to develop programs that reduce barriers to access.

The researchers have data from nearly 1,000 shelters and transition houses in Canada and the United States, which shows that when a woman first reaches out for help, very few support workers ask about pets in the home, assuming that if there is a pet present, and if it is important, the woman will bring it up.

But Stevenson says that’s rarely the case, even though more transition homes are beginning to offer on-site pet services, or are partnering with local animal rescues to offer emergency shelter pet programs.

“There’s a notion that shelters are for women and children only, and there is already so much shame and guilt about asking for help in the first place that women may be hesitant to ask for a safe space for their companion animals as well. “The support worker is the best person to open that conversation,” said Stevenson.

She knows that a woman might delay leaving a violent home for months, or even years, because she doesn’t want to leave her animals behind, which leaves her in a very dangerous situation. “Right before she leaves, and right after she returns, she is at the highest risk for intimate partner homicide,” Stevenson said. “In our study, one-third of women report considering returning to their partner because they still had pets in the home. It is such a huge risk, but it also shows the strength of that human-pet relationship.”

Stevenson has been researching the intersection of intimate partner violence and animal abuse for more than a decade.

“My own animals are so important to me, so the idea of having to leave one behind is heartbreaking,” she said.

When they reach out to a shelter, women are often urged to prepare a safety plan, which includes a bag of clothes, copies of important documents, cash, medication, and in the case of pets, ownership papers and veterinary records. There are three shelters in the Interior of BC that offer on-site pet services, one each in Kelowna, Salmon Arm and Penticton, and the BC SPCA does offer an emergency shelter program for pets in cases of domestic violence.

Stevenson and her research partners have presented their work to the BC Society for Transition Houses with the goal of using this research to inform policy and reduce barriers to access. There is also significant advocacy for BC Housing to develop more pet-friendly housing.  

More info

Dr. Rochelle Stevenson

If you are in danger, please call 9-1-1, or call VictimLink BC at 1-800-563-0808 | Text: 604-863-6381

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