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Give Me Shelter

Frank Ascione holds a dog

"In some instances, the abuse was purposefully done in front of the children. The children were made to watch," says Frank Ascione, who studies links between domestic violence and animal abuse. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

From his modest office in Craig Hall, home to DU’s Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW), Professor Frank Ascione thumbs through a volume of data about animal abuse in domestic violence settings. He points to a child’s drawing — a Noah’s ark of family pets. Here a chick, there a pup, here a hamster, there a kitten.

The drawing depicts dearly departed family pets, casualties of cruelty and violence.

The executive director of GSSW’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection, Ascione is one of the nation’s leading researchers on the dynamics of domestic violence, child abuse and animal maltreatment. His work is full of disturbing revelations, but one conclusion never ceases to shock: Animals are often used to control and manipulate abuse victims. Ascione sums it up this way: “Do what I say or the kitten gets it.”

Pet protector

A psychologist by training, Ascione came to DU in summer 2009. He holds GSSW’s American Humane Endowed Chair, established to foster the emerging field of animal-assisted social work and to research the bond between humans and animals.

Since arriving in Colorado, he has put his expertise to good use. In early 2010, he testified before the Colorado General Assembly in support of legislation ensuring that, in cases involving domestic violence, pets and livestock can be included in civil protection orders. A few weeks later, Gov. Bill Ritter signed Senate Bill 80 into law, making Colorado one of a handful of states with such legislation on the books.

For Linda Newell, the state senator who sponsored SB 80, Ascione’s testimony provided the evidence needed to convince skeptics. Colorado lawmakers, after all, are known for a Western-hued pragmatism that considers animals property and property rights sacred.

“On the floor, I went up to people, starting to talk with them about the bill. I had a few just look at me and start to laugh,” Newell recalls. “‘Oh my gosh, now we’re having protection orders for pets. What kind of deal is that! I have better things to talk about.’”

Then Ascione shared his research. To illustrate his data, he relayed a simple story, stripped of sensational details. He is careful not to traffic in what he calls “violence porn,” no matter how much the occasion begs for lavish adjectives and adverbs.

The story went like this: An abused woman went to a shelter. She left her dog at home. Her husband smuggled an audiocassette tape to her — a recording of her dog being tortured. She packed her bags, she left the shelter, and they never saw her again.

“You could have heard a pin drop,” says Newell, recalling the testimony.

“What helps with legislators in committee is the data and the story,” she adds. “We looked for a story, and what was very difficult was finding a story where the survivor was willing to testify. They don’t want to relive it, they don’t want to go there mentally again, rehash it all. … When Dr. Ascione got up and gave his story about the woman, never to be seen again, never to be heard of again, that was exactly what we needed.”

For Amy Miller, public policy director for the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence and a supporter of SB 80, Ascione’s research confirms the human toll of animal cruelty. “It’s a method used to intimidate, threaten or coerce a child or adult victim,” she says. “It sends a really clear message that, ‘You’re next. I will do this to this living being, and if you don’t do what I tell you to do … if you don’t come back to me, I will chop up the dog and send it to you in packages.’”

“That,” she adds, “was an actual case.”

A cycle of violence

Ascione’s work on animal cruelty and domestic violence began more than 20 years ago at Utah State University, where he served on the psychology faculty. While evaluating materials related to humane education — a concept that aims to increase compassion — he was asked by an animal welfare advocate for some insight into children who are cruel to animals.

He couldn’t offer much. “Except for some psychoanalytic clinical literature, which was primarily case-study literature, I couldn’t find anything in child psychology that focused on this phenomenon,” he recalls.

Curious, Ascione launched a research project to explore the issue. His first efforts yielded few results, largely because his methodology proved unwieldy. Then he began comparing data from the general population with information gathered from special populations. Within the general population, he learned, only about 5 percent of parents reported that their children engaged in some form of animal cruelty. The percentage increased among children served by mental health clinics.

Researchers at DU’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection are working to improve the way society deals with animal abuse. Read more

“It jumped to 20 percent to 25 percent,” he says. “But it still was a low-frequency behavior, comparable to vandalism or fire-setting.”

Ascione and his research team kept probing. “We decided in order to study this phenomenon more effectively, we probably should look to environments where the likelihood of this behavior is higher.”

They began with juvenile detention facilities and residential treatment programs focused on mental health issues. They hit pay dirt once they began interviewing a handful of children who had accompanied their mothers to domestic violence shelters.

“What we found in this very preliminary study,” Ascione explains, “was that many of the children at the domestic violence shelters not only engaged in animal abuse themselves, but they were exposed to often horrific animal abuse, perpetrated by their mothers’ partners, whether it was a father or stepfather or boyfriend.”

Ascione then launched a small-scale study of 38 women entering a shelter in Utah. “One of the basic questions we asked was, ‘Do you have pets?’ because I could find no data on the demographics of pet ownership among women entering shelters for intimate partner violence,” he says. “We discovered that 74 percent of the women had companion animals in their homes. And that’s comparable to the national statistics on pet ownership in families where there are school-age children. It’s between 70 and 90 percent. It’s typically the highest pet-owning demographic in the country.”

Through a series of follow-up questions, Ascione and his team attempted to discover whether these pets had been harmed, threatened or killed by the women’s partners. “We were startled by the number of women who said yes to the question,” he says.

Troubled and intrigued, Ascione went on to study 100 pet-owning women at five different Utah shelters. This time he recruited a comparison group of another 100 women, all of whom had pets and all of whom reported that their adult relationships were violence-free.

Of the comparison group, Ascione says, 5 percent said they had pets that had been harmed or killed. Of the shelter women, 54 percent reported that a pet had met a similar fate.

By this time, Ascione’s research was attracting international attention. “That study,” he says, “served as the basis for a study in Australia, where a doctoral student at Monash University asked to use the same assessment instrument that I developed.”

She also focused on 200 women — 100 from domestic violence centers and 100 from a comparison group. In the latter group, not one woman reported that she had had a pet harmed or killed, but of the domestic abuse victims, 53 percent claimed their pets had experienced violence or cruelty.

“Very, very similar results,” Ascione notes. “Different country, different culture in some ways, but it just confirmed that this was not an isolated phenomenon. It wasn’t a Utah phenomenon — this was something that probably is more pervasive.”

Another finding from Ascione’s studies suggested that the phenomenon had alarming repercussions for children. More than 60 percent of the children in shelters whose families had pets had been exposed to animal abuse.

“In some instances, the abuse was purposefully done in front of the children. The children were made to watch. It’s very clear from the examples that these women shared with us that these were not accidental episodes of animal abuse. … In some cases these were methodical ways of frightening and terrorizing members of the family.”

It wasn’t uncommon for an abuser to buy a child an animal, wait for the attachment to form and then kill the animal, sometimes with the child watching. A few weeks later, the scenario would play out again.

“We don’t know yet what those repeated experiences of loss and replacement, loss and replacement, might do to a child in terms of their attitudes toward living things,” Ascione says, noting that some survivors develop acute empathy, while others go on to become abusers themselves.

If that finding wasn’t horrifying enough, Ascione also learned that the presence of pets in the house often kept domestic violence victims from seeking help. Of those women who had reported that their pets had been harmed or threatened, 34 percent said concern for their pets kept them from going to a shelter. “More than one in three said this was an obstacle to getting to safety sooner than they did,” Ascione says.

Count Angela McMahan among them.

Several years ago, on an evening when her husband’s violence escalated beyond endurance, McMahan checked into a hotel to sit out the fury. Unfortunately, she found little peace at the inn.

That’s because she worried all night about the scene back home, where her husband remained with her two best friends — sisters Jessie and Jasmine, the tail-wagging offspring of a retriever mom and a black-Lab dad. “To hurt me,” she explains of her ex-husband’s motives, “they ended up being hurt.”

McMahan returned home and stayed with her husband for more of the same — more emotional abuse and more violence. Then one day, she recalls, “I literally woke up facedown in the garage in a pool of my own blood. … I don’t know how long I was out.”

She called an emergency shelter, hoping to find respite for herself and the dogs. The overextended facilities had barely enough room for another human victim, but they certainly couldn’t accommodate two large pets. “As a matter of fact,” she recalls, “I was told to leave them, just leave them and get out. That obviously wasn’t an option for me. … I just wasn’t going to leave them.”

McMahan didn’t leave them, but she did begin making plans to escape the “’til death do us part” clause of her nuptial vows. By the time her divorce became final two years later, the three survivors had their share of battle scars.

“We all left with a limp,” she says.

Valuable resource

After Ascione began sharing his data and recounting similar stories at national conferences, he started fielding phone calls from animal welfare and domestic violence agencies. They wanted to know how to establish programs for all the victims of domestic violence.

“I’m the ivory tower person, the number cruncher,” Ascione says, “but what I realized was that if people are calling Frank Ascione for advice about this topic, there must be a void in information.”

To remedy that, Ascione sought a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to interview 41 organizations addressing the issue. Half were animal-welfare organizations, half were domestic violence agencies. His goal was to answer, in one handy volume, the major questions associated with operating programs for humans and animals. What legal issues must be resolved to accommodate people and pets? What screening tools work best? What costs are associated with the enterprise?

“My rationale was, why should each agency have to reinvent the wheel?” Ascione says.

The entire print run of Ascione’s resulting handbook, Safe Havens for Pets: Guidelines for Programs Sheltering Pets for Women Who Are Battered, was mailed to every domestic violence agency in the country. Today, the book is out of print but a PDF is posted at The Zero, a website maintained by Andrew Vacchs, a child protection attorney and consultant. (The book also can be downloaded at

The resource has played a significant role in expanding services nationwide. In fact, Ascione says, information collected by the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence indicates that pet-sheltering programs are increasing substantially.

“The last we heard, from the 2008 directory, was that over 700 or 800 agencies have some kind of pet-sheltering program available,” Ascione says. “I suspect had they done that survey in 1998, it would have been only a handful of agencies.”

To give this momentum an adrenaline boost, the American Humane Association, which supports human-animal bond research at GSSW, launched its Pets and Women’s Shelters program in February 2008. Known as PAWS, the program aims to help shelters incorporate accommodations for animals, whether on site or in partnership with animal welfare and fostering agencies.

In spring 2010, PAWS took its campaign to the general public by pursuing grant money from Pepsi’s Refresh Project, a widely publicized promotion that urges consumers to vote for the initiatives they consider most worthy. To garner public support for its grant bid, the association tweeted about the campaign on its Twitter feed, talked it up on Facebook and posted an educational YouTube clip featuring pop singer and former American Idol judge Paula Abdul.

As domestic violence and animal-welfare advocates see it, this kind of publicity could translate into much-needed awareness and assistance. One day, they hope, no woman will need to subject herself to danger because she’s worried about a pet.

New hope

Today, more than two years after she divorced her husband, Angela McMahan operates Arising Hope, a domestic violence shelter she founded with women like her in mind. It welcomes pets — big dogs, little dogs, antisocial cats and assorted damaged critters suffering from post-traumatic stress. “We all cohabitate, the pets and the people,” she says.

In its first year, Arising Hope offered beds to 19 women, five children, two teens and four pets. In its second year, the numbers jumped to 23 women, 15 children, four teens and 11 pets. One of the cats living at Arising Hope even bequeathed the shelter a litter of kittens.

It’s not always a peaceable kingdom — sometimes a little fur flies — but for the survivors seeking safety at Arising Hope, it represents a second chance at a normal life.

For Ascione, the emergence of shelters like Arising Hope and the passage of legislation like SB 80 represent a scholar’s dream come true. What could be better than seeing data put to work?

“Sometimes I’m asked, ‘How do you do this?’” he says, “and my only answer is, it has been so satisfying to see research findings translated into programs that promote human welfare.”

Watch a video about the human-animal bond.

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