Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Professor receives grant to study children exposed to animal abuse

Frank Ascione

Professor Frank Ascione has received a major grant to study children exposed to animal abuse. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Here’s what we know about the effects of animal abuse on children who witness it: It can’t be good.

Here’s what we don’t know: Everything else.

What mental health problems arise when children are exposed to brutality against a much-loved pet? How do children cope when they see an animal beaten or tortured?  What, if any, scars persist through time?

These are among the questions social work Professor Frank Ascione plans to explore in a four-year study that follows children who have seen or heard animal abuse at home. The project, funded by a $1.5 million grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, will allow Ascione, who holds the American Humane Endowed Chair at the Graduate School of Social Work, to advance his groundbreaking research into the dynamics of domestic violence and animal maltreatment.

As executive director of GSSW’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection, Ascione has emerged as the nation’s go-to authority on questions related to the topic. His research has fueled a nationwide campaign to increase the number of domestic violence shelters extending the welcome mat to family pets. And thanks to his publications and expert testimony, more than a dozen states have passed legislation that makes it possible to include at-risk pets in civil protection orders.

For his new study, Ascione will partner with the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence to interview 300 mother-child pairs from domestic violence shelters around the state. Participants will be required to have had pets within the last year and be willing to be re-contacted for two years following the initial interviews. Children will range in age from 7–12.

By the time the study ends, those children will be ages 9–14, allowing researchers to examine mental health over time. To Ascione’s knowledge, no other study on animal abuse and domestic violence has attempted to follow its participants for such an extended period.

“We may see serious behavioral issues at first,” Ascione says. “Two years later it may be very different.”

GSSW Dean James Herbert Williams considers the grant a breakthrough for scholars studying the human-animal connection—whether they work at DU or elsewhere.

“This is the first time that federal funding has been put forward to look at this kind of issue,” Williams explains, noting that such funding signals the importance of foundational research in this emerging field.

“The outcome of this will be more information, more data to inform policy and interventions,” Williams adds. Just as important, a federal investment in human-animal research may well signal to other funding groups that comparable projects merit support.

Ascione’s new project comes on the heels of his 2007 study revealing the strong connection between animal abuse and intimate partner violence. From that project, Ascione learned that abusers often use animals to manipulate or terrorize family members. As he explained to the University of Denver Magazine in fall 2010, household pets can be used as hostages or object lessons to coerce family members into complying with the abuser’s demands.

In his earlier research, Ascione recalls, “We found that 66.7 percent of children we interviewed had been exposed to pet abuse. They had either heard what was happening or seen what was happening.”

Troubled by that information, Ascione felt compelled to address the next logical question: How is exposure to animal abuse related to a child’s mental health?

Preliminary findings with adults suggest that witnessing animal abuse has lasting consequences for the individuals involved and for society. True, the majority of children who have seen their pets mistreated grow up to have healthy relationships, but others become abusers themselves.  Earlier interventions will help professionals reach these young people.

“One of the findings that has been emerging is derived from studies of men who reminisce about their childhoods. If they were exposed to animal abuse before age 13, that exposure is linked to a greater likelihood that they perpetrate abuse,” Ascione says. Curiously, he adds, the same findings do not hold true for women who witnessed animal abuse.

The study will also examine how adults shape children’s responses to the violence. And, in an attempt to understand the relationship between children and animals, Ascione says, “we’re also asking kids about the positive experiences they have had with their pets.” This information may provide insight into those children who emerge from violent experiences relatively unscathed.

“It really is going to provide information that has not existed in the scientific community in this field,” Ascione says.

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