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Animal cruelty is often the first red flag

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

Animal cruelty is often the first red flag: Nearly 50 animal abuse reports in Connecticut linked to child endangerment in past two years


DEC 09, 2019 | 6:00 AM

This photo shows some of the dogs rescued from a home in Burlington County, New Jersey last year.

For nearly a decade now, child-protection officials have received monthly reports of animal cruelty originating from animal control officers across the state — a nod to the mounting evidence of a tie between animal abuse and human violence and one reason why animal abuse two weeks ago became a federal crime.

The Department of Children and Families runs those addresses through its records and looks for active and past child-endangerment cases in the households named in the animal cruelty reports. In the past two years, based solely on those reports, DCF social workers have identified 47 cases in which the animal abuse portended danger to children.

Among the 47, DCF had 11 open child-protection cases. In 29 instances, the agency had a history with the family, and in seven cases, the animal abuse was so severe that child-welfare investigators opened new inquiries, knowing that the abuse often doesn’t simply start and stop with the animal.

In turn, on dozens of occasions, DCF social workers have notified the Department of Agriculture or local animal control officers about possible animal abuse or neglect they have detected during child-endangerment investigations.

Through the animal abuse reports, DCF has learned that dogs have been hanged in front of children. Children have witnessed dogs being beaten, burned and starved. Children have seen dogs tethered to trees or poles on short leases in the extreme hot or cold weather, without food or water. In domestic violence cases, children have seen abusive fathers hold pets hostage as leverage against their mother.

“It is heartbreaking,” said DCF’s Diane Rosell, who, with supervisory social worker Jacqueline Ford, has designed training for animal control officers and DCF staff.

“Animal cruelty is often the first red flag,” Rosell said.

‘We definitely embrace this’

Connecticut is one of only three states in the country, along with West Virginia and Illinois, that practice mandated cross-reporting. It began here in 2011 with a law championed by former state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington. She was the former House chair of the Children’s Committee and presides over a small menagerie of rescued pets and farm animals.

Urban’s bill passed with one compromise: The animal control officers weren’t required to become mandated reporters of child abuse, like teachers and doctors and police officers. They are required only to submit reports of serious animal abuse to the Department of Agriculture. The agency sends the reports to DCF each month, whether there are children in the household or not. It’s up to DCF to take it from there.

The sentiment among some officers was they did not want to be required to report child abuse and possibly be subject to discipline if they missed something.

The animal control officers in Connecticut are a varied lot, as they are in most states. They range from highly trained and professional first-responders and investigators to old-schoolers with a narrower view of their job.

As far as Middletown Animal Control Officer Gail Petras is concerned, the officers she counts as her brethren appreciate the cross-reporting requirement and see great value in it.

“We definitely embrace this,” said Petras, a member of the Connecticut Animal Control Officer Association’s executive board.

Middletown Animal Control Officer Gail Petras embraces the reporting requirements

“It would be very tough to suspect child abuse and walk away without reporting your concerns. Though we’re not included as mandated reporters, we view ourselves as mandated. We want to report.”

Ford said she would have cherished the opportunity during the early part of her social-work career to have had a formal way to alert animal control officers to any cruelty she saw during her home visits. Now the caseworkers carry laminated cards prompting them to look for signs of animal cruelty as they investigate child endangerment.

Look for dogs and cats who appear emaciated or have multiple open or healed wounds, the cards prompt. Be aware of matted hair, filthy coats, or animals who seem to cower when the owners draw near, the cards say. Check for hoarding or evidence that dogs are kept outside with inadequate shelter, food and water, the cards advise.

Last year, DCF received 69 animal-cruelty reports through the Department of Agriculture; so far this year, 46 reports have come in. Yet there have been hundreds more animal-abuse investigations, suggesting that not all animal control officers are filling out the one-page animal abuse summaries that go to the agricultural agency and are sent along to DCF.

Not all the addresses flagged in those animal-abuse reports have children living in the household. The animal control officers are only required to submit the reports, not investigate the family composition. It’s up to DCF to run the addresses and see if any children are endangered by the conduct.

DCF officials hope that with more education about the link between animal abuse and the abuse of children, women, and the elderly, more animal control officers will routinely turn in the summaries.

The child-protection agency later this year will also start asking callers to the child-abuse hotline whether they suspect any animal cruelty in the household as well, Rosell said.

“Whether a child is witnessing the family dog being beaten, or their mother, or their grandmother, it’s all violence in the home, and that is a key indicator of potential harm to a child,” said Kenneth Mysolgand, head of external affairs at DCF and one of the agency’s most experienced investigators.

Linking animal and child abuse

Urban said nearly a decade ago that she sponsored the cross-reporting law because she was aware for many years of the link between animal and child abuse.

“In the 1970s, we recognized animal abuse as an indicator of future violence. The FBI uses it in criminal profiling. In the last 10 years, it’s become more and more obvious that there’s a strong link to family violence. It’s a warning sign, a great big red flag,” Urban said at the time.

“Animal abuse,” agreed Phillip Arkow, “is usually the tip of the iceberg.”

Arkow is director of the National Link Coalition, which, by its very name, recognizes the connection between violence against animals and people.

Arkow has twice spoken at conferences sponsored by DCF in Connecticut and has closely followed the cross-reporting law here. Rosell said the department will invite Arkow back a third time this year to talk to DCF staffers and animal control officers.

He said the cross-reporting requirement “recognizes that animal control officers can be the additional eyes and ears that prevent human violence in the future.”

Animal abuse, said Arkow, is closely linked to abuse of children, women and elders.

More than seven out of 10 battered women reported that their abusers “had harmed, killed or threatened animals to coerce, control and intimidate them,” according to the Link Coalition’s website.

Gordon Willard, president of the Connecticut Humane Society in Newington, said he sees cross-reporting as part of a “cultural shift that is slowly but surely recognizing animal abuse for what it is.”

Willard includes in this shift the decision by the FBI in 2016 to include animal-cruelty crimes among the offenses the bureau counts and tracks.

“So five years from now, we’ll be able to see the pattern. We won’t have anything to compare it to, but it’s important we started counting,” Willard said.

He also cited “Desmond’s law” — a provision in Connecticut named after a dog who was killed — that allows advocates to speak in court on behalf of an abused animal.

He said the next step is a difficult one: to convince law enforcement and prosecutors to devote even more time and money to household animal-abuse cases, just as they have on organized animal fighting.

Even without full participation from animal control officers, “Connecticut is ahead of the curve” with its cross-reporting requirement, said John Thompson a former police chief who directs the National Animal Care & Control Association in California.

“I was a cop for 30 years. If I got an animal call, I’d say, ‘Give it to animal control.’ If I was still an officer, I would go to that call now. I’ve been on the fast track for the last few years, and I’ve learned that animal abuse is just a precursor to human violence,” said Thomas, who was instrumental in the adoption of animal cruelty as a federal crime.

“We find that when we do education, we encounter very little resistance [to the notion of the link] from law enforcement and legislators.”



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