Lucy’s Project Conference 7 & 8th November, 2015, Byron Bay NSW
Lucy’s Project (www.lucysproject.com) was inspired and founded in 2013 by lawyer Anna Ludvik, to promote awareness of the link between animal abuse and domestic violence as well as funding small projects to gain a greater understanding of the complex aspects involved in this issue. This was the first conference held and was attended by over 30 people from various sectors including animal advocacy, veterinary, education, law, police, psychology and social work from various States. Sentient’s People and Animals Working Group was represented by Dr Lydia Tong, Dr Catherine Tiplady and Dr Di Evans. Representatives from the RSPCA included staff from New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria and Lort Smith Animal Hospital was also represented as well as the Animal Justice Party. The array of speakers and topics was excellent with only a snapshot provided here of a few with a number of presentation power points being available on Lucy’s Project website in the near future.
Forensic veterinary pathologist from the University of Sydney, Dr Lydia Tong, provided several presentations based on studies which have obtained data in the Australian context. This included a national survey of families (approx. 1280 respondents) with companion animals who were either affected or not affected by domestic violence. Alarming but not surprising statistics showed that 155 of the 224 families with abused animals did not seek veterinary treatment with 76% stating the reason was the risk of retribution by the perpetrator and another 71% stating financial hardship. Of the animals who were taken to a veterinarian, the main person to do this was the victim but sometimes the perpetrator would also seek veterinary help. It was noted that victims wanted the vet to help them protect their pet but that veterinarians generally were ill equipped to respond appropriately to these situations including the lack of skill and knowledge to diagnose non-accidental injuries. A checklist was outlined to help recognise ‘abuse’ injuries including fractures located in multiple areas of the body usually the limbs rather than the pelvis, delayed presentation with different aged fractures, and transverse rather than oblique or compound. The issue of mandatory reporting by vets was discussed and will be explored further. This needs to be explored further as well the role that vets may be able to play to help with early detection and intervention of abusive situations. It was suggested that posters raising awareness of support networks could be offered to veterinary practices, similar to general medical practitioner waiting rooms. Veterinarians could also contact their local DV service provider if they suspect a DV situation.
Dr Catherine Tiplady provided an insight into the enormous impact upon families and companion animals from domestic violence based on key findings from a survey of affected women. Despite a small number of respondents, results were consistent with other studies in that in very high levels of verbal (92%) and physical (77%) abuse being reported and in multi-pet households, one particular animal was the main target of abuse of the perpetrator, and dogs were the main species abused resulting in long term behaviour issues (anxiety and fear of men). Many women were unaware or unwilling to use emergency accommodation services to flee a violent situation mainly due to significant attachment to their pet. However, it was acknowledged that veterinarians can play a key role in detecting and treating animal abuse but that training is required.
Judy Johnson, Board Director of Eastern Domestic Violence Service, Victoria described a new push to enable abused families to remain in their home and for the perpetrator to be removed called ‘Safe Homes’. It is understood that this is a national program so should be available in South Australia. This will hopefully significantly reduce the number of families who have to be separated from their pets, which in turn will reduce the requests for emergency accommodation. However, there will still be high risk families who will need to flee their home. There is also consideration of providing an emergency financial package ($1000 - $7000) to assist women to flee a violent situation. It is also not uncommon for a mother and her children to be forced to live in their car with their pet but this often becomes unsustainable. Again, with the Safe Homes program, the incidence of this should reduce. In Victoria, a network of vets has been set up who will accept pets at any time from families in crisis.
The lack of availability of pet friendly refuges was noted but that foster programs require significant work to establish and ongoing management. There are many complex aspects that are not relevant to current foster care programs of animals under RSPCA care or custody. It was also noted that pet friendly rental accommodation was very limited. It was commented that property agents generally discouraged owners to permit pets. The Australian Companion Animal Council publications identifying that many of the negative aspects of tenants with pets are not founded. This needs greater promotion.
A refuge in west Sydney is incorporating kennels followed by a cattery in the near future due to the recognised need to keep all family members together.
One survey also identified that 85% pets who had been abused demonstrated behavioural issues with dog bite risks 11 times greater in these dogs than dogs in non-violent households. In addition to physical abuse, almost all dogs were neglected in DV homes often being denied adequate food and water.
An innovative program called ‘Love Bites’ has been introduced in schools in Sydney which teaches adolescents about the need to respect each other and that any form of abuse is not acceptable.
An information portal is being developed in Western Australia which comprises stories from various parties involved with and affected by domestic violence across Australia. It is hoped that sharing these stories will inspire and empower others to provide support to address the issue more effectively.
The conference concluded a round table discussion to identify priority issues and resources that could be shared including different initiatives and ideas to help improve the lives of animals and people faced with domestic violence.
Identify ways that clinical veterinarians can provide support including implications of mandatory reporting
Determine if veterinary/animal advocacy representatives are included on State & National based DV reference/advisory groups
Identify how families with dogs who have medical/behavioural issues can be assisted
Continue sharing resources and ideas between delegates as appropriate
2016 conference to include psychologist and information on empathy development programs for children affected by DV, politician to also attend
All delegates expressed sincere gratitude to Anna for her untiring work and dedication in coordinating this inaugural conference with keen anticipation for the next one.