Domestic violence abusers who kill, hurt or threaten cruelty against a partner’s pet as a way of controlling them, could now be prosecuted under proposed family law reforms.
Household animals are often abused as a form of coercion and to scare and control the victim, carrying with it the added threat of an escalation of violence to the partner or children.
Current laws exist to prevent animal cruelty but do not recognise or protect animals in relation to domestic and family violence.
Animal Justice MP Emma Hurst and NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman recently announced the proposed law change, which has been in discussion since last September.
Ms Hurst, who is introducing the bill to the NSW legislature, said: “The link between domestic violence and animal abuse in New South Wales has been overlooked by the government for too long.
“The proposed legislative changes also recognise that animals can be used as a form of intimidation in domestic violence, and ensures animals will now be explicitly listed on Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders.
“Research released this year by Domestic Violence NSW reveals that among people who work in the domestic violence space, more than half have supported victims who disclosed a perpetrator killed one or more animals.”
Victims, or their children, have sometimes been forced to witness or even participate in acts of animal cruelty causing serious trauma, and the new laws aim to provide further support to not only human victims but animals as well.
Another report released by Women’s Safety NSW found three in five victims of domestic and family violence had reported animal abuse after a domestic violence incident.
The bill will amend the Crime (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 and the Criminal Procedure Act 1986 in relation to domestic violence matters.
According to the NSW Department of Communities and Justice, Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders (ADVOs) currently have conditions that “prohibit the defendant from harassing, stalking or intimidating the protected person, or from destroying or damaging their property or the property of anyone with whom they are in a domestic relationship”.
Victims, survivors and their pets will have further protection under proposed ADVO reforms, with their conditions being extended.
The reform will extend the meaning of ‘intimidation’ defined under the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 to include harm to an animal.
While animal cruelty laws currently exist this reform means if animal abuse occurs in a domestic relationship, where the perpetrator is using the pet to coerce, cause fear and control the victim, they may also be charged with domestic violence offences.
The role that animals play in a domestic violence situation has been well known within the domestic violence sector but the recognition of the part pets play hasn’t been acknowledged at this level previously, RSPCA Senior community programs manager, Sandra Ma, told Hatch.
When asked about the next steps, Ms Ma explained more services and refuges were needed as well as adequate funding to handle all sorts of scenarios.
“RSPCA are definitely predominantly cats and dogs but there’s an array of other animals,” she said.
“Having refuges potentially be encouraged to adopt a pet-inclusive model within their own centres is something that’s going to make a huge difference for people that are wanting to leave a violent situation.
“The relationship you have with a pet plays such a vital role in comfort when going through a situation.”
Currently the Strata Schemes Management Act only allows people legal rights to have a pet at home if it is an ‘assistant’ animal.
“The biggest struggle is the fact that it takes time to find a property let alone a property that would be accepting of your pets,” said Ms Ma.
Ms Ma believes pushing for these reforms means it will “reduce barriers when it comes to pet ownership”.
A lack of research on the issue is partly due to the delay in recognition of the link between animal and human abuse, Anna Ludvik, founder of not-for-profit group Lucy’s Project, told Hatch.
“The evidence is growing… but we still don’t have sufficient research conducted in Australia and that’s primarily because it’s taken until now for this issue to be brought to light,” Mrs Ludvik said.
“We need to start collecting data on incidents of domestic and family violence where animals are concerned right across the country.”
Lucy’s Project, which advocates recognising the link between domestic and family violence and animal abuse, was one of several participants in a roundtable held by Ms Hurst earlier this year alongside related organisations, including DV survivors, animal services, police, RSPCA and vets.
“One of the recommendations that we made, amongst 45 recommendations, was the law that they have drafted and released,” added Mrs Ludvik.
“We were very encouraged that one of our recommendations was taken up as an essential one.
“These reforms are a step in the right direction for protecting all victims of domestic and family violence, but more changes are still needed.”
Mrs Ludvik said the organisation had been raising awareness since 2013 and it had taken a while for it to be seen as a serious issue.
“We’ve been able to raise our voice across multiple platforms, multiple different spaces in order to recognise the link between animal abuse and to humans and we realise that we can’t separate the two,” said Mrs Ludvik.
“Wherever there is abuse to animals there is going to be a human that is in danger or at risk of being in danger so we recognise the significant signal for at-risk people. We’re motivated to protect human lives by taking animal cruelty seriously. “
The organisation also pushed for harsher rules at the consultation.
“We shouldn’t have to wait until the attack becomes beyond animal abuse, we have to recognise that animal abuse is a form of coercive control and that should be sufficient enough and traumatic enough,” she said.
“We do not have to wait until it escalates, that is enough of an escalation to indicate that a person is in severe risk.”
Ms Hurst believes harsh penalties and changing tenancy laws in NSW would be the best option for victims.
“We need tougher penalties to deter animal abuse, and a revision of our tenancy laws to ensure affordable and secure rental accommodation is accessible for families to stay together with animals long-term,” said Ms Hurst.
In Victoria and ACT pets are allowed to accompany abused women to refuges, unlike in NSW, Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia where there are restrictions.
NSW tenancy laws currently don’t include animals, and victims are often forced to surrender their companion animals which can overwhelm not only the victim but animal services.
Mrs Ludvik said she would love to see NSW “adopt similar legislation to the amendments to Victoria, to have pets available in rental accommodation as default and to offer options not just for people surviving domestic and family violence”.
“Domestic and family violence services for humans rely on animal welfare organisations to take on the animals without there being adequate funding that flows back to those animal organisations,” she said.
Support services currently don’t have enough funding to not only cover pets but various animals.
“We have to be well aware that we are not just talking about dogs and cats, we might be talking about companion horses, companion cattle or chickens. We’ve had alpacas, camels, snakes and birds and fish so we have to be prepared for a whole range of circumstances,” said Mrs Ludvik.
She believes raising awareness of the issue not only eases the burden on the services but also gets victims out of a cycle of violence because they’re usually hesitant to leave the home and their animals.
“Animals are an incredible support for vulnerable people, children in particular who have experienced family violence.”
The Animal Justice party will continue to fund services and continue research on these issues along with support organisations to better support victims and animals in abusive homes.
“These reforms are a step in the right direction for protecting all victims of domestic and family violence, but more changes are still needed,” said Ms Hurst.
“The Animal Justice Party will continue to work towards these reforms that will protect both human and non-human victims of violence.”
To report any animal abuse contact the RSPCA hotline here.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 at 1800-RESPECT or 1800-799-SAFE. Survivors can also contact an advocate here.