Five-year-old Hervey is entering a family violence refuge in the western suburbs of Melbourne with his family, frightened and bearing the physical scars of years of abuse. Huddled in a corner, he doesn’t communicate with refuge staff. He is visibly shaking, frightened by his new surrounds and on high alert for the next blow. Yet Hervey isn’t able to articulate his distress or even accept a cuddle from a children’s practitioner. Hervey is a Staffordshire bull terrier.
Over at another refuge in the city’s east, staff are welcoming their latest family: Amanda and her two children – and a giant macaw.
Amanda had been experiencing violence in her home for several years. She had been regularly beaten and on one occasion locked in her bedroom for almost a week by her violent partner.
Like many women experiencing family violence, Amanda had initially convinced herself that her partner would change; that his violence was a result of losing his business due to COVID-19 lockdowns and would end when he got a job.
The night her daughter became the target of her partner’s violence, Amanda knew she had to leave. The only item of value Amanda owned was her prized macaw, although to her children, the bird was less of an asset and more a beloved pet. The bird had been a part of the family all their lives, and during frightening and chaotic times had often been the one constant. There was no question of leaving the home without the macaw – and that was a problem.
Speaking to family violence telephone support line workers, Amanda quickly learnt that not all family violence services can accommodate pets. Eventually she was referred to Refuge Victoria, which, in addition to being one of the state’s leading providers of refuge and family violence services, had refuge properties specifically designed to allow families to bring their pets.
Refuge Victoria’s refuge model is known as core and cluster. Each site houses several individual units where families can live, play areas for children, and an office, where staff and practitioners work. Each unit has a backyard and families are encouraged to bring their pets – a concept that not too long ago was almost inconceivable.
In the 1970s, when refuges began to be set up in Victoria, refuge was seen largely in terms of accommodation: facilities run by community groups, churches and small not-for-profits providing shelter to families forced to leave their homes due to violence and at risk of homelessness.
Over time the refuges began to grow and become more service-centred. But it was after the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence in 2015, when the state government invested in expanding how refuge is provided, that the building of purpose-built facilities such as units with yards for pets took off.
The fenced-in backyards are important, says Refuge Victoria CEO Janet Jukes, because pets can cause anxiety to some very vulnerable families also residing in refuge.
“Some of our clients who are new to Australia come from countries where dogs have been used to subdue or intimidate people,” she says. “To these women, the presence of dogs can be distressing, which is why all our refuge units have their own contained yards.”
Families bring with them dogs, cats, hamsters, fish, reptiles and even giant birds, although for Amanda, getting her macaw into refuge wasn’t easy.
Amanda’s partner discovered texts on her phone revealing she was planning to leave him. He immediately took the macaw to a location known only to him, much to the distress of his children. Amanda managed to convince her partner that she had decided to stay and give the relationship another go, and her partner returned the bird. That night, Amanda grabbed her children and her bird and fled.
“Women often stay in violent homes for fear of leaving their pets in dangerous situations. Sadly, we know that these fears are sometimes realised.”
“We know that allowing pets in refuge saves lives,” says Jukes. “For the simple reason that women often stay in violent homes for fear of leaving their pets in dangerous situations. Sadly, we know that these fears are sometimes realised.” Asking a victim of family violence to leave behind her animal, she says, is almost like asking her to leave behind a family member.
“Sometimes, the threat is implied,” says Jukes. “And coercive controlling behaviour is often enough to make a woman stay. It could be as simple as a perpetrator looking at a pet and saying, ‘You’re next.’ They may not have harmed the animal but the message to their partner is clear: ‘You leave, and your pet is not safe.’ ”
Many of us say that our pets are like family, and in homes where violence is perpetrated against the family, they are often treated like family, too.
Sometimes animals cop the brunt of violent outbursts; sometimes they are injured defending family members. Often, pets are hurt as a means of punishing and controlling the women and children who love them.
Social workers at Refuge Victoria say they treat the protection and support of animals in refuge very seriously. As soon as they arrive and the family is settled in, animals can be seen by a vet and provided with treatment.
“Even if they aren’t injured, animals that come into refuge may require attention,” says Trish Barclay, Refuge Victoria’s director of services. “If the family has had to move around a lot especially, they may not have a regular vet or have had regular check-ups.”
If financial abuse has been a factor in the violence, women may not have had the money to provide animals with the veterinary care pets require.
“We connect families with vets in the area, who make sure vaccinations are up-to-date, and worming and flea treatments are given where needed,” says Barclay. “These relationships can continue once the family leaves refuge.”
Yet, the injuries to animals that refuge staff see are not always physical. According to Barclay, animals coming into refuge can be traumatised with symptoms that might be obvious, and others that aren’t.
Staff at Refuge Victoria’s western refuge could see that Hervey, the staffy, was suffering from violence-related trauma. The case worker facilitated a visit to a vet, who treated an undiagnosed broken bone and prescribed medication to lessen the dog’s anxiety. The vet gave the case worker and Hervey’s family some practical techniques to help bolster Hervey’s emotional resilience and better deal with stressful situations.
Importantly, “Helping Hervey” became a project that the children’s worker was able to use to help her connect with the children. “Moving to refuge can be a challenging time for kids,” says Barclay. “By playing together with their dogs, children’s workers are able to identify concerns and fears, discover the children’s dreams, and help them feel safe and better understand what is happening to them. Sometimes children will talk about their own fears through their pets. They might say something like, ‘Cuddles misses his toys’ or ‘Ruffy feels sad when he sees Mum cry.’ ”
According to Jukes, pets also play an important role in helping children adjust to their new environment. “Kids who come here often experience incredible disruptions. They’ve had to leave their friends, they can’t see family members, and a lot of the time they’re taken out of school. Playing with their pets provides the security of a familiar friend and a welcome distraction. This has been especially true since COVID lockdowns, when children developed an increased reliance on their pets for comfort and companionship.”
Interacting with pets, she says, can also change the children’s perception of love. Animals love their families with a love that isn’t conditional, and accept their love rather than using it as a weapon of violence or manipulation.
“I think every parent understands that the family pet teaches their children about unconditional love,” says Jukes. “These aren’t just great life lessons. When a family is in refuge, they stand to set up a child for recovery. They represent hope.”
The families and pets in this story have been de-identified for the safety of the families.
Support is available from the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service at 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).