Janet Philippsen of Albuquerque admits she stayed longer than she wanted to with a man who hit her and made her feel “lower than the gutter.” But she couldn’t leave, she says, without her toddler daughter and her four cats. “It wasn’t going to happen.”
Domestic violence shelters care for women and children, but usually not pets. Seven years ago, a group of New Mexico volunteers changed that, working to provide temporary care for pets so that people in abusive relationships could leave more quickly — without leaving their animals behind. In 2014, lawmakers approved $50,000 to help fund the collaborative effort between state services and two organizations, New Mexico Communities Against Domestic Violence and Animal Protection of New Mexico.
State Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, is asking for $300,000 more for the program this year in Senate Bill 178. “We discovered in studies that a majority of people in domestic abuse situations say that they don’t seek help at a shelter because they don’t know what to do with their animals,” Rodriguez said. “And their animals also are getting abused. We are helping people liberate themselves and their families from abusive situations by knowing they can pick up and go to a shelter and also take their animals.”
The funds would be channeled through the state Children, Youth and Families Department, and any amount remaining at the end of the fiscal year would be returned to the state’s general fund. The money would pay for food, housing and veterinary care for pets at participating animal shelters or with foster homes. It also would pay for a hotline for victims of domestic violence.
The bill, scheduled for its first hearing Tuesday in the Senate Public Affairs Committee, may have a tough road ahead, as it wasn’t a part of a budget request from CYFD or the Governor’s Office.
But Rodriguez and others hope to convince fellow lawmakers that funding the program — called Companion Animal Rescue Effort, or CARE — is a vital step in breaking the domestic violence cycles so prevalent in New Mexico.
Studies from the mid-1990s to 2004 report that between 60 percent and 71 percent of women in shelters had pets and delayed leaving their abusers because they were worried about their animals and had no place to take them. They reported that their batterers had threatened, maimed or killed family pets to control family members. Domestic violence counselors say it isn’t unusual for abusers to threaten children and animals as a way of controlling their adult partners.
Since July, the program has fielded 34 calls in seven counties from people who said they were in abusive situations. The program referred 25 callers to services and provided direct animal care for eight families with pets or livestock.
Philippsen’s experience with an abuser occurred more than two decades ago, a reason she can talk about it openly now. But her experience still rings true today. She was educated, but she had only a part-time job and little money of her own to set up a new household with a child and pets. She says her abuser had threatened to find her and hurt her if she left. “I wish there had been a program like CARE,” she says now.
Laura Bonar, program director for Animal Protection of New Mexico, said the CARE program has grown beyond the ability of volunteers alone to manage it. Last year’s funding made a big difference, she said.
“What we see often is victims think there is no place to go with their animals,” said Bonar, who started as a volunteer with the CARE program seven years ago.“Thanks to lawmakers and the governor funding this endeavor last year, we feel like we’re just starting to reach these people.”
Pam Wiseman, executive director of the New Mexico Coaliton Against Domestic Violence, said helping people get out of abusive situations is the first step to breaking a cycle that can stretch through generations. Helping pets is another way to help people.
“Animals are an important part of our families,” she said. “When people call and hear there is a place to take their animals, they cry. It is an enormous relief.”
Marsie Silvestro, executive director of the Esperanza Shelter for Battered Women in Santa Fe, said she agrees that it helps women in abusive relationships leave if they know their animals can go with them. “Seeing your animal stabbed with a knife or shot is traumatic,” she said.
Silvestro said many of the families that seek shelter at the 42-bed facility have pets or livestock.
Silvestro also said she wishes she could allow families to bring their pets to the Esperanza Shelter, but it isn’t set up to care for them. But Esperanza works with the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society to care for animals, and Esperanza staff drive women and their children out to the animal shelter visit their pets. “Having their pets nearby and safe is a connection to life,” she said.
Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.
On the Web
• Find out more about the CARE program at apnm.org/programs/care.