Monika’s House is a Refuge for Both People and Their Pets

Monique Balas
November 29, 2010

A new joint task force in Washington County has made Hillsboro resident Cindy Steadman’s life a little easier.

When Steadman’s ex-boyfriend was arrested for domestic abuse, she wasn’t sure how to retrieve her cats or where to keep them. A victim assistant specialist at the Washington County District Attorney’s Office directed her to the county’s Bonnie L. Hays Small Animal Shelter. Shelter staff picked up the cats and arranged care for them until she can get an apartment.

“Everybody worked together so fast,” she said. “If they hadn’t gotten the cats out of there, (my ex-boyfriend) legally could have dropped them off anywhere and there would have been nothing I could have done about it.”

The district attorney’s office referred Steadman to the animal shelter because the two agencies are co-chairing a task force comprising social service agencies, law enforcement and animal advocates. The Animal Protection Multi-Disciplinary Team investigates the link between domestic violence and animal abuse and identifies tangible ways to protect victims and animals.

It’s the brainchild of Whitney Zeigler, a victim assistance specialist for the Washington County district attorney’s office.

Zeigler has been working with domestic violence survivors for 12 years, both in the nonprofit sector and through the district attorney’s office. She’s also volunteered at the Bonnie L. Hays Small Animal Shelter for the past three years.

Her experience in both realms allowed her to see the overlap between domestic violence and animal abuse, as well as where the gaps are.

Zeigler is familiar with the statistics — animal abuse is often an early warning sign that humans in the household will be at risk. Studies show between 18 and 48 percent of battered women delay leaving an abusive situation out of fear that their pets won’t be safe.

Then in January, Zeigler attended a webinar that addressed Pets and Women’s Shelters, a program that allows women to keep their pets in shelters. Something clicked for Zeigler.

“I thought, ‘This is a concrete project we could do in our community,'” she said.

Zeigler approached District Attorney Bob Hermann, who said he approved if other community partners agreed there was a need. In March, Zeigler pitched her idea about a joint task force fighting domestic violence on multiple levels to the executive committee of the county’s Domestic Violence Intervention Council.

The group liked the idea and voted to make the task force an official subcommittee of the council. The multidisciplinary team formed in April.

Their first goal? Allowing domestic abuse victims to bring pets to Monika’s House, Washington County’s only domestic violence shelter.

View full sizeBeth Nakamura/The OregonianMonika’s House is one of the rare shelters were accommodations have been created for victims’ pets, too.
The task force partnered with nonprofit group Fences for Fido to build dog runs outside the shelter. Ultimately, the shelter will have five kennel areas for dogs and six spaces for cats or other small animals.

Monika’s House is now the third shelter in Oregon and one of only 35 among the nation’s more than 2,000 domestic violence shelters across the country to allow pets.

The shelter would occasionally allow animals in the past, but residents usually had to keep them in their rooms. That made it stressful for everyone, said La Donna Burgess, executive director of the Domestic Violence Resource Center, which runs Monika’s House.

Pets in peril

It’s very common for shelter residents to want to bring their pets, she said.

“Many fear leaving their pet behind because it becomes a target of abuse as a way to hurt the victim,” Burgess said. “We certainly know that’s a really big issue.”

Having a system in place to provide care for animals involved in domestic violence situations is a huge step forward for the county, said Deborah Wood, animal services manager for Washington County, which operates the Bonnie L. Hays Small Animal Shelter.

“We know how important animals are to people,” she said. “Leaving that animal behind is as unthinkable to many of us as leaving a child behind. If we’re intervening for the safety of the animal, we’re also intervening for the safety of the person.”

In the past, when a battered woman approached the animal shelter with concerns about her pet, staff struggled to find solutions. “We had no system, no process, no dialogue in place to figure out what the heck to do,” Wood said. “Now we do.”

The bimonthly task force meetings also arm law enforcement with clues to identifying animal abuse.

“It’s just another tool to put in the toolbox for the next call you go on,” said Sgt. Neil Stellingwerf of the Beaverton Police Department. “This is just another thing, another awareness that helps us become better at identifying and prosecuting these kinds of crimes.”

Task force’s goals

Keeping pets with their families in shelters tops the task force’s to-do list, but it has other goals.

The group is participating in a statewide task force to establish a provision to include pets in restraining orders and plans a comprehensive program to care for animals in protective custody. They’re developing a relationship with a local veterinary clinic to provide care for victims’ animals when needed and creating safe housing options for pets while owners are in domestic violence shelters.

Other goals include developing a coordinated response to hoarding situations; cross-training county agencies to identify animal cruelty, domestic violence and child abuse; educating the community about the link between animal cruelty and human violence; providing therapeutic intervention to children who witness animal cruelty or domestic violence; advocating for stricter sentencing guidelines in felony animal abuse cases and creating a program for trained service dogs to accompany victims of domestic violence in court.

Steadman urges people to donate to Bonnie L. Hays so more people can benefit.

“It’s a godsend, really,” she said of the task force.