Philip Tedeschi, clinical director of the Graduate School of Social Work’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection, knows exactly how much animals mean to people.
“We have, in this country, probably 70 million people who have dogs. There’s no health care plan that has that many people in it. We have more children who will grow up with a companion animal this year than with a father,” he says.
Armed with a $200,000 grant from the Animal Assistance Foundation, Tedeschi aims to honor that bond by improving the way society deals with animal abuse. Along the way, he hopes to make a difference in the lives of humans as well.
Working with Frank Ascione—the institute’s executive director—and project manager Jim Pyle, Tedeschi is spearheading work on the two-year LINK project, named for the connection between violence to people and violence to animals. The project calls for a detailed examination of how first responders and other
professionals handle animal abuse cases, from inception to final disposition.
“We have many calls for investigation and very few that get formally addressed,” Tedeschi explains. “We might see thousands of animal cruelty investigations, but very few of them come to the attention of the criminal justice system or the courts. We’re interested in why that happens.”
Tedeschi suspects that the failure to reach resolution on so many abuse cases stems from systems problems. Too many agencies and professionals lack a structured way of defining, identifying and addressing abuse.
“In the early days of domestic violence intervention, there was a phenomenon that was quite similar to this. You had a high prevalence of domestic calls and officers needing to make a determination on site as to what was happening and how to resolve the situation,” Tedeschi says. “The result was that many of these cases never ended up getting identified as family violence or intimate partner violence.”
In 2009–10, the first year of the study, the research team delved into how animal abuse cases are addressed by the many different professions likely to encounter them. These include animal control officers, law enforcement professionals, veterinarians, child welfare workers and animal shelter workers.
The problems these professionals face became immediately apparent. Take the task confronting an animal control officer. “These officers have to try to distinguish which cases warrant a more significant criminal justice response, which are appropriate to get a summons or a ticket, and which just get a warning,” Tedeschi says.
To make decisions easier, it helps to have data, much the way criminal justice professionals and social workers have data about, say, sex offenders. Someone who flashes a passerby is not in the same category as someone who molests a child.
“Already we know that we probably have in the neighborhood of at least 10 distinct types of animal abuse profiles,” Tedeschi says. The categories run the gamut from hoarders who simply can’t care for the dozens of critters they’ve collected to psychopaths who torture animals.
In the project’s second year, the LINK team aims to establish best practices to support investigations and interventions. “We’re not just trying to gather data,” Tedeschi says. “What we’re trying to do is embed practices within the unique disciplines’ own standards of training and professional competencies so that they become institutionalized as a practice.”
Here’s what that might look like. Say a child welfare worker is called to investigate a particular household. She should know, Tedeschi says, “to look at the health of the animals, at whether there’s evidence of abuse or fear in those animals. … That’s relevant on a lot of levels — one being the animal’s welfare, which is in and of itself a worthy cause.”
Should the child welfare worker see signs of animal maltreatment, that may help trigger an intervention — even if there are no signs of child abuse. As Tedeschi notes, “Kids see animals in their homes as members of their family. If we have kids who are growing up in a home where a member of their family is chronically starved, chronically beaten, chronically neglected or targeted, this is a tremendous level of family violence.