Animal Justice Party calls for family violence law reform to help victims and their pets – ABC News

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Jenna has tried to forget the memories of her ex-partner putting her beloved husky, Gypsy, in a headlock.

“He would say to me, ‘Here’s your precious dog, this is what you do to me’, and pretend to snap her neck,” she said.

The Victorian mother endured years of physical violence and delayed leaving the man because she was worried about what would happen to her dogs.

“If there were times that I was trying to flee the house he would grab Gypsy and threaten to kill her and I would stop and turn back, because I didn’t want the animals hurt,” she said.

Jenna was able to escape, but could not take her dogs with her because there was a lack of emergency accommodation that accepted pets.

“When you experience family violence you are isolated from your friends and family and your world becomes very small,” she said.

“Your animals become your support network and it’s crucial they go with their families.”

Proposed laws to be put to Victorian Parliament this week

A man in a suit with arms crossed looks at the camera.
Victorian Animal Justice Party MP Andy Meddick is proposing to move ownership of pets to those fleeing violent relationships.(ABC News: Michael Barnett)

One in three women delay leaving family violence situations due to concerns about leaving their pets behind, according to the RSPCA.

The Australian study also revealed half of women in violent relationships reported their partner had hurt or killed one of their pets.

The Victorian Parliament will be one of the first in the country to consider whether animals should be recognised as victims of family violence, when Animal Justice Party Leader Andy Meddick puts forward the motion this week.

“Recognising animal abuse as a form of family violence moves it into that area of law to be able to make changes that are essential and life-saving,” Mr Meddick said.

Abusers often use pets to manipulate and control their victims, but very few women’s refuges allow animals.

The motion includes changes to pet ownership laws and a commitment from the state government to provide more support for places for women, their children and their pets.

“Often we find women feel like they have to stay in violent relationships because their pet is registered to the male in the family,” Mr Meddick said.

“[The proposed changes] will automatically move the ownership to the person trying to flee that situation.”

Victorian Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes and Minister for Women Gabrielle Williams are discussing the proposal with the Animal Justice Party, but no decision has been reached.

Pets an ‘important support system’ for victims

A young woman cradles a brown and white cat
Yvonne Hong says there are very few crisis accommodation options for people with pets.(ABC News: Christian Stella)

Yvonne Hong founded Pets of the Homeless five years ago.

The charity based in Cheltenham, in Melbourne’s south-east, is one of the few in the country that finds volunteer foster carers for people who can no longer care for their pets because they are homeless.

“More than 50 per cent of our cases are people who are fleeing domestic violence,” Ms Hong said.

Ms Hong said very few crisis accommodations allow pets to be with their owner and her charity was at capacity.

She said she had witnessed many cases where victims would delay or not leave violent situations because they were not sure whether their pets would be safe.

“It’s very important to recognise pets as family members in the eyes of the law, because at the moment they are recognised as property,” she said.

“They need to be included in the family protection act because it is very important for victims of family violence to feel safe to leave the situation they are in.”

‘I’ve gotten over the injuries … not the trauma’

Jennifer Howard lies on a bed with a large husky and beagle dogs
Jennifer Howard, pictured with her current dogs, set up a charity for domestic violence victims with pets in South Australia.(Supplied: Jennifer Howard)

When Jennifer Howard tried to leave a violent home there were no housing options to take her dogs Ballsy and Missy, leaving her stuck with a man who physically and mentally abused her.

Eventually, the situation became too dangerous and she escaped, but she was forced to leave her dogs behind and never saw them again.

“My dogs were there for me through everything. I remember being on the couch, crying and scared, and the dogs are sitting on the couch with me too, scared and shaking,” Ms Howard said.

Ms Howard founded the charity Safe Pets Safe Families, which provides emergency services for people and their pets in times of crisis in South Australia.

“The number of people who have actually had their pets killed by their partner is shocking,” she said.

“Sometimes they do take it that far and threaten things like ‘if you leave, the same thing will happen to you’.”

Ms Howard has backed the Victorian proposal to recognise pets as victims of domestic violence and changes to animal ownership laws.

“It would give confidence to people leaving, if they know they could take their animals with them,” she said.

Will Victoria follow NSW’s lead?

In 2015 the Victorian government provided $100,000 a year for four years to Safe Steps, a 24/7 family violence response centre in Victoria, for a program to allow victims’ pets to be placed in an animal shelter while they escape.

Mr Meddick said it was important victims remained with their pets, and currently, shelters could not keep up with demand.

“The government needs to look at this as a long-term commitment,” he said.

“This is something that needs to be a line item in the budget every single year and survive changes of government.”

Last year, New South Wales amended laws to recognise that animals can be used as a form of intimidation in domestic violence, and explicitly list animals on Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders.

Jenna said if the proposed changes had been around when she was experiencing family violence, she would have been able to leave sooner.

“It would’ve made me worry less about losing a family member or having to choose whether my children have a roof over their head or their best friend with them,” she said.

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