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Abuse victims find furry, four-legged comfort at Safe Futures

New London — A 50-year-old woman who is recovering from an abusive relationship that lasted two decades and left her with physical and emotional scars has a new best friend.

Luna, a therapy dog at Safe Futures, is her comforter, said the woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Madison, because her life is still in danger. The white boxer licked Madison's face continually and yelped in protest when she left the room during a meeting Wednesday.

"She doesn't care what I look like, if my hair's done or how I'm dressed," Madison said. "I can tell her anything, and she'll keep my secrets."

When Madison is anxious, she said Luna puts her head on top of hers and Madison kisses Luna's chest. She is helping out with 1.5-year-old Luna's ongoing therapy training.

Madison left her two dogs behind when she realized that she would be killed if she stayed. It was like ripping out her heart, she said. Her former partner also was abusive to the dogs, including a tiny one that he considered "his" pet but still would throw against a wall to assert his control in the household.

Safe Futures, the New London-based organization that provides services to victims of domestic violence in southeastern Connecticut, is leading the way in the state with its therapy dog and accommodating clients who don't want to leave their animals behind when fleeing an abusive situation. It is the only member of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence that enables clients to bring their pets to its emergency shelter. On Wednesday, the shelter was housing three dogs. Clients are staying longer at the shelter and having better outcomes — including not returning to their abusers — now that pets are allowed.

A $15,000 grant Safe Futures received Wednesday from Red Rover, a Sacramento, Calif., organization that helps animals and their people, will enable the agency to shore up the fencing at the shelter, so dogs can be turned out into the yard, and to buy stackable crates to accommodate cats inside the shelter. The money also will be used for dog food, veterinarian bills and other pet supplies.

In addition to Luna, who works out of Safe Futures' downtown office and lives with Executive Director Katherine Verano, the agency has two rescued cats, Jack and Jill, who live at the shelter. Nobody else seemed to want the cats, 5-year-old Russian blue siblings, who now are providing comfort to cat-loving clients. A fringe benefit is that the shelter no longer has a mouse problem, according to Verano.

Katie Campbell, outreach and partnership coordinator for Red Rover, said 70 percent of domestic violence victims and survivors report having a pet, and 71 percent of pet owners entering a woman's shelter report that their abuser has threatened, injured or killed pets.

"It's many of the same reasons children are targeted," Campbell said. "The pet is an easy target. It's an easy way to enforce control over a victim. And for many victims and survivors, the only source of comfort is the pet."

The Safe Futures staff tell harrowing and heartwarming stories about their clients and animals.

At one time, pets were placed with foster families but Verano said that didn't always work out.

"We had a family that would foster for us but, when the victim was leaving the shelter, the foster family wouldn't give up the pet," she said. "We had to do something else."

One client found out too late that Safe Futures could accommodate dogs, Verano said. After the woman had left the home, somebody called her abuser and asked about the animals. He said they "ran away" but that wasn't true, according to Verano.

"He killed them," Verano said.

Years ago, a client she was helping in court went home to check on her dog and found the abuser there. While Verano was on the phone with her, the man taunted the client by holding the animal up in the air by its collar.

Before the shelter officially welcomed pets, staff sometimes just looked the other way when clients brought them along. Nazmie Batista, associate director of residential programs and counseling, said she walked into a bedroom and found a "big old cat" one day. Sometimes clients hid their pets. 

Batista became convinced that pets were invaluable to the healing process when a 9-year-old boy, who wouldn't speak after leaving an abusive situation, started communicating through his dog. Batista said one day she got on the floor and started a conversation with the dog, and the boy answered for him.

"I told everybody, if you want to talk to him (the boy), talk to the dog," she said.

Kelly Annelli, director of member organization services for the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the umbrella organization for domestic violence providers throughout the state, said Safe Futures is a model but what works in New London might not work in Hartford, which is more urban, or Sharon, which is rural. 

"Not all of our programs are built to have pet housing," she said.

In those settings, CCADV is working on other solutions, such as a "Companions in Crisis" program in which a veterinarian helps find placements for clients' pets.


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