Animal abuse and child maltreatment are empirically linked by the greater reported likelihood of perpetrating animal abuse among children who have been physically or sexually abused or who have been exposed to domestic violence. In addition, in homes where child maltreatment exists, animal/pet abuse perpetrated by adult caregivers is more likely. Since children are often strongly attached to their pets, caregivers’ or siblings’ threats to harm pets or actual harm of pets may be considered a form of emotional maltreatment. If abused children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care, separation from pets may increase children’s emotional distress. If abused children have already engaged in animal abuse, foster care providers who have pets of their own may need to be especially watchful of these children’s interactions with animals.
History Of Collaboration
The animal welfare and child welfare movements share historical roots. For example, at the end of the 19th century, the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was established, in part, through the efforts of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In the early 20th century, some humane societies included the protection of both children and animals in their mission statements. Although separation of agencies devoted to the protection of children and the protection of animals became more common during the remainder of the 20th century, collaboration between such agencies is now reemerging. For example, in some jurisdictions, animal welfare officers investigating animal neglect or cruelty cases in homes where there are children are mandated to report suspected child maltreatment; in others, social workers investigating alleged child abuse may report that family pets have suspicious injuries (this is referred to as cross-reporting). One national organization, the American Humane Association, continues to include both child welfare and animal welfare in its mission and programmatic efforts.
Scholarly Study And Research Evidence
Scientific study of the relation between animal abuse and child maltreatment began in the last quarter of the 20th century. Case studies of psychiatrically distressed children and larger-scale studies of violent criminals often reported an association between perpetrating animal abuse and a history of exposure to severe physical punishment and domestic violence. The importance of the relation between animal abuse and antisocial behavior toward humans is reflected in the inclusion of animal abuse in the symptom list for conduct disorder, one of the most commonly diagnosed psychiatric problems in childhood and adolescence. The field has now progressed to the point where specialized assessment tools are available for determining the frequency and severity of animal abuse. Greater attention is also being given to the motivations and psychological mechanisms that underlie the abuse of animals.
Recent research verifies earlier clinical impressions that one symptom of abused children’s distress may be violence toward animals. Pets and other animals may be physically tormented or sexually abused. In some cases, children may reenact with animals the same forms of physical or sexual abuse to which they are subjected. In one case, a veterinarian identified a human sexually transmitted infection in a dog, and the veterinarian reported the family to a child welfare agency. This led to an investigation of the family; two children were found to have the same infection, as did the father, who admitted to sexual abuse and bestiality.
Clinical And Theoretical Considerations
Evidence also exists that some abused children may become even more strongly attached to their pets, who may offer feelings of safety, nurturance, and acceptance; hence, the concern when abused children must be separated from their pets, for example, in cases of foster placement. Since child maltreatment and domestic violence often co-occur, there is a greater likelihood that children in such homes may have been exposed to animal/pet abuse perpetrated by batterers. The loss of pets through such violent adult behavior may intensify abused children’s emotional distress. Child safety issues also become relevant since some children who attempt to intervene to protect pets from abuse by batterers may risk personal injury.
Current theorizing suggests that animal abuse perpetrated by children who are themselves maltreated may be due, in part, to interference with the normal development of empathy. Sensitivity to an animal’s suffering requires many of the same empathic skills children need to identify with fellow humans. Children may abuse animals because they have been exposed to caregivers and other adults who model violence toward animals; social learning theory would predict that such powerful adult models are likely to be imitated by children. Other examples of maltreated children abusing animals include cases where animal phobias prompt a preemptive attack on an animal, animals are involved in aggressive or violent posttraumatic play, and animals are used to inflict self-injury. Animal abuse and child maltreatment are also linked in other insidious forms. Case studies report incidents where (a) children were coerced into engaging in bestiality for the production of pornography, (b) children were paid by an adult to torture and kill small animals so the adult could make a video record of these episodes, and (c) children who were victims of sexual abuse were photographed while being forced to abuse animals, and then threats to show parents the photos were used to coerce children into secrecy and silence about their own abuse.
Formal protocols for assessing animal abuse in the context of child maltreatment are rare. Some jurisdictions recommend or mandate cross-reporting. Greater awareness of the seriousness of animal abuse has also influenced decisions in child custody cases. For example, a parent’s history of animal abuse may raise questions about the parent’s ability to provide appropriate care for children.
- Ascione, F. R. (2004). Children, animal abuse, and family violence—The multiple intersections of animal abuse, child victimization, and domestic violence. In K. A. Kendall-Tackett & S. Giacomoni (Eds.), Victimization of children and youth: Patterns of abuse, response strategies (pp. 3.1–3.34). Kingston, NJ: Civic Research Institute.
- Ascione, F. R. (2005). Children and animals: Exploring the roots of kindness and cruelty. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.
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