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When pets need foster homes, too

A fostering scheme is providing safe homes for pets of domestic abuse victims who go into refuges and temporary accommodation.

Chloe Williams’ partner physically and psychologically abused her for more than a year. The violence continued to escalate and reached a crisis point.

“One day my partner injured me so badly during an attack that the police got involved and I was taken straight to hospital. When I came out the next day my partner was on the run and the police told me I should leave my home immediately as I wasn’t safe. I explained to them that I had my dog at home and that I couldn’t leave as I didn’t have anyone to look after her.”

For abuse victims entering refuges, the fate of their pets is rarely considered. The police put Williams, 35, in touch with the Freedom Project, a scheme run by the Dogs Trust. The project was able to collect Molly, Williams’ dog, and place her with a foster family for the four months Williams was waiting to be set up in suitable safe and permanent accommodation.

“I was so relieved as it meant I could leave my home and we would both be safe until my partner was caught and charged. This put my mind at rest as I was extremely anxious not having her with me. Molly is back home with me now and my partner is in prison so we are safe,” says Williams.

In 10 years, the trust has placed more than 1,200 pets with foster carers, helping around 840 families in greater London, the home counties and Yorkshire. As well as caring for dogs, it works with the Cats Protection charity to place feline pets. The animals are usually placed for six to nine months until they can be reunited with their owners. The vast majority have been, but occasionally the new accommodation is unsuitable for pets and they are found homes elsewhere. For every pet that is placed, however, there are two referrals – usually from the police, social services or refuges – that can’t be accepted due to the limited number of foster carers. The trust is constantly trying to recruit more foster carers so it can turn fewer referrals away. It asks that prospective foster carers have experience of caring for dogs, patience – as some animals can be challenging, and are at home most of the day as dogs can’t be left alone for more than four hours.

Pip Jones started volunteering for the Freedom Project nine years ago after seeing an advert in the window of her village shop. “I’d always liked animals so the thought of looking after dogs appealed to me. Then when I found out more about why the dogs needed looking after, it was a bonus really,” she says.

Jones, 60, who is retired and lives in south Yorkshire, is looking after her 31st dog at the moment – a boxer. “I quite enjoy having different dogs, to be honest. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to be separated from your dog at such a traumatic time, so I like to know I’m helping people in really hard situations.”

The project provides Jones with dog food and pays any vet bills. The project team visits to ensure she is getting on with the dog, takes photos and sends updates to the owners and their children. “It’s anonymous, so they don’t know who I am, or where I am, and I don’t know who they are. After a dog leaves, I know I’ve done my bit,” says Jones.

Clare Kivlehan, the Freedom Project manager, points out that housing the pets is an emotional lifeline for young children at a particularly stressful time while they are in refuge or temporary accommodation. “In around 85% of our cases, the dog comes from a household with children. It’s really important for the children to have something constant in their life, when they’re completely uprooted, starting at a new school in a new area, having to make new friends. It really keeps them going if they know they’re going to get their pet back, and they’re receiving photos and updates. It’s something for children to hold on to.”

Deep cuts to budgets for domestic violence provision have left thousands of abuse victims with no access to legal aid and dwindling numbers of beds in specialist centres. The impact is being felt in the work the Freedom Project does. Kivlehan says: “We’re really noticing the knock-on from the drastic welfare cuts in domestic violence services. Fewer women are securing refuge places, so they’re placed in B&Bs. We’re seeing they’re not getting specialist support, and they’re waiting too long for housing. We are talking lengthy periods of time. So we have to house dogs for longer, and often the women come back to us, because they left [temporary accommodation] and went back to the relationship because they had no support, then later they try to leave again.”

Abuse of pets is often a precursor to child abuse and domestic violence in relationships, and animals are often used to emotionally blackmail victims. The NSPCC and the RSPCA have issued a joint report on the links between animal abuse and domestic violence. In partnership with animal charities, the PDSA and Dogs Trust, they formed The Links Group, which publicises the correlation between different types of abuse, and encourages multi-agency reporting of signs of violence. Other domestic pets such as rabbits and hamsters are referred to Link Group projects.

Kivlehan says women are at their most vulnerable as they are preparing to flee a violent partner, and care for their pets can often delay their departure, either because of a fear their partner will kill their pet, or the stress of giving up an animal that feels like a family member for very socially isolated people “For all abuse victims, the social isolation leaves them with few support networks, so they’re more likely to need someone to look after their pet. For single people, it’s often their one link and relationship left.”

Some names have been changed.

Details of how to become an animal foster carer at dogstrustfreedomproject.org.uk or call 0800 298 9199