Social work student educates community on human/animal violence link

April 30, 2012 | Research, UToday
By Jon Strunk

A University of Toledo student who has spent the last two school years interning at the Toledo Area Humane Society said research has shown that increased cross-reporting between organizations investigating animal abuse and those looking into the abuse of people would go a long way toward reducing or halting that violence sooner.

Toward this end, the UT student has summarized this research, taken it on the road, and shared it with numerous anti-violence service providers.

“The line separating an animal abuser from someone capable of committing human abuse is much finer than most people care to consider,” said Jason Wegman, a graduate student working toward a master’s degree in social work. “People abuse animals for the same reasons they abuse people — to find power, joy and fulfillment through the torture of a victim they know cannot defend itself.

“Some of them will stop with animals, but enough have been proven to continue on to commit violent crimes against people that it’s worth paying attention to,” Wegman said.

In fact, according to Wegman and John Dinon, the Toledo Area Humane Society’s executive director, animal abuse is often an early indicator of a chaotic household where the safety of children could be compromised.

“Animal protection personnel are often the first public agency to intervene in cases of abuse because society often has a lower tolerance for, a greater chance of observing, and an increased willingness to report animal abuse than child or domestic abuse,” Dinon said.

Wegman, who also works for Lucas County Children Services as an assessment case worker, said he and Dinon have given a number of presentations to organizations throughout northwest Ohio to highlight this link.

As examples of ways abusers can use animals to manipulate victims, Wegman pointed to threats or acts of violence against children’s pets to coerce and control children to maintain silence or acquiescence in sexual assault.

“Additionally, a significant number of battered women and their children are denied access to or defer going to safe houses because no one will care for their animals,” Wegman said. “Many batterers control women by harming or killing family pets or threatening to do so.”

Fortunately, in collaboration with the YWCA Battered Women’s Shelter, the Toledo Area Humane Society has a Safe Place Program that provides temporary housing for pets of people leaving domestic violence situations.

Wegman also said that studying children’s cruelty to animals is a revealing source of information and a red-flag warning of future antisocial behaviors.

“Many boys in abusive households are at risk of becoming abusers; even more girls in these homes are at risk of becoming victims,” he said.

Dr. Janet Hoy, assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Social Work, said the relationship between UT and the Toledo Area Humane Society is a unique one.

“We are the first and only social work program in the country that has developed field placements for social work students at a humane society,” Hoy said, adding that she, in collaboration with UT colleagues Martha Delgado and Heather Sloane, presented the new relationship at the national Council on Social Work Education, which took place in Atlanta last fall.

“Since our presentation, we’ve been contacted by several social work programs interested in replicating our field placement structure within humane societies. I’m very proud of the leadership role UT is playing in raising awareness of this dimension of human-animal interconnectedness within the social work practice arena,” she said.

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