The significance of animal cruelty in child protection investigations.

Author:Girardi, Alberta

The purpose of this study was to investigate the frequency with which child protection workers (CPWs) in Ontario, Canada, seek information about animal cruelty during investigations of child maltreatment and the extent to which they consider information about animal cruelty when making decisions about whether intervention is required. The CPWs (N = 78) responded to an online survey about their experiences with animal cruelty during child protection investigations in the previous year. Few CPWs routinely asked questions about animal cruelty during investigations, but those who did ask questions were significantly more likely to report disclosures of animal cruelty by children and caregivers than those who did not ask questions. Many CPWs had directly observed children and caregivers physically harming animals. Almost all respondents indicated that animal cruelty was an important factor to consider when making intervention decisions. The results suggest that CPWs should consider routinely asking children and caregivers questions about animal cruelty and observe the behavior and living conditions of family pets when conducting risk assessments. Future research should determine whether animal cruelty is a reliable indicator of exposure to family violence.

KEY WORDS: animal cruelty; child abuse; child protection; domestic violence; risk assessment


Data from several surveys of women seeking help from domestic violence shelters indicate that a substantial proportion of adult perpetrators of domestic violence also abuse animals. Results revealed that between 44% and 57% of female pet-owners had partners who harmed or killed family pets (Ascione, 1998; Carlisle-Frank, Frank, & Nielsen, 2004; Faver & Strand, 2003). Furthermore, two studies found that animal cruelty was perpetrated more frequently by the partners of domestic violence victims than by the partners of women from community samples (Ascione et al., 2007; Volant, Johnson, Gullone, & Coleman, 2008). A small group of studies provided evidence that children whose mothers experience domestic violence are significantly more likely to witness pet abuse than children from families in which no domestic violence occurs (Ascione et al., 2007; DeGue & DiLillo, 2009; Volant et al., 2008). Furthermore, children who are exposed to parental domestic violence are more likely to abuse animals than children who are not exposed to domestic violence (Ascione et al., 2007; Baldry, 2003; Currie, 2006; Volant et al., 2008).


Results of recent studies demonstrated that children who had been abused were more likely to engage in animal cruelty than those who had not been abused (for example, Ascione, Friedrich, Heath, & Hayashi, 2003; DeGue & DiLillo, 2009). With respect to caregiver-perpetrated animal cruelty, the results of one study indicated that, among families in which child abuse had been substantiated, parents were the most frequent perpetrators of animal cruelty in cases that involved pain and suffering or the inhumane death of an animal (DeViney, Dickert, & Lockwood, 1983). In another study, one-third of women who had experienced domestic violence and whose partners had abused pets reported that their children had been abused; women whose pets had not been abused by their partners were less likely to report child abuse (Flynn, 2000b).


Given the strengthening evidence of a link between animal cruelty and family violence, it has been argued that animal cruelty receives insufficient attention from social service providers (for example, Flynn, 2000a). Some have suggested that social service professionals should routinely ask about animal cruelty when conducting assessments for family violence and that expanded collaboration among animal welfare, child protection, and domestic violence organizations is necessary to identify children who are at risk of abuse and to assist families who wish to remove pets from abusive homes (Arkow, 1996; Ascione, 1998; Baldry, 2003; Bell, 2001; Boat, 1999; Faver & Strand, 2003; Montminy-Danna, 2007; Volant et al., 2008).

It may be equally important for service providers to ask questions about animal cruelty to identify children who may need mental health intervention. Animal cruelty is one of the diagnostic criteria for conduct disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2000), and children who engage in animal cruelty have a tendency to engage in interpersonal violence (Gleyzer, Felthous, & Holzer, 2002; Henry & Sanders, 2007). In addition, witnessing a parent abuse a family pet can be a very distressing experience for children (Ascione et al., 2007; Flynn, 2000a) and could contribute to the development of internalizing disorders. Therefore, when a child engages in (or witnesses) animal cruelty, it could be an important indicator that the child is experiencing emotional or behavioral difficulties that require intervention.


This study was designed to answer five research questions: (1) With what frequency do child protection workers (CPWs) hear about or directly observe animal cruelty by children and caregivers during child protection investigations? (2) With what frequency do CPWs ask questions during child protection investigations to determine whether children or caregivers have engaged in animal cruelty? (3) Are child protection workers more likely to report disclosures of animal cruelty if they asked questions about animal cruelty during investigations? (4) To what extent do CPWs use information about animal cruelty when making decisions about whether children are in need of protection, mental health intervention, or both? (5) To what extent do child protection and animal welfare agencies collaborate during investigations of animal cruelty and child maltreatment?



The CPWs were eligible to participate if they were employed at a Children's Aid Society (CAS) in the province of Ontario, Canada, and had conducted five or more child protection investigations in the previous year. CAS is the only organization mandated by the provincial government to provide child protection services to children under 16 years in Ontario, and the society accepts referrals from professionals, families, and citizens (Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies, 2008; Trocme et al., 2005). Of 627 individuals who were invited to participate, 98 completed the survey, but 20 respondents were excluded because they had conducted...

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