Home Violence Advisory Heart in Pittsburgh Space amongst 5 Justice Division grant recipients

Since 1978, the staff at Krisenzentrum Nord, a non-profit counseling and resource center for victims of domestic violence, have been working to empower its clients and help them feel safe.

As part of its Paws for Empowerment program, the center began providing therapy dogs during counseling sessions with victims and during court visits through the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Victim Assistance Canine Program.

This fall, employees learned that the center will be one of five recipients of a nearly $ 500,000 grant from the Department of Justice’s Office of Victim Services. The money will be used to expand all aspects of their mission. Due to the nature of his work with victims, CCN employees do not disclose their office location.

“The grants are designed to provide emergency and transitional aid to people with pets,” said CCN Managing Director Grace Coleman. “So many people feel that their pet is a member of the family, but many domestic violence centers have yet to incorporate pet planning or pet safety.”

Coleman and CCN canine intervention specialist Dana Friday both said it was heartbreaking to see how pets can be turned into weapons by abusers.

“There are so many victims who have lost their pets,” Coleman said. “They are told, ‘Why don’t you just leave the dog behind?’ And they do, and they never see it again. “

In an abusive household, Friday said, the abuse often begins with a pet.

“(The victim) may be the only one looking after this animal,” she said. “They don’t know if their perpetrator will take care of it or say, ‘If you go, I’ll hurt this animal.'”

A safe place

With the federal grant, CCN will expand its housing program and provide two temporary shelters for victims and their pets for up to two years.

“And we’ll be able to provide temporary accommodation by turning to local hotels,” Coleman said. “It will also allow us to work with larger animals, which is virtually unknown in domestic violence programs.”

Friday said the grant will also help fund things like pet supplies, groceries and other items that a victim may not be able to pull together on leaving.

“These animals offer support,” Friday said. “Victims leave an abusive situation – they can’t tell anyone in the world where they are and instead of being left alone, we want them to have this pet with them.”

The grant will also help ensure that a pet is brought to an animal shelter for temporary housing or medical care.

“There have been so many studies on how pets help help release feel-good hormones and lower blood pressure,” Friday said. “We are very happy about this scholarship because it gives us the opportunity to free people from these situations and go to a place where they can feel comfortable, as opposed to a women’s shelter to try a new life to find for you and your pets. “

The grant also includes an educational component where CCN staff work to train local veterinarians to identify the signs of animal abuse in a household.

“I was asked to be a founding member of Keystone Link, a Pennsylvania coalition working on the interface between human and animal abuse,” said Coleman. “Overall, abuse generally manifests itself in one animal before any other abuse.”

Stretch out

CCN workers also have another way to connect with victims thanks to a program they happened to start at just the right time.

Shortly before the start of the pandemic shutdown in the US, CCN officials launched an app in January 2020 that offers victims of domestic violence more accessible and discreet communication options – in particular, the app offers both text and chat functions, allowing users to quickly access them close and messages disappear so that they cannot be seen by an abuser.

“It really improves security and was the first app of its kind to have both text and chat capabilities,” said Coleman. “Part of it was also reaching out to a younger section of the population who don’t use the phone a lot anymore. We have tried to make contact as easy as possible. “

The app’s launch happened to coincide with the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and gave a potential domestic violence victim the opportunity to quietly report while stuck at home with an abusive partner.

“We had a survivor who contacted us daily about security planning issues,” Coleman said. “The tactics she used to de-escalate violence at home – grocery shopping, running errands – were not available in the early days of the pandemic. There was nowhere to go, so the team gave her planning tips every day. “

And thanks to the app, the woman was able to communicate securely with CCN employees while using the toilet.

Benjamin Barnes, CCN’s community outreach specialist, said that even last summer, when pandemic restrictions were relaxed, he increased the number of people reaching out through the app by nearly 50%.

“It was significant,” he said. “I think it serves as a transition to motivate people to call us and talk to us. Usually after a few hours or days of messaging, I will find that this type of trust opens up. And they almost always call us. “

Coleman said the U.S. Department of Justice plans to bring all five grant recipients together to share their findings.

“We hope it can serve as a national model,” said Coleman. She hopes the app, when combined with grant funding, will help CCN move forward “to make sure both ends of the leash are safe”.

Patrick Varine is a contributor to Tribune Review. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, pvarine@triblive.com, or on Twitter.

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