Refuge4Pets – What its all about!

My name is Shirley Westaway and I am the outreach coordinator with Refuge4Pets. I am writing to introduce myself and my role to you, and to tell you a little about our service.

Until March 2021, and for the previous 14 years, I was a MARAC IDVA with First Light, supporting high-risk victims of domestic abuse during their ‘crisis period’, particularly in the North Cornwall area.

That role involved working with male and female victims, risk assessing, safety planning (including attending the weekly MARAC), supporting around all kinds of issues, advocating for and with the client regarding the police, social care, court (criminal, civil and family), mental health, housing etc.

My knowledge around all of these agencies/organisations grew and I now have a good understanding of how they can support a survivor of abuse, including what their limitations are.  This enables me to best advise those I work with.

I also provided (and continue to provide) training around domestic abuse, sexual abuse and the impact on victims and children, within the service and externally.   And I was a trustee with Southwest charity, Refuge4Pets – whom I now work for.

Pets are often the silent victims of domestic abuse and used as part of the pattern of coercion and control, threatened, yelled at, beaten, kicked and, in some cases, killed (results of recent survey below).

You would not expect those escaping domestic abuse to leave their children behind, and we at Refuge4Pets do not expect them to leave their pets either. However, if they are escaping to a refuge, or other emergency accommodation, it is very rare that they can take their pet with them, especially if it’s something large, like a horse.  Therefore, many remain in their abusive situation.

And so, we provide a service across Devon and Cornwall (those entering or those moving within) and foster their pets.

We are one of only four such services in England, and the only one providing such a service in the Southwest.

We have more than 150 carefully recruited foster carers and we ensure we place the appropriate animal with the appropriate carer.

Since we started in August 2017, we have enabled more than 250 individuals (male and female) and families to escape domestic abuse, by fostering nearly 400 animals, mostly cats and dogs, but horses, snakes, rabbits, birds. We understand the victims of domestic abuse often have to leave with nothing, therefore we supply everything that animals need, including covering the cost of veterinary treatment, pet food, and bedding.

To this end, we need to take part in many fund-raising activities and are always grateful for volunteers to help with these events.

As a small charity (service manager, admin, two project workers and me – outreach coordinator.

Our two knowledgeable, empathic project workers rescue the pets and transport them to the foster home, engaging with other services to enable a safe escape, as necessary. They liaise between the foster carer and the owner of the pet on a regular basis, updating them with the progress of the pet, and often share photos or videos.

And then, they have the best job in the world, when they reunite the pet and their owner, once suitable accommodation is found Pets tend to stay in our care for six months, although that can vary, especially with the housing situation during Covid, and we have had a number of pets in our care for longer.

Once owners are reunited with their pets, we have noticed that many have seen their professional support drop away.  Some may have escaped to family or friends and their professional support be non-existent. Therefore, my role is to support those service users, regarding any topic, and whether an emotional or practical concern.

This is a 12-month pilot, and I have supported more than 50 clients in the past 10 months, helping them settle into their new surroundings, to engage with other agencies and groups, and regarding issues around housing, social care, budgeting, funding, domestic abuse, and sometimes just giving them, someone secure to vent to!

I have also organised summer activities for them, from dog walks to craft sessions, and recently facilitated the Recovery Tool Kit with them. I will be hoping to run this course again in 2022 and I plan to recruit and train volunteers/peer mentors, so that they may help support survivors in their own areas.

I am honoured to work with those I do, they inspire me daily.

Anyone can make a referral to our service.  These must be made by either calling the office number on 0300 4000 121, or by using the referral form on our website, with as much detail as possible.

This helps us ensure we place the animal with the most appropriate foster carer as soon as possible. While messages regarding referrals can be left on our answer service, referrals will only be acted upon during office hours, Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm. We are not able to provide a service for those entering hospital, prison, rehab, going on holiday etc. Our service is purely for those escaping domestic abuse.

We train vets and animal charities nationally around domestic abuse and also regarding the links between DA and animal abuse, and we are in the process of expanding to offer training regarding An Introduction to Domestic Abuse, and also Animal Abuse as a Strategy of Coercive Control.  We also hope to expand subjects offered in the future.

If you would like a presentation about our service directly to your own team, or if you are interested in our training, please contact the office and we will be happy to have that discussion with you.

Recent research titled ‘Animal Abuse as a Strategy of Coercive Control’ carried out by Dr Mary Wakeham, Service Manager of Refuge4Pets, surveyed 107 victim-survivors of domestic abuse from across the UK, all of whom had animals in the house at the time of the abuse.  In-depth interviews were also conducted with 24 victim-survivors and 10 professionals from across the UK.

The research found that animals were abused by the perpetrator (previous or current male partner) in 94 of the 107 households (88 per cent) and all 24 interview participants talked about how the perpetrator abused animals.

Animals were murdered by the perpetrator in 13 of the 107 survey participants’ households (often multiple animals murdered in these households) and in households where an animal was given as a ‘gift’, abuse often took place.