New Shelter for Domestic Violence Victims—and Their Pets

The shelter boasts outdoor play areas for pets, where residents can interact safely with their animals without fear of being seen by their abusers.

The shelter boasts outdoor play areas for pets, where residents can interact safely with their animals without fear of being seen by their abusers. Urban Resource Institute/Statia Grossman

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Brooklyn's newest domestic violence shelter allows abuse victims to move in with their pets, eliminating a key hurdle to seeking help.

Brooklyn’s newest domestic violence shelter features 30 one- and two-bedroom apartments, quarterly recreational activities for residents and field trips for children. It also boasts a state-of-the-art grooming salon, a fenced-in outdoor play area and periodic vet visits for four-legged boarders, who are welcomed as full-time residents and recognized as integral parts of the healing process for victims.

PALS Place made its debut Tuesday in Kings County as the country’s largest domestic-abuse shelter designed to accommodate both human victims and their animal companions. Pet ownership can be a powerful healing tool for people who have suffered abuse, but can also prevent victims from fleeing unsafe situations.

More than 70 percent of domestic violence victims report that their pets have been harmed, threatened or killed by an abuser—but just 3 percent of domestic violence shelters in the United States allow pets. Victims are frequently forced to make the agonizing choice of abandoning their pets to seek help, or remain together in an unsafe situation. One study found that almost half of victims choose to stay with their abuser rather than leave a pet behind.

PALS Place aims to eliminate that choice. The shelter, operated by nonprofit social services provider the Urban Resource Institute, makes victims’ pets a key facet of the recuperation process. Residents have access to group sessions about human and animal healing, time with professional dog trainers and therapy animal teams and periodic visits from groomers and veterinarians. The shelter’s childcare program incorporates animal-focused curriculum, including educational sessions on safe animal interaction and field trips to zoos and farms.

“We’re interested in keeping individuals safe and alive. We want to reduce the obstacles to seeking help, and we want to create safe spaces,” said Nathaniel Fields, president and CEO of the Urban Resource Institute. “If victims have children or pets, we want to make sure that shelters can accommodate them.”

Residents with pets get directed to the shelter through the city’s domestic violence hotline or via the courts, a Family Justice Center, the police department or a hospital. Pets are evaluated before being admitted (the facility doesn’t currently accept snakes or dogs weighing more than 40 pounds). Once they move in, families can stay for up to six months.

The new facility is an extension of the nonprofit’s pet-friendly shelter initiative PALS (People and Animals Living Safely), which began in 2013 when officials realized the number of domestic violence victims with pets who weren’t able to access shelters. The institute worked with local government entities to launch a pilot program that allowed victims to live in some units with certain pets. That led to the retrofitting of five existing shelters to allow more animals, culminating in the opening of PALS Place, where every apartment is open to victims and their pets.

“PALS Place really came about as an opportunity as we realized that we needed more space in the city—not just general domestic violence shelter space, but additional beds and spaces for those victims who were not able to get into traditional shelter,” Fields said. “It’s a partnership with government as well. We brought them along, showed them the data and the proven practices to say, ‘Let’s build a shelter that speaks more intentionally to victims of domestic violence and to their pets.’”

The shelter accomplishes that, in part, by incorporating dozens of pet-friendly features, including a dedicated grooming room with a professional-grade tub that can be adjusted to higher and lower heights for small and large animals. Even the building’s aesthetics are designed for creature comfort—walls are painted “non-white colors that are calming to pets’ eyes,” and apartments feature scratch-proof wainscoting and reinforced wall panels.

It’s a unique approach to sheltering, Fields said, that allows victims to recharge in their own spaces while also having access to areas designed specifically for their pets.

“General shelters don’t typically look like PALS,” Fields said. “We’ve continued to really understand what we need to have a healing environment. Now that we have the opportunity to bring in pets, we’ve partnered with the animal welfare community to really build the space that represents that healing environment.”

The nonprofit works closely with the city and the local Department of Social Services, as well as the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. The shelter is reimbursed for the services it provides to humans, but so far has not been able to secure funding for its work with pets. Federal legislation introduced last year attempted to guarantee that funding, but never advanced.

“I think it’s so new that we need to show why it’s important and how it supports victims of domestic violence,” Fields said. “The government is our partner, but we need to provide data and show why we need to support it. We are working to continue to engage them.”

Part of the organization’s long-term goal is to create a community response model to help other places—urban, suburban and rural environments—understand the need for comprehensive, pet-friendly shelters and how to go about establishing similar facilities. It’s doable, Fields said, even if the logic behind it isn’t widely understood.

“There are challenges. Providers are already underfunded, and there’s hesitation around the unknown. There are concerns about health factors, asthmatic children, fights and injuries,” he said. “Adding pets seemed like such a radical concept until we showed the advocacy of the model. Those factors were challenges for us, too. But we overcame them.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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