TRU prof looks to break barriers around domestic abuse safe havens

TRU Sociology professor Rochelle Stevenson finds barriers in pet-friendly shelters and women fleeing abuse

On Oct. 25, the government of British Columbia announced a new initiative to provide safe housing for women and children fleeing abusive and dangerous situations. This announcement is set to be the largest investment in transitional housing in B.C. in two decades.

This new project is set to deliver 12 projects throughout the province. The province plans to invest $734 million over ten years to build 1,500 transition housing units, second-stage housing units and affordable housing spaces for women and children fleeing violence.

“In a province that puts people first, we need to make sure women and children can find safety when they need it most,” said Premier John Horgan in a press release. “These homes will allow women and children to heal with the supports and services they need, as they begin the process of rebuilding their lives.”

The Kamloops district is one of the 12 projects. The province and The Elizabeth Fry Society will team up to operate 40 units of second-stage housing.

Second-stage housing is considered longer-term living residences for women who have fled unsafe situations. Women will often spend six to 18 months living in these transitional homes.

TRU assistant professor of sociology, Rochelle Stevenson has been working closely in developing research with abusive men and the women survivors of these acts of intimate violence. More recently, Stevenson is focusing her research into policy and available programs for women leaving domestic violence with their companion animals.

Stevenson continues as a member of the Animal and Interpersonal Abuse Research Group at the University of Windsor.

She expressed concern that the 40 units of second-stage housing set for Kamloops could have a limited amount of units available for those women escaping with their furry family members.

“We know that housing is in a crisis state in B.C. in general in terms of affordable housing. We also know that in B.C. it’s not mandated that landlords accept animals. Which can be a problem when women are trying to leave with all of their family members, pets included, if they don’t have a safe place to go,” Stevenson said.

Of the research data that Stevenson has analyzed, the number of women stating that they experienced pet abuse as part of their domestic abuse from their partner was staggering. Of the women surveyed in these shelters, 89 per cent reported that their partner also abused their pets.

Stevenson stated that this issue was more widespread in their data compared to studies out of the U.S. and Australia, but contributed that to a more nuanced list of question ranging from emotional abusive behaviours such as neglect to more direct violent actions including hitting and kicking.

In her research, Stevenson is looking at the programs offered in shelters to provide safe havens for not only the women and children fleeing these dangerous situations but also safe spaces for their animal companions, as well as barriers that might be hindering service agencies from providing these programs.

“Having pet-friendly housing for women and children that are leaving domestic violence is a really important part of a comprehensive strategy,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson mentioned that of the women they spoke with in these shelters, 56 per cent of them delayed leaving their partners because they didn’t have a safe place to take their pet. Of the staff interviewed, 75 per cent said that they were aware of women in the community that needed a safe place but were not leaving because they didn’t have a place to bring their pets.

“A safe pet program is offered but a service agency doesn’t necessarily have to be having pets at the shelter,” Stevenson said. “It could be a foster program or an agreement with the SPCA or the local animal shelter who might be able to take pets on a short-term basis until they can find a longer-term solution.”

Stevenson’ research also shows that there is a greater risk of danger when returning to an abusive relationship. These women will risk returning because they fear for their animal’s safety in these environments.

“That is the most dangerous situation for a woman. We know that the risk of homicide is highest immediately following separation. When women are returning it means they are in an incredibly dangerous situation,” Stevenson said. “Removing the pet from the hands of the abuser and placing the pet in a safe space, whether that’s with the women in the domestic abuse shelter or in a foster program, means that the abuser doesn’t have leverage to get them to return.”

Stevenson is hopeful that the new second-stage housing project set for Kamloops will boast great opportunities for women and children to flee these dangerous situations. She hopes to foster relationships with the community and the Elizabeth Fry Society to work with the barriers and find solutions to get all family members into a safe haven.

“Not only are we thinking of keeping the human family members safe, but we’re thinking of keeping the animal family members safe as well,” Stevenson said.


UPDATE: This article was updated on Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 1:10 p.m. to issue a correction of Rochelle Stevenson’s name throughout the article.