This photo shows some of the dogs rescued from a home in Burlington County, New Jersey last year.
For nearly a decade now, child-protection officials have received monthly reports of animal cruelty originating from animal control officers across the state — a nod to the mounting evidence of a tie between animal abuse and human violence and one reason why animal abuse two weeks ago became a federal crime.
The Department of Children and Families runs those addresses through its records and looks for active and past child-endangerment cases in the households named in the animal cruelty reports. In the past two years, based solely on those reports, DCF social workers have identified 47 cases in which the animal abuse portended danger to children.
Among the 47, DCF had 11 open child-protection cases. In 29 instances, the agency had a history with the family, and in seven cases, the animal abuse was so severe that child-welfare investigators opened new inquiries, knowing that the abuse often doesn’t simply start and stop with the animal.
In turn, on dozens of occasions, DCF social workers have notified the Department of Agriculture or local animal control officers about possible animal abuse or neglect they have detected during child-endangerment investigations.
Through the animal abuse reports, DCF has learned that dogs have been hanged in front of children. Children have witnessed dogs being beaten, burned and starved. Children have seen dogs tethered to trees or poles on short leases in the extreme hot or cold weather, without food or water. In domestic violence cases, children have seen abusive fathers hold pets hostage as leverage against their mother.
“It is heartbreaking,” said DCF’s Diane Rosell, who, with supervisory social worker Jacqueline Ford, has designed training for animal control officers and DCF staff.
“Animal cruelty is often the first red flag,” Rosell said.
‘We definitely embrace this’
Connecticut is one of only three states in the country, along with West Virginia and Illinois, that practice mandated cross-reporting. It began here in 2011 with a law championed by former state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington. She was the former House chair of the Children’s Committee and presides over a small menagerie of rescued pets and farm animals.
Urban’s bill passed with one compromise: The animal control officers weren’t required to become mandated reporters of child abuse, like teachers and doctors and police officers. They are required only to submit reports of serious animal abuse to the Department of Agriculture. The agency sends the reports to DCF each month, whether there are children in the household or not. It’s up to DCF to take it from there.
The sentiment among some officers was they did not want to be required to report child abuse and possibly be subject to discipline if they missed something.
The animal control officers in Connecticut are a varied lot, as they are in most states. They range from highly trained and professional first-responders and investigators to old-schoolers with a narrower view of their job.
As far as Middletown Animal Control Officer Gail Petras is concerned, the officers she counts as her brethren appreciate the cross-reporting requirement and see great value in it.
“We definitely embrace this,” said Petras, a member of the Connecticut Animal Control Officer Association’s executive board.