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How Animals Help Family Court Judges Make Better Decisions

The bond with a pet can reveal important clues.

Key points

  • The human-animal bond can inform domestic violence and child placement cases.
  • Judges are educating their colleagues about the human-animal link.
  • Children from troubled homes may be willing to talk about their pets.
Ricardo Esquivel/Pexels
Source: Ricardo Esquivel/Pexels

Before leaving the bench, Judge Rosa Figarola often needed to make decisions about where children from troubled homes would live.

“A lot of my work was trying to see if the picture that was being presented to me was accurate,” Figarola explains.

Children, especially, tend to remain quiet about domestic problems they witness or experience. Often, in “these families, kids have been indoctrinated not to talk to people about what's happening in the house,” says Figarola. “Kids are smart and know that they're being brought into court; they may have fears that they're going to be removed.”

Figarola and others affiliated with The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges have been working to highlight an often-overlooked opportunity to get to the truth of a family’s situation—by examining what’s happening with animals in the home.

When judges bring minors into chambers with their guardians for questioning, they may naturally ask questions like, "Where do you like to go?" or, "What types of food does your grandmother or aunt give you?" Figarola suggests that it’s even more useful to ask children questions such as, "Do you have any pets?" "What happens to the pets?" "Where do the pets sleep?"

This is “an excellent probing tool to find out if there is violence” she says. Even when children are reluctant to speak about much of what is occurring in a home, they are often willing to talk about their dog, cat, or other pet.

Earlier this year, retired Judge Katherine Tennyson issued an open letter to fellow judges1 about the importance of understanding the link between animal abuse and other types of abuse. Law enforcement specialists already are becoming alert to animal cruelty as a marker for other crimes.

Figarola agrees that examining the treatment of pets can yield clues about hidden family dynamics. For example, a child could share that, “Daddy says that he's going to get the dog,” or, “Mom keeps the dog tied outside of the house.” In the latter, the parent may not intend to be negligent, but is instead feeling completely overwhelmed or being victimized. Treatment of an animal also shines a light on whether court-ordered social service programs are succeeding. For instance, if someone has been swinging an animal by the tail, that contradicts a family’s claims of behavioral improvement.

Figarola recalls a family in which the father had supervised visits with his children. During one such visit, the father asked his children to draw their family. He pushed them to include their cat, even though it was deceased. When the mother saw the drawing, she became very agitated. Why? Because the father himself had killed the cat. “So during this innocent-looking visit, there were signals going on through the use of animals as a way of threatening and intimidating,” explains Figarola.

Service animals also play a role in the legal process. Figarola recalls a domestic violence case in which the home resembled a war zone, with walls full of holes and cabinet doors ripped off. The maternal grandmother, who was partially blind, traveled with a big German Shepherd service dog. She and her service dog occasionally arrived at the home during violent episodes. Although the grandmother lacked the vision to witness household problems herself directly, the dog’s behavior alerted her. “She later testified in court about how the dog behaved when problems were happening,” says Figarola. “And because he was a service dog, this dog would come into court with the chaos of a dependency calendar going on. And he was just a prince.”

Pets can even serve as leverage for reunification, says Figarola. One little boy had to be relocated because he overdosed by taking a sip of iced tea that had been spiked with pain management medications. During the hearing about where he would be sheltered, the boy was visibly distressed about what might happen to his pack of five dogs. Based on this awareness, the judge arranged for a neighbor to care for the dogs. “Later on, the dogs were used to facilitate visits between mom and son, and they were able to reunify,” she said.

For a toolkit for addressing the link between animals, abuse, and domestic violence visit the National Link Coalition. Anyone experiencing abuse or violence in a relationship and needs assistance can visit or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).


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