Newswise — In cases of domestic and sexual violence, the first priority is to safely distance endangered adults and children from the situation. But many survivors report they have refused or delayed opportunities to move to a secure shelter because their companion animals—often tormented by the same perpetrators as a form of control or intimidation—could not be accommodated. The Sasawin Project in Marquette, Mich., was established to spare pets from trauma and preserve their vital relationships with their families. Its goal is to include animals in safety plans and assure them refuge so that survivors will be more likely to seek their own protection.
“I was in an abusive relationship for 32 years,” said a client of the Women’s Center, which offers programs and services for survivors. “I stayed initially for my children and then I had no choice but to stay due to limited housing options for my four-legged children. I would no sooner abandon them than I would have my children. Having the Sasawin Project available gave me an opportunity to escape verbal, mental, sexual and physical abuse. It provides a much-needed option for women in my situation, as the pets also tend to suffer at the hands of an abuser. Without a place for my pets to go, I would have stayed in those deplorable conditions, risking my safety. I have since found housing for myself and my four dogs, two cats and parrot. It took months, if not years, until the program became available. I can’t express my level of gratitude for the opportunity.”
Sasawin (Suh-SWIN) is the Anishinaabe word for “nest” or “safe place.” The project is a collaboration involving the Women’s Center, Northern Michigan University and the Upper Peninsula Animal Welfare Shelter (UPAWS). It provides foster care, veterinary services, basic care items and animal behavior consultations at no cost to survivors.
NMU professor Helen Kahn has been involved in Sasawin since its inception. She is able to combine her love of animals and awareness of domestic violence gleaned from volunteer service with her professional experience in research, data collection and grant writing. She also advises an NMU organization, Students for the Sasawin Project.
“Sasawin is modeled after a program in Atlanta called Ahimsa House,“ Kahn said. "A lot of survivors, both women and men, aren’t going to leave without their children. They’re not going to leave without their animals, either, because they want to preserve that reciprocal, non-judgmental relationship. In some cases, those animals may be the only living organisms that are kind to them. We think more about the comfort and value of all living organisms as our consciousness is raised about the documented connections between animal cruelty and violence. Kids and animals don’t have the choices adults do and trust adults to take care of them. That vulnerability is heart-wrenching."
When survivors contact the Harbor House shelter operated by the Women's Center for help getting out of a volatile situation, they are asked during the intake evaluation if they have companion animals. If the answer is yes, the pets are factored into the safety plan and Women’s Center representatives complete a foster care contract. Harbor House is not a viable option for sheltering pets. It lacks a yard and survivors who reside there may have allergies. So animals removed from abusive environments are transported to a participating vet for a health check and any required shots before they settle into their temporary lodging.
“The animals can be housed for up to 90 days in foster care and that can be extended, if necessary,” said Cindi DePetro, Women’s Center office coordinator. “Hopefully she can get safe, permanent housing at that point. Confidentiality is very important. For safety reasons, the survivor doesn’t know who the foster family is and the foster family doesn’t know whose animals they have. If survivors don’t end up in a safe home after their stay at Harbor House, the animals can be transferred to UPAWS, but we don’t want that to happen. ”
Motivated by concern for the well-being of animals, UPAWS helped to get the Sasawin Project off the ground. The agency’s involvement was established before Ann Brownell assumed the role of volunteer and community outreach coordinator, but she gladly represents UPAWS at monthly meetings and consults on foster homes.
“An animal shelter is not the ideal place to bring pets in bad situations for the long term because there’s no guarantee of confidentiality," said Brownell. "But we’ll house an animal in an emergency until anonymous foster care can be secured. Whether or not the animals are physically traumatized, they have bonded with the person being abused and absorb what that person is feeling. They are like emotional sponges and very intuitive. It’s great to get them in a safe place and provide peace of mind for their owners so the owners can seek safety for themselves. UPAWS supports all domestic pets and the community. We’re very proud to be part of this important project.”
Sasawin relies on grants and community fundraising, along with donations of pet supplies and a network of participating veterinarians. Kahn recently secured grants for the project from the Banfield Charitable Trust and the American Kennel Club.
DePetro described the Sasawin Project as a tremendous asset that could make the difference for someone debating whether to leave a dangerous situation and seek shelter.
“This is one more helping hand we can offer to someone," she said. "I have pets and couldn’t imagine leaving them behind, especially with someone who is threatening them. It’s common for people to ask, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ That’s the wrong way of looking at it. The question should be, ‘Why doesn’t he stop abusing?’ Survivors are reluctant to leave everything they know, everything they own and their pets. With the Sasawin Project, we’ve removed concerns about their pets and created one more reason why they can leave and be safe.”