People fleeing violent relationships often leave without financial support, which means a shelter may be the only place they can turn for help. And those are usually designed for women and children.
The Family Place in Dallas is about to open up to pets too. Experts hope if there's a safe haven for the family dog, it might give someone the courage to leave an abusive home.
A lifelong devotion to animals
It's obvious from the moment you meet her: Stephanie's an animal lover. She rescued squirrels from the backyard as a child. Her Instagram feed is dominated by furry friends. She wanted to do this interview at a dog park.
“To so many people, animals are no different than our children. They're just as important,” she says.
For more than 20 years, Stephanie was in a relationship with a man she says abused her, and her pets. We're not using her last name because she still doesn't feel safe.
"Physically hit me, he strangled me on a number of occasions, and worse. To hurt me he would kick the dogs, he would not let me care for them properly when we were out of town,” she says. “One time he wanted me to just leave my dog who had just had a stroke in the back yard when we supposed to leave to go to Austin.”
On that particular occasion, Stephanie says her ex-husband got angry, drove that dog to the vet and had her euthanized. She says her pets were victims, just like she was.
"Not letting our dogs get groomed in the summer when this man makes a million plus dollars a year, or vet care,” she says. Saying, 'well I'm not spending a dime on that animal.’"
Six years ago, Stephanie finally left. She says the divorce cleaned her out, leaving deep financial scars.
"So I'm 50 years old with no money in a bank, a little hourly job that I just started and horrible credit. After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on attorneys, I have nothing,” she says.
Which is why she turned to the Family Place, a North Texas family violence shelter. She's currently living in an apartment the program arranged. Her beloved dogs are being fostered by another family right now. Stephanie's counting the days until they're reunited.
Adding beds, and a kennel
The Family Place recently expanded, adding about 50 beds at a new emergency shelter, a lot more space for counseling and job training programs, a shelter for men, and a new wing. It’s called Barkingham Palace.
There is space for five large dogs and half a dozen cats. There's a bathing station, cuddle room and dog run outside, complete with Astroturf. The hope is adding pet accommodations might mean one less hurdle to jump for people trying to leave an abusive relationship.
"You know I've been at the Family Place more than 25 years and I know women who's dogs were killed when they left,” says CEO Paige Flink. "You can't take your pet to work, and if you are lucky enough to be employed you need for everything to be status quo, so you can afford to support yourself if you're leaving. But also, hotels a lot of times won't take pets, new apartments won't take pets. It is another issue that someone who is a victim has to deal with.”
Right now, the pets of Family Place staffers are test driving the kennel. So far, so good. Once the new rooms at the emergency shelter open in a couple of weeks, Barkingham Palace will be up and running too.
"Pets are happy and pets are soothing, and so we want also for people to come because they many times won't leave without their pets,” Flink says.
Caring for the creatures that care for you
And Stephanie can relate. She says knowing her pets are well-cared for is vital to her happiness. And as a survivor of a violent relationship, she says her pets care for her too.
"I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome and having my animals just to cuddle at night or lay at my feet, it's like a medication,” she says. “It's something that you need."
And she says people who have left a violent home shouldn't have to miss out on that. The Family Place agrees.