May 10 2010 By Chester Chronicle
According to research, many victims of domestic violence would rather stay in an abusive relationship than put their pet in danger. We talk to one new trust that aims to change all this.
When Bess Parker*, 33, was forced to flee her home because of domestic violence, she left behind her eldest daughter, family and friends, as well as her two closest companions: Twilight and Bright Eyes, mother and daughter Staffordshire Bull Terriers whom she'd raised from pup to bitch.
Bess had been involved in abusive relationships in the past, and been forced to leave - but never had it been this difficult. With bruises lining her arms, death notes in her pockets, and her 9-year-old daughter Lisa, in tow, Bess made her way by bus from Surrey up to London's West End, where they would spend the next six months in a refuge for battered women.
They had no clothes, no money and no hope.
But Bess knew there was no turning back. Samuel, her partner of only three months, had threatened to kill her and her family, and, high on drugs, was going round Bess' friends searching for her.
"It was horrible," says Bess over the phone, her voice trembling at the memory.
"We lost everything - all our possessions, our contacts, our home, our family.
"The worst part of all of it was being without the dogs. Twilight was my best friend and Lisa was used to sleeping with Bright Eyes every night, so I'd have to hold her in the refuge as she cried to sleep."
According to research, as many as one in four women experience domestic violence in their lifetime, with data showing a strong link between domestic violence and animal abuse.
Sadly, as refuges and temporary accommodation centres cannot accept pets, some women choose to stay rather than risk their pets' lives by fleeing without them.
Bess, however, was lucky. Through social services, she was referred to The Dogs Trust charity, whose Freedom Project provides a free foster care service for dogs belonging to families fleeing from domestic violence in London, Hertfordshire and Yorkshire.
Twilight and Bright Eyes would be re-homed and taken care of for as long as Bess and Lisa were in refuge - and all Bess had to do was make sure that she rebuilt her own - and her daughter's - life.
"Thinking I had to leave our dogs behind was really the last straw, as they are family," says Bess.
"So to know I had them coming back eventually was the light at the end of the tunnel."
Since its inception in 2004, the Freedom Project has helped re-home some 700 pets, most of them dogs. (In London, cats are also re-homed by the UK's leading cat welfare charity, Cats Protection).
In several recent studies of women seeking refuge from domestic violence, nearly half reported that their pets had been threatened, injured or killed by their partners - making the Freedom Project a very necessary programme indeed, says its manager Clare Kivlehan.
"It's not practical for refuges to take pets and often friends and family are unable to look after some pets, such as dogs and cats, for long periods of time.
"In addition, in many domestic violence situations the perpetrator will threaten to harm or actually harm the family pet as a way of controlling the woman and her family. In fact, many definitions of domestic abuse now include the abuse of pets by the perpetrator."
Foster carers volunteer to house, feed and provide any veterinary care to the pets for an average of nine months, when they are then given back to their owners - and volunteers are always needed.
EastEnders actress Jo Joyner has recently come on board to raise awareness and garner support for the Freedom Project, because the more foster carers there are, the more victims of domestic violence can be helped, she says.
"I know people who have been affected by domestic violence and I also know how easy it is to get trapped in a bad situation.
"Dogs can be such a huge part of your family and can also be your greatest companion when under threat. I know there are thousands of women out there who need to know that they can leave their situation and their dogs will not only be safe, but be returned to them, too."
Julie, a single mum of three, has been a volunteer foster carer for the Freedom Project Yorkshire since it was first established in 2005, and has since cared for a number of dogs, including Scarlett the Staffie and Winston the Bull Mastiff.
"For me, the hardest part about fostering is knowing what the dogs have been through," she says, a former victim of domestic violence herself.
"Seeing them cower when they hear a loud noise and looking bewildered when they first arrive is heartbreaking, but watching them grow in confidence and discovering each dog's individual personality is so rewarding.
"I get a great sense of fulfilment when it's time for them to go home, knowing that they are going back to a family that loves them."
Although it was difficult, Bess and Lisa survived their six pet-less months in refuge, in part, Bess says, because they received regular photos and letters from the families caring for the dogs - a "godsend" for getting them through the pain of separation.
The full family was reunited just one day after leaving the refuge, but despite having her "family" back together again, Bess still misses her friends and life in Surrey, and has had a hard time readjusting.
"It's been really hard to pick myself up and get a job, because the last couple of years have been really tough," she says quietly, admitting that she was raped by a previous boyfriend just months before she was assaulted by Samuel.
"But the greatest point of my life is knowing now that I've got my little family back. I miss my friends and my family, but I owe the Dogs Trust my life."
Nearly two years have passed since Bess saw or spoke with her family, including her 16-year-old daughter, Aimie, who's been living with her grandparents.
While she misses them desperately, she still prefers keeping them in memory than risking her own, or her family's, life.
"I go to call my mum and remember I can't, or think I'd like to go down and visit a friend and know that it's too dangerous, as he's threatened and harassed each and every one of them," she says.
"I don't want to put anyone at risk. So for right now, it's like me and my daughter against the world."
Lisa, now 11, is starting high school and has integrated into her new life in Middlesex very well, Bess says.
And the change of scenery has also been good for her. She has a stable new relationship with a former friend, and is planning a new career.
"I want to go back to college and learn how to become a car mechanic," she giggles. "It's something I've wanted to do since the age of 10, so I'm looking forward to it."
Bess is still in contact with the foster carers who looked after Bright Eyes and Twilight, regularly sending them photographs of the dogs and even sometimes visiting her "second family" with the Staffies for a reunion.
"The way they looked after my dogs, I can't say thank you enough," explains Bess.
"We wouldn't be where we are now without them."
Become a foster dog owner
The Freedom Project is currently looking to recruit more foster carers, especially men - so if you like dogs, can devote an average of nine months to looking after a pet and want to help a family in need, visit www.dogstrustfreedomproject.org.uk
* Name has been changed to protect subject's identity.