An Open Letter From A Foster Mom To Clients Of The SAAV Program

By Foster Mom:  Rachel

Like so many women, domestic violence has touched my life; statistics show that one in four women will be a victim in her lifetime. I’ve always been a strong advocate and supporter of victims’ rights, and in my search for ways to do as much as I could to help end the cycle of domestic abuse, I discovered one of the most phenomenal programs I’ve ever seen in helping victims remove one more barrier to leaving their abusers.

Helping their beloved pets.

I’ve been a Foster Mom for the Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims ("SAAV") Program since 2010, and it’s one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.

Anyone who has ever had the loyalty and love of an animal understands how strong the bond is between pet and owner. It’s not surprising that a huge percentage of victims are afraid to leave their abusive partners (and often don’t) simply because they can’t leave their pets behind.

But, as a Foster Mom for SAAV, I’ll never get to meet the owners of my foster “fur kids.” To keep everyone safe, we all adhere to a strict code of confidentiality, which means clients of Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS) who use the SAAV Program have no choice but to trust that sending their pets off to live with a stranger is safer than leaving them behind with an abuser.

But, if I could talk to these victims, I’d hold their hands and promise I’ll take excellent care of their fur babies. I’ll bring their scared, confused, and lonely animals into my home and shower them with love, comfort and attention.

I take our foster dogs for walks, and throw balls in the back yard. I convince shy foster cats out from behind couches and under beds with tuna and quiet coaxing.

Everyone is allowed on the bed for belly rubs and ear scratches.

Every foster leaves our home a little bit heavier thanks to extra treats tucked in their food dishes.

I take pictures of every foster case we’ve had, and hang them on a bulletin board in our hallway so I’ll never forget the wonderful energy they brought into our home.

The only connection I have with these animals’ owners are the occasional updates and photos I send through my contact at the Dane County Humane Society (DCHS) or SAAV … who passes it along to the appropriate DAIS case worker … who shares it with the client using DAIS services.

There’s a reason people become volunteer foster families for SAAV – we have a crazy amount of love for animals, and we’re equally dedicated to helping victims take the steps they need to build a new and better life for themselves and their families.

Domestic violence impacts the entire family … pets included. SAAV has built an amazing model in providing vital support to victims, and I’m proud to be involved.

In A Gentle Way, You Can Shake The World

In 2009 I attended the Animal Law Conference at Lewis and Clark Law School.  One of the talks I most enjoyed was given by Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims (“SAAV”) co-founder, Megan Senatori.  I’d never before considered the link between animal cruelty and domestic violence.  I was impressed that Megan had helped co-found a foster network to provide safe shelter for the pets of survivors fleeing their abusers.

Three years later, as I attended a luncheon to benefit my community’s domestic violence shelter, I wondered if our local domestic abuse shelter, Middle Way House, offered refuge to the pets of survivors escaping violent families.  Bloomington, Indiana is a forward-thinking college town; I felt sure that the idea could gain traction if a program was not already in place.

I was aware that SAAV was a resource available to help others interested in starting shelter programs for the animals of abuse victims, so I sent Megan an email to touch base.  Then, a friend put me in contact with a Women’s Advocate at Middle Way House named Erin Biebuyck.  I learned from Erin that Middle Way occasionally received calls on the crisis line involving animals, and that they provided help as much as possible on an ad hoc basis.  In a cool ‘Great Minds Think Alike’ moment, it turned out that Erin had already been considering the idea of working to pioneer an official safe haven for pets program.  The second coincidence was that Erin had contacted a group in Wisconsin called SAAV just the week before!  Erin and I laughed when Megan put us in touch with one another.

The stars were aligned and we got to work.  Erin and I formed a planning committee with several other terrific individuals:  Jo Liska, Debra Morrow and Stacy Weida.  Megan Reece joined the team as a volunteer intern.  We hammered out the policies and legal issues of our program.  We crafted administrative forms, wrote proposals for grant funding, sent letters to request product donations, planned a Crowdfunding campaign, trained program volunteers and gathered community support.  Ten months after our first committee meeting, we officially launched Middle Way PAWSS (Providing Animals and Women with Safe Shelter) in September.

In addition to suggesting resources and answering our questions along the way, I am grateful that Megan planted an idea in my mind on a fall day four years ago in Oregon.  We impact those we meet, sometimes in significant ways, by simply doing things that we find meaningful.  It is important to remember that with the right group of people, in the right place and at the right time, much is possible.  In the words of Mahatma Gandhi:  “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

Allison Hess

Middle Way PAWSS - Bloomington, Indiana