Clare Kivlehan, Dogs Trust Freedom Project Manager, talks to Mark Kebble about 10 years of success – and what more needs to be done

How does it feel to see the Freedom Project reach 10 years of age?

We are extremely proud that we have been able to provide such an essential service for pets belonging to families fleeing domestic violence and that we have received so much support from individuals and organisations which has enabled us to run this service. In particular, we would not have been able to help so many families and their pets over the last 10 years without the dedication of our staff and volunteer foster carers. 

Our pet fostering service enables families suffering from domestic violence to make the decision to flee this situation knowing that we are here to place their pets in a home environment, so that they don’t have to worry when they already have so many other things to consider. We know that many families stay in a domestic violence situation for fear of what would happen to their pets should they leave without them. In some cases the family might be forced to rehome their pets through no other choice or even leave without them – so our project really is a lifeline.

I remember when we picked up some of our first pets on the project and how satisfying it was for everyone involved to know that we were helping people and their pets get out of such a terrible situation and to look forward to a new life away from violence. Over a thousand pets later and I really don’t know where the time has gone!  

Looking back a decade, what was the inspiration behind setting the project up?

In 2001 I attended a conference called ‘Making the Links’, where speakers highlighted the emerging links or ‘inter-relationships’, between the abuse of children, vulnerable adults and animals. One of the issues that came out of this groundbreaking conference was the lack of pet fostering services available for families fleeing domestic violence and the need for animal welfare organisations to respond. At the time Dogs Trust was already leading the way in helping dogs belonging to owners in housing crisis through our established Hope Project, so it seemed like a natural step to expand our services to protect dogs from potentially abusive situations. I came straight back from the conference, did some research and found that these ‘Links’ had been recognised for a while and were well documented in countries like America, where pet fostering services were an established part of the support response to domestic violence. With our past experience of helping families in housing crisis and working direct with human support agencies, it seemed like we were in a perfect position to set up a service. 

Dogs Trust now operates the Freedom Project, alongside other organisations who provide similar pet fostering services across the country – these organisations work together to help as many families as possible with the resources they have. These services fall under the umbrella of the LINKS group, which is a multi-agency interest group that promotes the welfare and safety of vulnerable children, animals and adults so that they are free from violence and abuse.

Dogs Trust Freedom Project

The Dogs Trust Freedom Project has looked after countless dogs before reuniting them with their owner

Why do pets come under threat – a way of mental torture?

In many cases of domestic abuse, perpetrators will use something of value against their victim in order to intimidate, threaten or control their partner. Domestic violence is a pattern of behaviour that is defined by control and power and can take many forms within an intimate relationship; it can be physical, emotional and financial. In fact, some definitions of domestic abuse now include the abuse of pets. In some situations the perpetrator will deliberately go out and obtain a pet so that their partner/children will form an emotional attachment which they can then manipulate to exert control. On our project, our clients often tell us of the threats they receive in relation to harming their pets, and very sadly – and more worryingly – the pets that come onto the project have suffered abuse first hand or more often general neglect, which can sometimes be as serious. 

Looking over 10 years, what particular facts or figures bring most joy to you?

That we have helped more than 1,200 pets and 800 families since we set the project up.  These are just the pets that came onto the project: we have advised and tried to help so many more, but for one reason or another they chose not to use our service.  But really, on a project of this nature, it’s often more about the lengths our foster carers will go to in order to help us that brings me joy, the groups that have fundraised for us, our volunteers, in particular those who have been with us since the beginning and the kind words of our clients that make running this service so worthwhile.

Is there still a lot of work to be done?

Unfortunately, over the last 10 years the demand for our service has not decreased and we are always busy taking referrals for pet fostering, recruiting volunteer foster carers and providing care for these pets. The general public’s perception and understanding of domestic violence has changed a lot over this time and people are now more aware that DV (domestic violence) is a crime, not just a personal family issue and that there are services out there to help and support people. We work with fantastic DV support agencies such as Women’s Aid and Refuge to make people aware of our work and we are constantly recruiting volunteer foster carers so we can meet the needs of these families.  

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