Pittsburgh Area Domestic Violence Counseling Center among five Department of Justice grant recipients

Since 1978, staff at Crisis Center North, a non-profit counseling and resource center for victims of domestic violence, have strived to empower their clients and help them feel safe.

Through its Paws for Empowerment program, the center has started providing therapy dogs during counseling sessions with victims and during court visits through the canine victim assistance program supported by the Attorney General’s Office. Allegheny County.

This fall, staff learned that the center will be one of five recipients of a grant of nearly $ 500,000 from the Department of Justice’s Office of Victim Services. The money will be used to expand all aspects of their mission. Due to the nature of their work with victims, CCN staff do not disclose the location of their office.

“The grants are intended to provide emergency and transitional housing assistance for people with pets,” said SCC Executive Director Grace Coleman. “So many people think of their pet as a member of the family, but many domestic violence centers have yet to incorporate planning or pet safety.”

Coleman and SCC canine intervention specialist Dana Friday both said it was heartbreaking how pets can be turned into weapons by abusers.

“There are so many victims who have lost their pets,” Coleman said. “They are told, ‘Why don’t you just leave the dog behind? And they do, and they’ll never see him again.

In an abusive home, said Friday, the abuse often begins with a pet.

“(The victim) may be the only one caring for this animal,” she said. “They don’t know if their attacker is going to take care of it, or say, ‘If you go, I’ll hurt this animal.'”

A safe place

With the federal grant, CCN will expand its housing program and provide two transitional housing units for victims and their pets for up to two years.

“And we will be able to do temporary accommodations by contacting local hotels,” Coleman said. “It will also allow us to work with larger animals, which is pretty much unheard of among domestic violence programs.”

Friday, said the grant would also help fund things like pet supplies, food and other items a victim might not be able to muster on leaving.

“These animals provide support,” said Friday. “The victims leave an abusive situation – they cannot tell anyone else in the whole world where they are, and rather than being left alone there, we want them to be able to have this pet with them. . “

The grant will also allow a pet to be brought to an animal shelter for temporary accommodation or medical care.

“There have been so many studies on how pets help with support, release feel-good hormones, lower blood pressure,” said Friday. “We are thrilled with this grant because it gives us the ability to take people out of these situations and go to a place where they can feel comfortable, as opposed to a women’s shelter, to try and find a new life for themselves and their pets. “

The grant also includes an education outreach component, with SCC staff working to train local veterinarians to recognize signs of animal abuse in a household.

“I was asked to be a founding member of Keystone Link, a Pennsylvania coalition that examines the intersection of human and animal abuse,” Coleman said. “Overall, abuse usually happens with an animal before any other abuse.”

Give a hand

Another way for CCN staff to connect with victims is through a program they started at the right time.

Shortly before the pandemic shutdowns began in the United States, SCC officials launched an app in January 2020 that provides victims of domestic violence with more accessible and discreet means of communication – in particular, the app offers the Both text and chat functions, allows users to close it quickly and messages disappear so they cannot be seen by an attacker.

“It really improves security, and it was the first app of its kind to offer both text and chat functions,” said Coleman. “It was also about reaching a younger population who don’t talk much on the phone anymore. We were trying to make the contact as convenient as possible.

The app’s launch coincided with the onset of the covid-19 pandemic, giving a potential victim of domestic violence a way to silently reach out while being stuck at home with an abusive partner.

“We had a survivor contacting us daily about security planning issues,” Coleman said. “The tactics she had used to defuse violence in the home – shopping, shopping – were not available at the start of the pandemic. There was nowhere to go, so the team gave him planning tips every day.

And thanks to the app, the woman was able to communicate securely with CCN staff while using the bathroom.

Benjamin Barnes, CCN’s community outreach specialist, said that even last summer, as pandemic-related restrictions eased, he saw an almost 50% increase in the number of people contacting through the ‘application.

“It has been substantial,” he said. “I think it serves as a streak to motivate people to call and talk to us. Usually after a few hours or days of messaging, I’ll see that kind of trust start to open up. And they almost always call us.

Coleman said the US Department of Justice plans to bring together the five grant recipients to share their findings.

“We hope it can serve as a national model,” said Coleman. She hopes the app, combined with the funding for the grant, will help CCN make progress “by ensuring that both ends of the leash can be secure.”

Patrick Varine is an editor at Tribune-Review. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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