Closing the circle: Forensic strategy in support of the ‘links’ between animal and human abuse

   Closing the circle

In February this year, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee published its report on the Pre Legislative Scrutiny of the draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill[1]. Although due for substantial revision, the motion to increase the sentencing terms for convicted animal abusers has been met with support from Parliament and the public alike. Currently, the maximum sentence for animal cruelty is six months in prison in England and Wales, and 12 months in Scotland; some of the lowest maximum sentences for animal cruelty in Europe and America. The proposed legislation invokes a punishment of up to five years, in line with Australia, Canada, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. These additional powers of sentencing allow for greater flexibility and severity where required, and acknowledges the significant risk of repeat offences – to other animals, and the public.

According to a report published by Battersea Dogs & Cats Home last year, serious animal cruelty offenders are five times more likely to commit further acts and animal abuse is 11 times more likely in situations involving domestic violence[2]. The Centre for Crime Prevention states that three out of four criminals convicted of animal cruelty will have previously been cautioned or convicted[3]. The types of associated crimes include sexual assaults and rapes, violent offences and murder, cruelty and neglect; each of which have been inflicted upon animals, but also women and children. Over fifteen years ago, a multi-agency interest assembly known as the ‘Links Group’ was formed in Scotland, which aimed to promote awareness of the significant correlations between animal, domestic and child abuse[4]. It is now assisted by a number of authorities, including the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) to name but a few, and they uphold that:

“There is increasing research and clinical evidence which suggests that there are sometimes inter-relationships, commonly referred to as ‘links’, between the abuse of children, vulnerable adults and animals. A better understanding of these links can help to protect victims, both human and animal, and promote their welfare.”

The Links Group reports that over 50% of domestic abuse cases have involved threats and acts of violence towards family pets[5]. Likewise, in the last decade a similar association was formed in America, the National Link Coalition under the by-line “when animals are abused, people are at risk; when people are abused, animals are at risk”. They report comparable figures and draw on a large body of evidence to reinforce the movement[6].

It is therefore of interest to examine data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS, UK) which estimates that 1.9 million adults (aged 16 to 59 years) would have experienced domestic abuse in the year ending March 2017[7]. Granting the lack of detail regarding child abuse or erroneous accusations in these figures, the probability that at least 50% of these incidents may have involved animals warrants attention, particularly as family members are more likely to seek veterinary care for their pets over medical intervention for themselves. The Links Coalition state that “veterinarians are the best-trained individuals to recognise and respond to improper animal welfare”. Given that the ONS bulletin relays the “evidential difficulties” of domestic abuse, it is appropriate to consider the burgeoning discipline of ‘forensic veterinary medicine’ to provide documentary and physical evidence, to support or refute such allegations.

Forensic veterinary medicine is not confined to dead or dying animals, and where practitioners raise concerns of welfare to owners, this may in turn give rise to improved conditions and the prevention of greater mistreatment. This is not only of relevance to the animal directly, but also to the client, who may feel more confident to seek further help, for themselves and/or their family. The ‘AVDR’ (Ask, Validate, Document and Refer) framework is a useful guide[8], as suggested by the Medics Against Violence group, who formed the Domestic Abuse Veterinary Initiative with the Violence Reduction Unit (Scotland), in acknowledgement of the ‘links’. In particular, ‘validating’ messages lead to acceptance that violence is wrong, and bolsters the client’s worth, with the aim of a ‘referral’ to the appropriate authorities or specialists.

In some instances, the presentation (by an owner, the perpetrator, or a member of the public) of a sick or injured animal to a veterinary practice, may raise suspicion of a wider issue, particularly if repeated visits demonstrate deterioration, or multiple veterinary surgeries are utilised by the same owner or offender. Although companion animals (pets) may be an indictor within the domestic setting, any animal a person of interest may encounter (i.e. working animals, livestock, wildlife and so forth), could possibly require investigation. Taking into account the criticisms of over-zealous practitioners and investigators,[9] and the delicate yet potentially volatile situation of suggestion and confrontation, it is essential that suspicions are recorded and handled appropriately, as outlined in the standards set by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS)[10].

The ‘links’ are widely divergent and many factors are beyond the scope of this introductory piece, which seeks to raise awareness of the possibility of animal/human interactions as a potential source of information and evidence in an investigation. Of particular interest is a series of papers introducing the term ‘battered pets’ which detail the diagnostic pointers applicable to cases of animal cruelty, which are the same as those utilised in the recognition of child abuse[11]. Reinforced by data obtained from veterinary practitioners, the articles cover the signs of suspicion, non-accidental injury, sexual abuse and Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Although the ‘links’ make for uncomfortable reading, it would be remiss of any vested party to overlook them.

Not all practice-generated suspicions will progress to an allegation, nor will all cases require the maximum custodial sentence, but it is entirely possible for a routine examination to later become part of a criminal matter, some months or even years after the event. The level of documentary detail which is required, and ultimately expected of those involved in forensic investigations, far exceeds that of standard practice notes. In order to best serve the Courts, it is essential that veterinary staff are prepared for the possibility of legal intervention, and the burden of responsibility which follows. Likewise, investigators should be considerate of the fact that such practitioners are very rarely forensically-trained.

In response to the drivers of change which are affecting all our practices, ArroGen Veterinary Forensics[12] was formed to close the circle between the ‘links’. Meeting the demands of enquires, casework and training requests, ArroGen Forensic Services and the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Surrey, have come together to provide a complete resource in this area, serving both the Prosecution and Defence. Post-mortem examinations of animals can now be complemented with a full forensic strategy encompassing any relevant evidence type. Non-fatal incidents are also treated in the same manner, and a database of diverse experts is available, beyond the traditional disciplines of biology, toxicology and ballistics; the increasing requests of which speak volumes as to the level of depravation encountered in these investigations. By unifying the practice of veterinary medicine, with forensic and legal expertise, we can create links of own, and be best prepared for the challenges ahead.

By Samantha Pickles BSc (Hons) MSc PGCE MCSFS FLS FRES Lead Forensic Scientist, ArroGen Veterinary Forensics Limited

Samantha is the Lead Forensic Scientist at ArroGen Veterinary Forensics and is currently planning a bespoke suite of courses, seminars and training programmes, to assist veterinary and legal personnel in applied forensic procedures.

 Address:                Unit 12 The Quadrangle, Grove Business Park, Wantage, Oxfordshire, OX12 9FA, UK

E-mail:                 s.pickles@arrogengroup.co.uk

Image:                    Ref: 1106408.jpg

Adult male Fox Terrier during treatment. Image kindly supplied by the RSPCA.

[1] Available from: https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/environment-food-and-rural-affairs-committee/news-parliament-2017/animal-welfare-report-publication-17-19/

[2] Available from: http://notfunny.battersea.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/BDCH_Sentencing_Report.pdf

[3] Available from: http://www.centreforcrimeprevention.com/news/preventing-animal-cruelty-peter-cuthbertson/

[4] Home page: http://www.thelinksgroup.org.uk/

[5] Available from: http://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/content/175/23/579

[6] Home page: http://nationallinkcoalition.org/

[7] Available from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/bulletins/domesticabuseinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2017

[8] Available from: medicsagainstviolence.co.uk

[9] Available from: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmenvfru/117/11709.htm

[10] https://www.rcvs.org.uk/setting-standards/advice-and-guidance/code-of-professional-conduct-for-veterinary-surgeons/supporting-guidance/client-confidentiality/

[11] Available from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1748-5827.2001.tb02024.x/abstract

[12] See: http://vetforensics.co.uk/

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