Is there is a connection between childhoold abuse of animals and behavioural problems in later life? Researcher James Blewett examines a recent study
Title: Animal Abuse and Child Maltreatment
Authors: Simon Hackett and Emma Uprichard
Institutions: Simon Hackett works in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University Emma Uprichard works in the Department of Sociology at the University of York
Available: The research was published by the NSPCC in 2007 and can be downloaded from www.nspcc.org.uk
Over the past 20 years there has been a growing recognition of the link between cruelty to animals, domestic violence and the maltreatment of children. The NSPCC and the RSPCA highlighted this issue, initially through joint conferences in 2001, but more recently a “links” group has brought together representatives from the child and animal welfare fields.
The authors sought to review the existing international research and then test its messages through a small exploratory study. The review asked these questions:
● Is childhood cruelty towards animals predictive of future violent behaviour?
● Do domestic violence perpetrators frequently maltreat animals to threaten, coerce, silence or intimidate their human victims?
● Do adults who mistreat animals present a risk of abuse to children or, on the other hand, do adults who abuse children pose a risk to animals?
This research was in two parts, the literature review and the exploratory study. For the review, the authors searched the main international databases for existing research. However, they encountered some methodological difficulties. First, they found that definitions of what constitutes “cruelty” vary, both in terms of what is acceptable in the treatment of animals generally and the type of animal. Second, although variations are less marked in the case of children there are different definitions internationally of what constitutes maltreatment.
The second phase of the research was a small exploratory study to test the messages of the international literature in the UK context. The authors interviewed 111 participants in the UK, 51 from families who had contact with child welfare organisations. The remaining 60 were a comparison group of university students. The interviews were based on an Animal Related Experiences Questionnaire (ARE-Q) designed to explore attitudes and experiences of respondents to animals
In terms of whether children who mistreat animals are more likely to become violent, the authors found several studies that showed a correlation between childhood abuse of animals and other problematic behaviour. One US study of 153 young adults who had been convicted of animal cruelty showed that 70% were also convicted for at least one other offence, including violence towards other people. They were more likely to be involved in property-related offences or drug-related crimes.
The literature review looked at several studies that examined the motivations of the young people when mistreating animals and it was clear that, although for some the behaviour was related to curiosity or was the result of peer pressure, for others the cruelty was an expression of past trauma. The authors argue that, for those who went on to develop more serious violent behaviour towards other people, cruelty to animals was a significant stage and represented a desensitisation of the perpetrators. Nevertheless, the authors caution that it is difficult to predict which individual will progress from violence against animals to violence against other people, so care should be taken not to be crudely deterministic.
While relatively little research has been carried out on the link between cruelty to animals and domestic violence, the authors found that those studies that do exist supported the large body of anecdotal and clinical evidence that there is such a link. In one study 53% of women who had experienced domestic abuse said their partners had either killed or harmed the family pet. The authors argue that child welfare professionals should be alert to animal abuse as a possible indicator of domestic violence.
Despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, and in contrast to the research on domestic violence, the authors found little research that supported a connection between the abuse of children and the abuse of animals. However, they warn against inferring that there is no link. The reason for the scant research, they argue, is that child and animal welfare organisations have not co-operated historically to produce it.
The authors report on one study that found that most child welfare agencies do not include animal cruelty as part of their assessment. One assessment tool, for example, the commonly used Milner Child Abuse Potential Inventory, has only one out of 160 points that relate to the treatment of animals.
In their exploratory study, the authors found flaws in their hypothesis that families who had greater contact with child welfare agencies had more pets. However, the nature of animal ownership did vary with dog ownership – and in particular multiple dog ownership – among the group using child welfare services. The pets had a central place in many of these families because, for those going through a period of stress, the animals were an important source of comfort, particularly for children.
The children who were in contact with child welfare professionals were no more likely to have witnessed animal cruelty than others, according to this study. But there was a much higher incidence of their witnessing threats towards animals. The authors say this chimes with the higher prevalence of domestic violence in the group using child welfare services.
The authors conclude that, although the correlation between animal cruelty and child maltreatment at the lower levels should not be exaggerated, it may be the case that it is more marked where individual adults or young people are exhibiting more extreme behaviour.
Links and Resources
● Animal Abuse and Child Maltreatment. NSPCC research report presents the findings from a UK study on the links between animal cruelty and child abuse.
● The Links Group. Multi-agency group with representatives from key child protection and animal welfare organisations.
Cruelty to animals as an indicator of concerns about children
● At present, few assessments consider the role of pets in family life. Clearly animal cruelty, particularly in its more extreme forms is an important issue that professionals consider. Although the link is not fully understood at present, there is evidence to suggest a relationship between child and animal cruelty.
● Be specific about the nature of animal cruelty. There are wide variations in the nature and degree of what is held to constitute animal cruelty. It is therefore important that, when there are concerns, a detailed account is given in assessments of the concern and the nature of the animal itself.
● Being more aware of the presence, meaning of and treatment towards animals in family assessments.
● Practitioners should also be more aware of the broader meaning and role of pets in family life because this can be an important dimension in understanding the patterns of relationships and beliefs in families.
Cultural attitudes towards animals
Practitioners should caution against imposing their own beliefs and values in relation to animals on the families with whom they work. Stereotypes and assumptions should be avoided and each family’s attitude towards animals should be assessed on an individual basis.
Links between child and animal welfare groups
One conclusion of this study, and indeed the work between the NSPCC and RSPCA generally, is that there is much to be gained from stronger links between child and animal welfare organisations. Animal welfare professionals can be a valuable source of information regarding children and vice versa.
James Blewett is research director at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit, King’s College London
Read Andrew Mickel’s blog on a recent Channel Four film on the subject