“Safe Haven” program designed to protect abuse victims’ pets

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MILWAUKEE -- Two out of every five domestic violence victims admit to staying with their abusers because of one thing -- their pets. Groups in Milwaukee are joining forces to break this cruel form of control.

Heidi Raasch escaped a severely abusive relationship two years ago.

"He would just hit and hit and hit. Basically at the point where he held the loaded gun to my head. That was the point that I knew," Raasch said.

As if leaving wasn't hard enough, she did so with her two dogs, caught in the crossfire.

"He would threaten that if I left that he would hurt them. He would do something to them or just let them outside and not come back and whatever happened, happened," Raasch said.

Raasch admitted she stayed in the abusive relationship longer than she should have because of the threats against her dogs.

Like Raasch, up to 40% of those abused will stay in the abusive relationship longer, out of fear for their animals. About 71% of victims say their abusers promise to hurt or even kill their pets.

Carmen Pitre with the non-profit Sojourner Family Peace Center -- the largest domestic violence service provider in Wisconsin says she sees this trend first hand.

"We would here consistently -- stay in the violent situation because they didn't feel like leaving their animals and didn't want to be separated and were fearful their animals would be hurt," Pitre said.

Recently, Sojourner teamed up with the Wisconsin Humane Society to create the "Safe Haven Program."

"The Safe Haven Program is really about removing the barrier and allowing victims to get safe, while also honoring the bond between them and their animal and making sure a reunion is possible," WI Humane Education and Advocacy manager Jill Kline said.

Kline says the WI Humane Society uses a group of specially-trained volunteers to host the pets of abuse victims for up to 60 days. For safety, everything's done anonymously.

"Foster families don`t know who the clients are and vice-versa, and we actually limit that information to much of our staff. It`s really really critical that both the foster family and the client understand that anonymity is really important to keeping everyone safe," Kline said.

Milwaukee police say the program allows them to help more victims because the victims aren't worried about where their animals are going.

"It`s a great tool to show them they no longer need an excuse to stay there. We can take the dog to feed and water it until they can get back on their feet again,"

Currently, there are three abuse victims using the "Safe Haven Program."

Fortunately, Raasch's furry family is safe and growing, but she says the "Safe Haven Program" could have helped her, had it been around two years ago.

"I could have gotten out even sooner," Raasch said.

Raasch says she wants other victims with pets to see that as isolated as they may feel, they are now, more than ever, far from alone.

CLICK HERE for more information on the WI Humane Society "Safe Haven Program."