Introducing Doctoral Candidate: Melissa Laing

Keeping the family together: Recognising the human-animal bond in family violence situations

Increasingly, we think of pets as family members who we love with the same tenderness as our human family. Yet, when a woman needs to leave her home due to family violence and seek emergency accommodation, she is often forced to not only leave her partner, but also her pet, behind.

Melissa Laing’s research is focused on service provision with women at risk of, or experiencing homelessness with pets, and the way social workers are engaging with their female clients.

Current research suggests that there aren’t processes and procedures that allow women experiencing family violence to remain living with their pets in emergency accommodation. Typically the woman is provided emergency accommodation and the family dog is sent to an expensive boarding house, or in rare cases, emergency foster care. This separation can then amplify the trauma both parties have to experience.

To counter this, some social workers are going above and beyond to make sure the women they work with remain with their animals. In one anecdotal account, a social worker was reported to have jumped a fence to grab a family dog so her client would stay in emergency accommodation and not put herself at risk by leaving. When a woman does not want to part with her pet she can often end up homeless and living on the streets or what is called sleeping rough.

Overwhelmingly, Australians choose dogs as their pet of choice, yet dogs are often the reason why many people find it difficult to find rental properties, and especially emergency accommodation. The assumption being that if you want to own a pet, you need to own your own home. The Human-Animal Bond is especially strong in vulnerable groups compared to the general population, but the resilience that this bond cultivates, brings increased vulnerability if the bond is broken through crises such as those leading to homelessness. So perhaps as Melissa thinks, it’s time to reconfigure how we think about not only our own pets, but other people’s pets and the tangible things, like better health, that they bring with them.

While there’s still a long way to go, Melissa’s preliminary research suggests that her dream of human services recognising the importance of the family pet in a woman’s life is starting to be realised. She hopes that not only will human services acknowledge the need for pets or what are called ‘non-humans’ to be accommodated but that they will also be named and identified as family members.

She is on the lookout for more research participants, so if you know any social workers in Victoria who work with women experiencing domestic violence or at risk of homelessness, she would love to hear from them.

You can take part in this important research by completing Melissa’s survey here.

Melissa’s PhD is called: Encountering interspecies homelessness: Social work with vulnerable groups and their companion animals.

The Social and Global Studies Centre is proud to foster innovative and ground breaking social research.

Story: Brigitte Lewis