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(Note: As part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month,  ASI will be featuring resources and information on its website and in its newsletters in October. The very fact that a domestic violence shelter has created a Pet Shelter Advocate is cause for joy and hope, as we begin this month of awareness.)

Last year Rose Brooks Center became the first domestic violence shelter in the region to accept pets – a decision resulting from the heroic actions of a Great Dane who shielded his owner from the blows of her batterer. An exception was made to allow the woman to bring the dog to the Center, and a new pet shelter subsequently was constructed at Rose Brooks to allow more women to escape abuse with their beloved animals.

Through our work in the greater Kansas City area, which is generously supported by a grant from the Shumaker Family Foundation, I have gotten to know members of the Kansas City – Caring for All Network (KC-CAN), a coalition of professionals from diverse backgrounds who are passionate about working to prevent all forms of violence and promoting collaboration among systems. Several KC-CAN members are affiliated with Rose Brooks. One is a veterinarian who offers her services free of charge to the animals who come into the Center. Another is Kelsey Brennaman (left), the Center’s Pet Shelter Advocate. I sat down with Kelsey to talk about her interests, work at Rose Brooks, and mission to raise awareness of domestic violence and provide safe havens for people and their companion animals. Here’s what Kelsey had to say.

Tell me a little bit about yourself – your background, interests, aspirations?

I started out in art school but dropped out because I knew I wanted to work with nonprofits. I enrolled in Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and received a degree in nonprofit management. During college I interned with Washingtonians for Humane Farms where I worked on a ballot initiative campaign to improve conditions for egg-laying hens in the state. Also during college, I worked at an animal shelter in the areas of admissions and behavior.  What prompted you to apply for the Pet Shelter Advocate position?

After I graduated from college, I knew I wanted to move back to Kansas City, so I took an internship with the Humane Society here. I was working with Midge Grinstead, the HSUS Kansas State Director and also a member of KC-CAN. She encouraged me to apply for the Pet Shelter Advocate position. In some ways, I got the job by accident, but I have realized that I am really passionate about the work. I have learned a lot about domestic violence. The relationship between animal abuse and human abuse is startling.

Tell me about your work at Rose Brooks.

We are the only advocate for victims of domestic violence and animals in the Midwest, and the only shelter in this part of the country that accepts pets. Every day I get calls from people who need help. I am doing a lot of outreach to develop our foster care program because space is limited in the shelter. I care for all of the animals that are on site at the Center and do everything related to their well-being, including supervising intake, ensuring the health of the animals, providing enrichment activities, and writing grants for additional supports like play yards. I also recruit, train, and supervise fosters who care for pets for which we don’t have space at the shelter.

What successes and challenges have you encountered in your work?

I’d say the biggest successes are the women that I’ve worked with who are now living independently with their animals. We’ve actually helped women with up to five dogs find safety. And it’s not only women in this area that we help. Women from as far away as Arkansas call us, and we’ve been able to find local resources to help them and their companion animals.

One of the biggest challenges is our capacity. We are almost always operating at maximum capacity, which means housing seven dogs and seven cats on site. We have to recruit fosters to care for additional animals. When women leave the shelter, it’s also sometimes difficult to find housing for women with big dogs or multiple cats.

Most shelters don’t accept pets. What do you think makes Rose Brooks a leader in this area?

At Rose Brooks we use a trauma-informed method of care. We believe that helping women to maintain their healthy relationships, particularly relationships with companion animals, is important. We hope that our model will show other shelters that by welcoming companion animals it’s possible to get women out of dangerous situations faster and help them heal more quickly.

What are your hopes for the future of this program?

I want to build awareness of and attention to women’s relationships with companion animals into all aspects of our work at Rose Brooks. I’m currently working to educate myself about AniCare®, which was developed by the ASI and is the first published assessment and treatment program focused specifically on people who witness or engage in animal abuse. I’m working with our clinical therapy team to schedule training on the AniCare® approach. I also want to work with advocates on the hotline to ensure that they ask more systematically about animals. I want to be sure that when women first contact us we are as thorough as possible in identifying their needs, including needs related to their companion animals.  I’m also excited to be bringing in therapy dogs to do meditation therapy this spring. We hope to have ongoing classes through Game Dog Guardian, an organization led by Katie Bray Barnett, who is an animal lawyer in Lawrence, Kansas, and also a supporter of KC-CAN.

One of my longer-term goals is to expand this type of program throughout the Midwest. I talk regularly to staff at other shelters about developing the capacity to accept animals and provide them with examples of policies and procedures to help them build similar programs.

Any final thoughts?

It has been my great honor to work on behalf of human and animal survivors of domestic violence at Rose Brooks. I have never in my life met such challenges and had such great rewards. To know that I had a small part in keeping interspecies families united in such difficult times makes my heart sing.

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