The Power of Unconditional Love to Heal the Trauma of Domestic Violence

The team at Sojourner Center is dedicated to the field of domestic violence. We go to work every day now at a campus that includes the Southwest's largest domestic violence shelter and provide services and support to women and children whose lives have been severely disrupted. Our staff's friends and family often ask how they handle such an emotionally wrenching job.

It can be difficult, but some members of our team have found a new way of coping with stress. Every so often, they will stroll down to the Sojourner Pet Companion Shelter, and give a little love to the cats, dogs, birds, turtles and goats that we care for on behalf of their pet parents.

Usually, they are not alone. There are usually women and children from our domestic violence shelter there too. They might be feeding their companion animals, or grooming them, but most of what we see is a lot of cuddling and big hugs. It is a love-fest, and it brings joy to see our shelter participants smiling and at peace. I know as we head into the holiday season, the pets and our participants will need each other all the more.

And originally, that was just the point -- to give women the opportunity to rescue their pets when they fled their homes due to domestic violence. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says about 40% of people experiencing domestic violence do not leave their abusers, because they are concerned about what will happen to their pets. We saw an opportunity to address a service gap in our market, and found the support we needed to make it happen.

But as soon as we opened our shelter in 2015, it was apparent that providing this service to our residents was about so much more than just safeguarding pets, as important as that is. It is an opportunity for pets and people to heal together. Watching this process unfold before our eyes is a reminder that when we work to address the complex, multi-faceted social problem of domestic violence, the most important clues can emerge from the simplest, most loving interactions.

I remember when the very first pet came to our newly opened shelter - an adorable St. Bernard named Henri, who has the biggest head I've ever seen. Our shelter participant, Prisilia, had been with Henri for four years, living in North Carolina in a worsening situation with her spouse. With her son, her cat and Henri, she escaped, driving across the United States for five days to meet relatives in Arizona. They needed a place to stay. Luckily, Prisilia found Sojourner Center at just the moment we opened our Pet Companion Shelter (in partnership with the Lost Our Home Pet Foundation and PetSmart, which helped fund the program in its startup phase.)

Henri is a giant teddy bear of a dog, with soft brown and white fur and an everlasting smile. It was so gratifying to observe Prisilia interact with him. The moments they shared held her anxieties at bay just long enough for her to get some perspective on her journey. Watching Prisilia wrap her arms around her pet, I felt in my heart the unconditional and uncomplicated love Henri gave her, and how that dose of pure emotion gave her just what she needed at this uncertain time. Of course, Henri was always thrilled to see Prisilia. I'm sure Henri understood that his pet parent was feeling stronger and more self-possessed with each passing day.

In an interview, Prisilia said participating in our shelter "helps you rediscover yourself; it helps you find more about yourself that you didn't know before." She gained strength and confidence from her time at Sojourner Center, and I believe having both her pets on our campus facilitated her evolution. It was much more than simply knowing her pets were safe. It was knowing Henri's love was close by. Henri is Prisilia's touchstone, a reminder of continuity in her life at a time of great change.

Ollie is another Pet Companion Shelter resident, and he has a pet parent named Jasmine who came through Sojourner Center this year. Jasmine melts my heart when she tells her story, because her emotions are right on the surface. I hear the echo of fear in her voice when she tells how she left her dogs behind when she escaped her abuser. "I didn't know if they were going to end up in the streets, or in a dog pound. And then I found out I was able to have them here, and I was so happy." She retrieved her dogs and they joined her on our campus.

Jasmine has come so far since then. "I came in broken and I'm leaving much, much stronger and much wiser. I have myself to take care of and my babies" - her dogs. Her story illustrates something we see a lot. For some people, it is easier to invest in changing your life and getting stronger when you decide you are doing it for someone else. Jasmine was motivated to transform her life and move on from a bad situation because she wanted to be fully present for her pets. They are her family.

The word shelter focuses only on one aspect of the experience that these women, children and pets are undergoing. Yes, you are safe and protected in a time of emergency. But time in a shelter is also about healing. I'm so pleased that our shelter participants who are also pet parents can maintain the bond they have formed with their pets.

In this holiday season, we all reflect on those perfect family moments we recall so fondly and hope to experience this time of year. For so many of our shelter participants, their pets are vital sources of family support. When a shelter like ours can keep members of the family together, it gives our participants more opportunities to heal.

Dr. Maria E. Garay-Serratos is CEO of Sojourner Center in Phoenix, AZ. She knows we can end the cycles of domestic violence and create a world free from domestic violence. With this blog, Dr. Garay-Serratos will advance the conversation, spotlight new research and practices and share information that can transform lives.