In cases of domestic and sexual violence, the first priority is to safely distance endangered adults and children from the situation. But many survivors report they have refused or delayed opportunities to move to a secure shelter because their companion animals, often abused by the same perpetrators as a form of control or intimidation, could not be accommodated. The local Sasawin Project was established to spare pets from trauma and preserve their vital relationships with their families. The goal is to include animals in safety plans and assure them refuge so that survivors will be more likely to seek their own protection.
Sasawin (Suh-sa-SWIN) is the Anishinaabe word for nest or safe place. The project was established in 2013 as a partnership involving the Women’s Center/Harbor House, the Upper Peninsula Animals Welfare Shelter (UPAWS) and NMU. It provides foster care, veterinary services, basic care items and animal behavior consultations at no cost to survivors.
“Our project is modeled after a program in Atlanta called Ahimsa House, which coordinates a huge network of foster families for companion animals throughout Georgia. We don’t have a lot of foster families locally yet; we’re still working on that,” said NMU professor Helen Kahn from the School of Clinical Sciences, who began the Sasawin Project. She is able to combine her love of animals and awareness of domestic violence gleaned from volunteer service with her professional experience in research, data collection and grant writing. To fund the project, Kahn secured a $5,300 grant for the project from the Banfield Charitable Trust and another $3,000 over three years from the American Kennel Club.
“A lot of survivors, both women and men, aren’t going to leave without their children,” Kahn said. “They’re not going to leave without their animals, either, because they want to preserve that reciprocal, non-judgmental relationship. In some cases, those animals may be the only living organisms that are kind to them. We think more about the comfort and value of all living organisms as our consciousness is raised about the documented connections between animal cruelty and violence. When you see violence in children, those children may have witnessed animal abuse in their homes.”
Survivors who call Harbor House for help getting out of a volatile situation are asked during the intake evaluation if they have animals. This begins the process of arranging foster care. If an escort is required, Kahn said the Harbor House representative and police officer who show up at the door will also accompany animals from the home. The animals are transported to a participating veterinarian for a health check before they settle in to their temporary lodging--all in a confidential manner to ensure safety for the pets and foster families.
“Social justice was instilled in me by my mother,” Kahn said. “She took in stray dogs and cats and cared about the children in our neighborhood. Kids and animals don’t have the choices adults do and trust adults to take care of them. That vulnerability is heart-wrenching to me. When I had a conversation with Sally Mays, one of the Founding Mothers of the Women’s Center and current board member, about animals getting caught in the middle of domestic violence, I figured this project was a way to pull it all together and do something meaningful to address the issue.”
In 2014, the Sasawin Project officially affiliated with the Women’s Center in Marquette. NMU students have assisted Kahn with the effort and she advises the Students for the Sasawin Project organization. Sasawin relies on grants and community fundraising, with all donations tax-deductible. Kahn said area residents can also help by serving as foster families for animals, donating new or gently used pet supplies to the Women’s Center and advocating for an end to domestic/sexual and animal violence.