Domestic violence victims' dilemma: What will happen to my pet?

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RENO, Nev., (KOLO) As their marriage was tearing apart, Debbie Constantino sought help at both of the area's shelters.

There was then, as there often is, a waiting list. But she would eventually find a home with friends.

However, she left behind her two dogs, and as often happens when women take that step, her husband Mark and her daughter Rachel used them to lure her from her refuge.

Sylvia Gonzalez at the Committee to Aid Abused Women was counseling Debbie Constantino when it happened.

"And her comes the client (Constantino) looking for her animals and husband and daughter are there to beat her up," Gonzalez told us back in 2015.

Having a daughter join in on the physical abuse was something Gonzalez had never seen, but sadly there's nothing unusual about using pets for leverage. It's something she's seen often before and since Debbie Constantino asked for help

"According to national data 25 percent of victims of domestic violence do not leave the domestic violence situation because they're concerned for the safety of their pets."

There may be threats to the pet itself or just the financial inability to house them elsewhere. And then there's the emotional attachment.

"Frequently emotionally they are so battered down," says Liz Greg of Safe Embrace, a shelter in Sparks where Debbie Constantino was on the waiting list.

"They feel so badly about themselves. That is just like a bedrock of their lives. And if you take that away you literally do take everything away from them."

There was no happy ending for the Constantinos. Instead, a murder-suicide at the end of a standoff with police, a trail of escalating violence that also claimed the life of one of Debbie Constantinos friends.

Most domestic violence cases don't end in such in such a public way, but today many women and their children in our area remain in a dangerous relationship and one factor keeping them there is their pets.

"Last year as a matter of fact we had 48 victims of domestic violence call us for assistance as a shelter. When we told them we couldn't take any pets they never came in."

Lack of available beds remains a chronic issue, especially in Washoe County, but shelters are making space for pets.

Safe Embrace already has space for small animals. CAAW will be breaking ground on one shortly.

"Anything that helps, anything that breaks down those barriers from our perspective, that's a good thing." says Greb.

That commitment remains rare.

Nationwide only three percent of shelters currently accommodate pets.

This issue is getting attention on the national scene as well. Senator Dean Heller along with three others from both parties have sponsored what would be the Pet and Women Safety Act.

It expands federal domestic violence protections to include threats against pets, provides grant funding for shelters that offer assistance for pets and allows victims to recover costs for veterinary services.

To find out more about the Committee to aid abused women, click here