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Bill would let judges grant custody of pets in some cases

New Hampshire Sunday News

April 05. 2014 9:11PM

Advocates say a proposal to include household pets in the state's domestic violence laws will give courts another tool to protect victims - humans and animals alike.

But some say the change is unnecessary and could actually harm victims.

House Bill 1410 would allow judges to grant custody of pets and include them in restraining orders in cases of domestic violence.

The measure passed the House on a voice vote last month and is in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Leigh Webb, D-Franklin, is the prime sponsor of the bill, which would let judges consider animal cruelty as evidence of domestic abuse.

"It's not an animal rights issue; it's a human issue," Webb said. "It's about the victims of domestic abuse."

Rep. Kyle Tasker, R-Nottingham, was one of two votes against the bill on the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee; 14 voted yes.

Tasker said the proposed law could be used by abusers to claim the other party was the one hurting the pet.

"Because once you get into a situation like that, kids become weapons; animals become weapons," he said. "It's just another thing to use against the other person.

"It's already a he-said-she-said situation," he said. "If it comes down to who's the better liar, does that really help anyone?"

Amanda Grady Sexton, public policy director for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said judges already sort out "very complicated issues" in such cases.

"We need to rely on our judges, who do receive training about how to determine who the primary aggressor is," she said. "That's happening now with children."

To prepare for testifying in favor of House Bill 1410, Grady Sexton asked the state's 14 crisis centers to share their experiences; she said "the stories poured in."

"It was rabbits, dogs, cats, horses: maiming them, killing them. It was horrifying stuff," she said.

Franklin Police Chief David Goldstein asked Webb to sponsor the bill.

He said abusers in both domestic violence and sexual abuse cases often threaten pets as "a bargaining chip" to keep victims from seeking help.

He said one study found that more than 70 percent of victims would not leave abusive relationships if their pets could not go with them.

Threatening or harming pets is now part of a checklist police use to assess the "potential for lethality" when they respond to domestic disputes, Goldstein said. Adding household animals to domestic violence laws would give police "another arrow in the quiver," he said.

House Bill 1410 also would give judges "discretion" to include pets in protective orders, Webb said.

Rep. Mark Warden, R-Manchester, who voted against House Bill 1410 in committee, did not want to comment for this story. However, in the Minority Report he wrote on the bill, Warden said it could make a bad situation worse.

"The flawed language in this bill would allow a party in a domestic violence dispute to use the power of the courts to forbid another party from visiting a beloved pet, further escalating hostilities between parties," he wrote.

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