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When responding to a report of a juvenile involved in abusing an animal or in animal fighting, deputies should be alert to the fact that this may indicate that a more serious threat is present or possible. Are there indications of other crimes, such as drugs or illegal weapons? Since there can be a number of outcomes for the juvenile – release conditional on enrollment in a diversion program, release to parental custody, shelter care, community diversion, or counseling, it is crucial that deputies document the case as fully as possible to enable the courts to handle it appropriately.

When responding to a report of a juvenile involved in other criminal activity, especially if it involves interpersonal violence, deputies should also be alert to any evidence of animal cruelty. Even if there is no direct evidence of animal cruelty, it is still important to observe as much as possible about the context.

Especially with juveniles of any age, if there is the possibility of actual or attempted animal cruelty, the following steps are recommended:

Ask direct questions about what happened to the animal(s) and how. Children are more likely to self-report than the parent. In a comparison of parental reports and self-reports of cruelty to animals among 12- to 16-year olds, only 3 percent of parents thought that their children had participated in animal cruelty; when self-reporting, 10 percent of children admitted to having engaged in some form of animal cruelty.

  • If an animal has been injured, observe the severity of the injury, assess culpability; for example, did the juvenile understand the consequence of the action taken? What degree of planning was involved? Did the juvenile have to overcome obstacles? Did the event occur in a group? If so, determine the leader and the followers. Was there some type of coercion involved?
  • If an animal has been injured or killed, take photographs and if the animal needs assistance, call the local humane society or animal control office.
  • If animal cruelty has occurred, be sure to maintain a proper “chain of custody” of the animal as it is evidence.

Observing and questioning the family in their home should play a central role in assessing whether a juvenile should be released to parental custody. Clues about levels of violence can be gleaned from observing the conditions of any animals in the home and the interaction between the family members and the animals. For example, how do animals respond to the different family members? Do the animals look healthy? Are they chained? Are there indications of animal fighting, such as scarring? One study found an association between ownership of high-risk (“vicious”) dogs and criminality. Individuals who owned high-risk dogs had significantly more criminal convictions than other owners. The researchers concluded that “[f]indings suggest that the ownership of high-risk (“vicious”) dogs can be a significant marker for general deviance and should be an element considered when assessing risk for child endangerment”.

Also, there are direct questions to consider asking the family members:

  • Do you have any pets? How many have you had? What happened to them?
  • What happens when the family pet misbehaves? Who disciplines him or her?

Disposition of the case may entail probation, fine/restitution, diversion to community programs, and/or home detention, or the juvenile may be committed to a residential program. Information developed during the assessment phase, coupled with the facts of the case (the presence and severity of animal cruelty, the level of involvement of the individual juvenile as instigator or follower, and his/her level of remorse) should factor into the decision. Juvenile participation in animal fighting warrants special attention since this is a direct gateway into a world of drugs, gambling, illegal weapons, and even murder. What should also not be missed, however, is the presence of juveniles and even younger children as spectators at animal fights. As noted above, research shows the harmful effects on children from witnessing animal cruelty. Being a spectator is illegal in some states, and communities should deal particularly firmly with those who bring children to these spectacles. The most important thing to remember is that animal cruelty is one of the first chances to recognize that a child and his or her family are in trouble. Pay attention to animal cruelty –observe, ask questions, look at animals in the family and on the street. Strike up conversations with juveniles about animals and their pets. Get them talking. You could change a life.

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