NEW CITY — Mercedes Cecchin was desperate to escape from the dangerous situation she said she was in living with her husband.
But when a spot opened up in a Rockland shelter for Cecchin and her 6-year-old daughter, she was torn. If she left, what would happen to her dog, Cody? She had no family in the area, none of her friends could take him and she didn't want to leave him behind. “They’re calling me and said come in because we are ready for you but I said no, I can’t because I didn’t look for a place for Cody," Cecchin recalled Thursday at the Center for Safety and Change.
Her dilemma was not uncommon for victims of domestic violence — some change their minds about leaving because they're concerned about their pet, said Elizabeth Santiago, the center's executive director. "One of her biggest concerns was what she was going to do with the dog ... Cody was as much a part of her life as (her daughter)," Santiago said.
Fortunately for Cecchin, she didn't have to leave Cody behind. "They told me, 'Come in with him,'" she said. The center's Paws for Safety program placed the silver Yorkie in a foster home through an arrangement with Hi Tor Animal Care Center. Four months later, Cecchin found an apartment of her own that accepted pets and had begun to put her life back together.
On Thursday Cody scampered around a family room at the center, yapping excitedly and jumping into Cecchin's lap as she described how difficult it was to explain to her daughter, Emma, that they wouldn't be able to see Cody for awhile.
Cecchin, 45, teared up as she recalled her reunion with Cody. “It was a very emotional situation,” she said.
The Cecchins are among some 15 families who have had their pets — mostly dogs and cats — fostered through the program since its inception in 2012.
“Our goal with the Paws program really is to reunite the family in its entirety," Santiago said. "There’s such a correlation between human abuse — domestic violence, intimate partner violence — and pet abuse," she added.
Nancy Donoghue, the center's legal advocate and coordinator of the pet safety program, said the focus is on removing all the weapons a batterer could use to prevent someone from leaving.
"It's about the power and the control the perpetrator has over their intimate partner and how those animals become pawns in a game of power and control," she said.
With the center's legal help, Cecchin divorced her husband. She still struggles to re-create her life and care for Emma, who is now 8 and has diabetes. There are financial and employment hurdles ahead.
It's not an easy journey.
But she has the support of the people at the Center for Safety and Change, whom she calls her extended family. And, of course, she has Cody.
For information about Paws for Safety, call Nancy Donoghue, 845-634-3391, extension 3033
The Center for Safety and Change's 24-hour hotline is 845-634-3344
Some facts about animal abuse and domestic violence:
70 percent of people charged with cruelty to animals were known by police for other violent behavior.
Abused animals were found in 60 percent of homes where child abuse or neglect occurred.
Abused animals were found in 88 percent of homes where physical child abuse occurred.
75 percent of the incidents of animal abuse occurred in the presence of children to psychologically control and coerce them.
Sources: National Link Coalition, Deviney, Dickert & Lockwood