Recommendations for Animal Cruelty Specific
Court Ordered Evaluations
Why are individualized evaluations recommended ?
Too often, little or no formal evaluation is performed and intervention ranges from no intervention to a mild consequence such as a fine or community service. This is juxtaposed to the reaction that all animal abuse will lay a direct path to future serial murder or extreme violence. An example of this occurred in Denver a few years ago when two high school students were arrested on animal cruelty for catching wild baby rabbits and bringing them into a school pep-rally where the animals were tossed across the gymnasium and eventually were severely injured, resulting in the death of the animals. Although the youths in this case had no significant history of anti-social behavior prior to this incident, the media referenced this behavior as a definitive precursor to a likely trajectory of serial murder. This type of over exaggeration never assists with a useful response. At the other extreme we have had frequent examples where a seriously disturbed child has begun to engage in major acts of animal cruelty and killing and where the behavior is so completely minimized that it is only after the fact that the behavior gets identified.
Forensic mental health evaluations require a unique set of skills and tools to assist in accurate differential diagnosis and appropriate intervention. Animal abuse-specific evaluations are no exception. Evaluators who are requested to evaluate animal-abuse behavior in either an adult or a child, benefit from specialized training and are well served to utilize more recognized protocols and tools designed to understand the specific domains that inform us regarding both cause of the animal abuse as well as the treatment and client specific dispositional recommendations.
The primary purposes in an animal abuse –specific evaluation will include:
- Identify behavioral, mental health, and trauma-based issues relevant to the emergence of animal cruelty behavior.
- Provide an accurate estimation of the likelihood and circumstances for continue abuse behavior and community safety concerns.
- Provide recommendations for intervention, disposition and supervision.
High rates of co-morbid diagnosis in this population necessitates the use of sensitive, comprehensive, and standardized methods for assessment of individuals who have engaged in serious or chronic animal cruelty in order to assist in the formation of appropriate recommendations.
The evaluator should be equipped with the following skills and information:
- A complete understanding of the incident including accurate police report and referral information.
- A clear understanding of the federal, state and local animal abuse laws.
- Understanding of the potential legal and dispositional outcomes and intervention resources.
- Fundamental knowledge about child and adult normative development and psychopathology
- Familiarity with child and adult diagnostics and mental health
- Access to clinical interview with the individual and their social support network including the family
A formal assessment may contains the following areas of focus:
- Case file review
- Client interview/observation
- Clinical mental status exam
- Collateral contact family members, and other relevant persons
- Collateral review of criminal history
- Review of academic functioning
- Neurobehavioral cognitive status exam
- Intelligence testing
- Diagnostic symptom assessment
- Trauma assessment
- Psychological testing
- Clinical assessment of family
- Animal abuse typology consideration
- Animal abuse risk assessment
- Review of veterinary and forensic veterinary reports
Clinical Domains of the Evaluation:
The need to assess the seriousness of animal abuse is important in making determinations about prediction of future harm to both animals and humans. Serious animal abuse is almost always symptomatic of other problems. Which is different than saying animal abuse should be treated simply as a symptom of other problems. The evidence strongly suggests that serious cruelty behavior toward animals is indicative of an increased risk of other anti-social actions. Comprehensive assessment is critical in making accurate decisions regarding interventions that are required. The primary domains that should be examined in the performance of an animal abuse assessment should include at least the following considerations:
· Cognitive Functioning
This domain is used to determine if there is evidence of impairment in cognitive functions, processing difficulty or the presence of a thought disorder.
Often thought of in the framework of culpability, this domain makes determinations regarding the level of intention to cause harm, other prominent causes for the behavior, cognitive capacitiies of the abuser, and context of the actions within the social norms of the environment. The individual’s level of blameworthiness may have direct bearing on legal issues of culpability.
· Personality and Mental Health
This domain is intended to determine if there is an acute or prior history of mental illness or emotional instability. It is recognized that many animal violence behaviors stem from untreated mental health problems.
· Social/Developmental History
This domain is intended to elicit information relevant to understanding the client’s social and interpersonal functioning. It has been documented that significant social and relational difficulties are often risk factors in the psychological profiles of animal abusers.
· Individual Functioning/Development Competence
Experts agree that it is important to distinguish between adult and children when evaluating animal abuse behaviors. This domain will assist in making developmental sense of the actions of clients at different ages, developmental levels and differing culpability levels. This domain will also assist in making appropriate age and development sensitive dispositional recommendations.
· Current Family Functioning
This domain remains central to the client’s ability to succeed in counseling and even the evaluation. Families that understand the severity of the issue and hold the offender accountable will improve prognosis and reduce the likelihood of further animal cruelty or abuse. Conversely, the family systems that deny the relevance of the problem and may normalize the behavior are dramatically increasing the likelihood of additional abuse activity. It is also critical to understand the client’s worldview as it relates to the behaviors being assessed. Behavior that is outside the cultural norm clearly carries different significance than if the behavior is commonplace in the individuals cultural experience.
· Sexual and Deviancy Issues
The correlations and not infrequent evidence that animals are the victims of sexual abusive behavior necessitates that evaluators be prepared to evaluate the issues sexual deviancy and sexualized abuse of animals. Increasing new research supports that sexual abuse of animals is strongly correlated as a paraphilia in cross over sexual behavior toward human victims.
· Employment/Academic Functioning
This domain is important as an indicator of stability and functioning. In many cases where an individual is engaging in animal abuse there are significant difficulties in their performance and relationship in either work or school environments.
· Delinquency, Conduct and Behavioral Issues
This domain should review the presence of other antisocial and disruptive behavior, which would include histories of any criminal and non-criminal deviant behaviors. One of the strongest risk predictors of any specific future behavior is past behavior. This should attempt to assess behaviors that the client was caught for as well as those behaviors for which they were not .
· Assessment of Risk
Risk assessment is designed to elicit client strength and assets and evaluators should spend special attention to this domain. Individuals with few protective factors, such as significant isolation and poor social support, represent a substantially greater risk for poor outcomes. The ability to identify animal abuse risk will be improved by engaging these individuals in the process of healthy growth and change.
· Protective Factors
Protective factors are the factors that tend to predict or improve postive outcomes for people. An important concept in risk assessment is the balancing and measurement of the presence of health and protective factors. Because protective factors are frequently dynamic (changeable) variables and can be increased through effective treatment intervention and improved support, increasing protective factors can serve as important concept for improving stability. Conversely, individual with few protective factors such as significant isolation and poor social support represent a substantially greater risk for poor outcomes and increased risk.
· Empathy and Awareness of Victim Impact
This domain is intended to examine the individual ability to feel. Empathy and the capacity to understand others experience, to feel authentically has been identified as an important quality to serve as an inhibitor to abusive behavior.
· Substance Abuse
Substance abuse appears to be highly correlated with the acceleration of all types of violence, thus it becomes very important to assess its role in animal cruelty and abuse cases.
· Offense and Abuse Characteristics
This domain is intended to provide clear, concise information about the nature, frequency, severity and scope of the animal abuse behavior. Use of the Boat Inventory can be useful for completion of this domain.
· Supervision and Legal Issues
Supervision and legal factors domain is intended to assist the evaluator in making clear statement about the availability of accountability and need for supervision. When the animal abuse behavior has risen to the level of legal intervention, the evaluator should note the court requirements. All evaluations should attempt to have understanding of the client’s social network, because it is likely that those persons closest to the client may have the best ability to supervise the client and improve success.
Recommendations for treatment and supervision