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New push to spot link between animal, child abuse

Laura Ahearn, director of Parents for Megan's Law,

Laura Ahearn, director of Parents for Megan's Law, rear left, and Paula Ryder, of Megan's Law, talk to Roy Gross, chief of the SPCA, and legislator John M. Kennedy Jr., at the SCPA office in Hauppauge on April 22, 2014. Credit: James Carbone

A Suffolk nonprofit that provides support to sexual abuse victims is teaming up with the county's animal protection agency to train investigators on the frequent link between animal cruelty and child and spousal abuse.

On Tuesday, some of the Suffolk SPCA's more than 50 investigators received training from Parents for Megan's Law, of Stony Brook, which runs the county's sex-offender monitoring program. The group noted warning signs, including poor hygiene in the household, that can signal animal and child abuse.

"A batterer's first target is often an animal living at home," Paula Ryder, senior advocate for Parents for Megan's Law, told the group. "The second target is a spouse or a child."

Ryder cited a 1986 study published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry that said 62 percent of animal abuse offenders had also committed an assault and 17 percent had committed sexual abuse.

The study also found 48 percent of rapists and 30 percent of convicted child molesters had committed animal abuse in childhood or adolescence.

Suffolk SCPA Chief Roy Gross said when officers are called to investigate animal abuse complaints, they'll "quite often" encounter suspected child abuse and cases of domestic violence that had previously gone unreported.

Gross recalled the case of a Dix Hills man who kept his wife and children chained for long periods of time, threatening them with his collection of exotic animals including a leopard, and a Selden mother sentenced to 2 years in jail after investigators unearthed the bodies of 42 pets buried in her backyard. Her children said she would torture dogs and cats to death in their presence.

The SPCA investigates some 3,000 reports of animal cruelty each year. While the agency does not keep tally of how many of those calls have been linked to some sort of spousal or child abuse, Roy said "It's quite often, more often than you'd like to believe."

Last year, Suffolk's Child Protective Services bureau, which is part of the county Department of Social Services, investigated some 9,000 calls of suspected child abuse reported to the state's central child abuse hotline.

Parents for Megan's law and the SPCA plan to collaborate on additional workshops to inform child protective agencies and local animal shelters about the link between both forms of abuse.

April is Child Abuse Awareness Month and Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month.

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