Protections for pets in domestic violence, divorce cases pass Pa. House panel

‘Frequently, when a protection from abuse order is issued, the animal becomes a target and … we have some absolutely horrific stories of this type of abuse,’ Rep. Christina Sappey said

By: - June 14, 2023 3:58 pm
(Photo by Source New Mexico)

(Photo by Source New Mexico)

Recognizing the role that pets play in family life, Pennsylvania House lawmakers advanced legislation to address what happens to companion animals when families break up.

The House Judiciary Committee voted to send a pair of bills to the full chamber for votes that would deter those accused of domestic violence from abusing pets and provide courts guidance on determining the appropriate ownership of pets in divorce proceedings.

While House Bill 1210 to prevent the victimization of pets passed unanimously, Republican members of the committee voted against  House Bill 1108 – dealing with pets and divorce – citing concern over what they said was a lack of clarity on when an animal should be considered a pet. The bill passed 12-9.

State Rep. Christina Sappey, D-Chester, said she and Rep. Natalie Mihalek, R-Allegheny, who are co-prime sponsors of House Bill 1210, said they became aware from advocates for domestic violence victims that pets are often also used by abusers to inflict additional trauma.

“Frequently, when a protection from abuse order is issued, the animal becomes a target and … we have some absolutely horrific stories of this type of abuse,” Sappey said.

The legislation would amend the state’s Domestic Relations Act to allow a judge who issues a protection-from-abuse order to give the person seeking protection temporary ownership of family pets. It would also allow a judge to order the defendant not to take or abuse pets or enter the property of a person in possession of the pets.

Rep. Melissa Shusterman, D-Chester, said the bill is endorsed by the bipartisan Animal Protection Caucus, which has members from both chambers of the General Assembly.

In divorce proceedings, many couples have disagreements over the distribution of property, especially pets, Rep. Anita Astorino Kulik, D-Allegheny, said.

“Unfortunately, these situations and pets  could be used by one individual as leverage against the other when negotiating division of assets,” Kulik said.

Pennsylvania law treats animals as personal property like furniture, but most pet owners think of their companions as members of the family.

Kulik’s bill would direct a judge in a divorce case to consider factors including whether the pet was first obtained before or during the marriage, the daily needs of the animal, and which spouse generally provides for veterinary care, social interaction, licensing, and is better able to support the animal financially.

Kulik said the guidelines would not require additional hearings or contribute to the cost of a divorce proceeding because ownership of a pet would be decided as part of an agreement or hearing on the distribution of property.

Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, said he had a concern over the bill’s definition of a pet, noting that he has a relative who has a hog that “he took a particular shine to,” and decided not to butcher. 

“Over the years that hog was still a hog but treated somewhat as a pet. Is that a pet or is that an agricultural animal?” Schemel asked.

Schemel said he also had a concern about the bill’s description of pets as “cherished family members.” Citing the philosopher Aristotle, Schemel said western civilization has traditionally treated animals differently than people who are distinct from other beings.

“I believe that it begins to blur those lines, and I have significant concerns about that because I believe the law should continue to recognize the particular privilege and dignity of human persons,” Schemel said.

Also on Wednesday, the Judiciary Committee approved legislation that would waive fees for replacing certain state-issued documents for victims of domestic violence. 

Rep. Lisa Borowski, D-Delaware, the prime sponsor of House Bill 544, said one of the primary forms of abuse is control.

 “One of the ways that people participate in this type of control is by taking personal documents … trying to make sure that somebody loses their identity,” Borowski said.

The legislation would allow an abuse victim to apply to have fees waived to replace documents from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation such as a driver’s license, vehicle titles or registration cards. It would also allow the Department of Health to waive fees for replacement birth certificates.

To qualify, a person would be required to have a protection from abuse order, a statement from a victim service provider, attorney or medical professional that they sought assistance related to abuse or a statement by themselves under penalty of unsworn falsification. 

Republican lawmakers opposed an amendment to the bill that would reduce the penalty for a false statement to a $50 fine and the cost of replacement documents. The amendment and the bill were approved by 12-9 votes along party lines. 

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.