Not everyone knows that cruelty to animals is illegal. And not everyone knows that children with Conduct Disorder (CD), in addition to their other behavioral challenges, are more likely to engage in animal cruelty than other neurotypical children. What they also don’t know is: all too often, officials don’t seem to know or care themselves. This is a big problem. Because animal cruelty committed by children often isn’t reported by law enforcement, too many children who harm animals are able to continue doing so with impunity. This lack of consistent reporting of animal cruelty also means we have too little data regarding how widespread the problem is, or whether animal cruelty is—as it’s believed to be—a red flag that the child will harm people in the future–or is harming them already.
Despite animal cruelty being one of the diagnostic criteria of CD in the DSM-V, the overwhelming majority of parents of children with CD I have heard from over the years say crimes against animals are not taken seriously.
Mostly what I hear is law enforcement won’t take reports. Eventually, when the courts finally get involved for other reasons, the courts ignore parents’ reports of animal harm, too.
This seems to be the norm for parents of young people with CD who harm animals. An investigation into harm against an animal is the exception, not the rule. Parents are blamed for their child’s behavior, accused of making up stories of animal harm and murder, or sometimes both.
My child with CD never harmed animals. Indeed, he was quite kind to them even when he was not kind to humans. Nevertheless, the issue of animal cruelty is one that haunts me.
I’ve heard many stories of animal cruelty over the years, but three stand out. The first, a young person who repeatedly poisoned animals and was deemed to have autism by the court psychologist. (No, people with autism do not repeatedly murder animals, and yes, this young person had a diagnosis of CD). The second, a judge, who, upon hearing a motion to approve a service dog for a young person whose parent reported multiple animal murders, denied the motion to obtain a service animal not because of concern for the welfare of that animal, but because other children in the group home might have allergies to animals. The third, a young person who admitted to murdering dozens of animals and attempting to murder a parent, was given less than six months of residential treatment, even though this child’s violent behavior had been going on for years.
All of these parents have to fight for years to get to the point where the courts could ignore them. They fought for years to get before a judge, thinking the judge would see what a danger their child was and order treatment. Instead, all these parents got was more of the same. Their reports of repeated animal murder ignored not just by law enforcement, but now by the court psychologists and judges; the very people who should understand what a danger someone is who repeatedly kills animals on purpose. All these parents fought and fought and fought to be heard by a judge, only to be ignored by the court systems that are supposed to be their saviors in situations like these.
And not a one of these incidents is in the FBI database. Even though the FBI database reports individual offenses, rather than tracking offenders, I know for certain none of these crimes is in the database because no reports were ever taken by law enforcement. Every single one of these combined dozens of murders and attempted murders of animals was blown off by law enforcement. Not a single report was taken.
The FBI is supposed to be tracking data on animal cruelty. But they can only track data included in police reports. We have over 18,000 different law enforcement agencies in the US. According to Mary Lou Randour of the Animal Welfare Institute, only 20% of these 18,000 agencies are reporting any data to NIBRS. This includes data on animal cruelty. I don’t have to spell out that that means 80% of the data is missing, at least. So, as it stands NIBRS, the FBI database, is useless for tracking animal cruelty because law enforcement too often fails to report and investigate crimes against animals, especially when they are committed by young people.
As a result, although I would love to tell you what percentage of children with CD harm animals, there’s no consistent data. Based on how frequently I hear about it though, I would say it is quite common—perhaps more than half.
There also seems to be no real consensus as to whether cruelty to animals as a young person is predictive of future harm to humans. Again: it all boils down to no consistent data. I have been told by some experts in the field that there is good data and been old by others there is not. Some studies say there is a link, others say there is none. It’s hard to know what the truth is.
Are there young people without CD out there who harm animals and not people? I honestly don’t know. But I can’t recall ever talking to a parent whose child with CD hurt animals and did not also harm humans. I have never heard a parent say, “Thank god he’s only hurting animals and hasn’t moved on to people yet.” These young people were already hurting humans. Usually their families.
Forget predicting future crime, in my little corner of the world, crimes against animals seem to go hand in hand with current crimes against humans.
Crimes against animals should, at the very least, trigger a check on welfare. Is this person also harming members of their family, or other people? If the answer is yes, we need to provide real-time help to these families to help prevent future harm to living beings. Violence prevention that doesn’t include taking away siblings who have been subjected to abuse by their sibling with CD.
(This is, sadly, the solution of many jurisdictions: to take the child subjected to abuse away from the parents who have been trying to help them and place them in foster care. The reasoning is the parents failed to protect their child from the sibling with CD, even though they were trying to do just that by reporting the abuse.)
Whether scientifically valid or completely unfounded, children who repeatedly harm animals remain the bogeyman for parents and caregivers of young people with CD–the thing we are most afraid of. I don’t know if this is a purely emotional response based on fear stoked by the media, or if it is a well-founded instinct.
But scientists cannot analyze data they do not possess. Every parent I have spoken with in our community wants this data monitored. Parents want to know what the risk factors are for our children. If our child kills animals, does this mean they are more of a danger to us—and the rest of society? Do we need to worry less if our children don’t kill animals, or is this a false sense of security? We need to be able to assess the threat to our families. Not some distant future possible harm to someone else (though we worry about this too), but how much danger am I and my family in right now?
We need to track this data, or we will never know for sure. We need law enforcement to start taking crimes against animals seriously, filing reports, and investigating. We need the other 80% of law enforcement agencies to start reporting crimes against animals. Reporting to NIBRS is voluntary. I would think the myriad issues that come with voluntary crime reporting should be obvious. We need all of these crimes to be reported by law enforcement. We need courts to take reports of animal harm from a child’s parent seriously, investigate, and help our children.
More to the point, we need to ask ourselves if animal cruelty is predictive of current violence against humans, and if so, are we failing to protect the welfare of people by ignoring crimes against animals as some data seems to suggest?
We must also ask ourselves: why are we waiting for acts of animal cruelty to be predictive of anything? Why aren’t we taking animal cruelty more seriously in its own right?
Why don’t animals–who cannot file police reports, or testify in court–deserve to be protected from being cut, burned, stabbed, or poisoned to the same degree as humans do?
Lillyth Quillan (@LillythQuillan) is the Founder of Parents of Children with Conduct Disorder.