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North Hills Monthly

Crisis Center North Working with PVSEC, Verizon to Expand Paws for Empowerment Program

Nov 30, 2017 01:18PM ● By Jennifer Monahan

Wyatt Herschell and Sammy Cooper, two of CCN's Canine Kids, spend time reading to Penny. Photo courtesy of Cathy Benscoter, Penn State Beaver

Crisis Center North is partnering with Verizon Wireless and the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center (PVSEC) to expand its innovative Paws for Empowerment program.

For more than 40 years, victims of domestic violence have turned to Crisis Center North (CCN) for help. In 2010, Executive Director Grace Coleman created the Paws for Empowerment program, which provides canine support for CCN clients. Its first canine advocate, a rescued shelter dog named Penny, has offered emotional support to countless children and adults, and the program’s success inspired Coleman’s newest initiative with the PVSEC.

“PVSEC is the premier veterinary clinic in the area,” said Coleman, adding that this makes it an ideal partner to pilot an expanded Paws for Empowerment program. She said that the idea is to create a community of people who are combatting domestic violence together. 

A number of factors contributed to the idea for this coalition. First, Coleman’s childhood experience as the daughter of a rural country veterinarian taught her that vets often have a unique insight into the dynamics of a family. Second, statistics show that individuals who commit violence towards family members often also abuse their pets. Until now, however, no mechanism existed for crisis centers and veterinary clinics to talk with each other. Part of the project’s goal is to explore the connection between animal abuse and domestic violence. 

Another factor is that in 85 percent of families, a woman takes the pet to the vet clinic. “Since women are disproportionately affected by domestic violence, the overlap creates an opportunity to target a specific audience,” said Coleman. She added that 48 percent of domestic violence victims say they will not leave a violent situation if they are unable to take their pets or cannot ensure their safety.

With all of these factors in play, Coleman approached Steve Van Dinter, Verizon’s public relations manager for the Great Lakes region, about expanding the program. Verizon has been a long-time partner in CCN’s work locally, and Verizon’s national HopeLine program provides concrete assistance for victims of domestic violence.

Van Dinter said he is especially interested in prevention initiatives and is always looking for new and innovative ways to combat domestic abuse. “CCN has been a wonderful partner with us for years,” Van Dinter said. “Their team is so dedicated to helping people in the Pittsburgh area, and they regularly bring new ideas to the table.” 

Van Dinter works with crisis centers across an eight-state region, and said the expansion of the Paws for Empowerment program with PVSEC is unusual. “This is unique—unlike any other program I’ve come across,” he explained.

Coleman is working closely with Lori Harbert of PVSEC. A licensed clinical social worker, Harbert runs grief counseling sessions and support groups for PVSEC clients who have lost a pet or are dealing with a pet’s illness. Though the need for a social worker on staff at a veterinary hospital may not initially be obvious, Harbert said that veterinarians have increasingly recognized the deep connection that many people have with their animals—especially in cases where a person has been sexually abused and the animal may be the only trustworthy creature in his or her life. 

Although details of the pilot program are still being developed, Coleman and Harbert envision a two-fold approach to their work. Veterinarians routinely screen animals for signs of abuse, and moving forward, Coleman and Harbert plan to train all veterinarians to screen the pets’ human companions for signs of domestic violence with the idea that the veterinary hospital could be a safe space for a victim to ask for help or to receive information about resources like CCN.

They also hope to provide educational resources related to domestic violence. For example, the veterinary hospital might display brochures or fliers that help people recognize signs of abuse and provide steps that a person can take to escape the violence.

CCN’s Paws for Empowerment advisory board has been integral to the center’s work, Coleman said, and is excited about its expansion. Board member Dora McQuaid, an award-winning poet and activist, said that given the profound relationships that many people have with their pets and the alarming connections between domestic violence and animal abuse, she hopes that the partnership with PVSEC will expand the scope of care available to support both the people and their pets. 

“This partnership between Paws and PVSEC is groundbreaking and I suspect that it will prove to be one that changes the face of victim services across Pennsylvania and the country in the coming years,” McQuaid said.

For more information, visit If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic violence, call CCN’s hotline at 412-364-5556.