Perpetration of Animal Abuse by Maltreated Youth in Out-of-Home Care: Mental Health and Behavioral Correlates
Methods: Our study examined the prevalence of animal abuse perpetration among 514 maltreated youth (ages 9-11) who were placed in out-of-home care. A composite measure of animal abuse was generated from youth and caregiver reports and dichotomized; if either youth or their caregiver reported the child had hurt or tortured animals, the child was considered to have engaged in the behavior. Child Protection Services’ intake reports and Dependency and Neglect petitions were used to code the type of maltreatment that led to the child’s removal from the home (e.g., physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, failure to provide, moral /legal abuse, educational neglect, and lack of supervision). Trauma symptoms and externalizing/internalizing behavior problems were assessed using the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children (TSC-C; Briere, 1996) and Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL; Achenbach & Rescorla, 2001), respectively. Mean scores on these measures were compared for youth who engaged in animal abuse and those who had not.
Results: Our results demonstrated that 10% of youth (N=52) had engaged in hurting or torturing of animals. Analyses examining maltreatment experiences indicated youth who had abused animals were significantly more likely than non-animal abusers to have experienced physical abuse (45% vs. 27%; χ2(1)=5.983, p=.014) and moral/legal abuse (50% vs. 29%; χ2(1)=8.036, p=.005), defined as caregivers’ participation in illegal activities with the child’s knowledge or allowing the child to be present when illegal activities were occurring. Children who had engaged in animal abuse were characterized by higher levels of behavioral and mental health issues. Among children who had abused animals, analyses indicated higher total mean scores on the Trauma Symptom Checklist (t(512)= 2.7, p= .007) and higher externalizing (t(435)= 4.44, p<.001), internalizing (t(55.30)= 3.385, p= .001), and total behavior problems (t(59.67)= 5.53, p<.001) as measured by standardized scores on the CBCL.
Conclusion and Implications: Our findings lend support to previous research linking childhood animal abuse to mental health issues, delinquency, and antisocial behavior in youth. Findings from this study suggest that it is important to assess animal abuse in the context of mental health and behavior problems. Early identification of animal abuse perpetration through assessment may promote best practice strategies in clinical intervention work with maltreated youth, enhancing practitioners’ ability to serve maltreated children and their families and promote successful foster placements.