Delaware Legislation Enhances Protections for Companion Animals in Families

by Danica Brendon

In a significant step towards protecting companion animals, Delaware Governor John Carney recently signed three bills that aim to enhance their welfare in key areas of family law. These bills address domestic violence, divorce, and mandatory reporting of abuse, highlighting the intersection between animal law and family law.

The new legislation recognizes that companion animals are left vulnerable when the law fails to differentiate them, as sentient beings, from other forms of property. This is an important acknowledgment, as companion animals hold a special place in the family and can be both beloved family members and targets of abuse.

These bills originated from an Animal Welfare and Family Law seminar organized by Family Court Judge Jennifer B. Ranji, who previously headed the Delaware agency responsible for child abuse and neglect investigations, as reported by WHYY. The legislation gained widespread support and moved swiftly through the legislature with the assistance of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which helped draft the bills and provided research support and guidance.

One of the bills, House Bill 95, requires courts to consider the well-being and care of companion animals when determining custody in divorce cases. This makes Delaware the seventh state to mandate that companion animals be treated differently from other marital property in divorce and separation proceedings. While judges typically have the discretion to consider animals’ interests in divorce cases, such laws resolve ambiguity by explicitly recognizing their interests as sentient beings.

Another bill, Senate Bill 70, empowers judges to include companion animals in domestic violence protection orders. This is an important step in recognizing that companion animals are frequently targeted by abusers and can be used to manipulate and control human victims. Including companion animals in protection orders acknowledges their vulnerability and ensures their safety when victims strive to leave abusive situations.

Senate Bill 71 focuses on the connection between animal cruelty and child abuse, requiring cross-reporting of suspected animal cruelty in child abuse and neglect cases. This recognition stems from the understanding that companion animals can be victims of abuse similar to that inflicted upon children in the home. Witnessing animal cruelty can also cause psychological trauma for children. By requiring reporting of suspected animal cruelty, the new law helps protect both animals and children.

Companion animals hold a unique position in society, being both legally classified as property and considered family members. However, their legal status as property can lead to ambiguity in the law, leaving them vulnerable. Delaware’s new legislation seeks to address this by acknowledging the sentient nature of companion animals in multispecies families and providing them with necessary protections.

These landmark bills not only enhance the welfare of companion animals in Delaware but also serve as a model for other states to follow in bridging the gap between animal law and family law. By recognizing and protecting the interests of companion animals, society takes a significant step towards acknowledging their importance as members of the family and safeguarding their well-being.

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