This is a guest post from suesspicious minds, a family lawyer who offers very good and practical advice to parents. Have a look at his blog.
I was recently contacted by someone who found themselves in this position, and it is an issue that crops up quite regularly in care proceedings. It may sound (if you don’t own a pet) like a really trivial matter, but for many people it can be very upsetting and add to a sense of powerlessness.
As usual with my articles where I try to speak directly to parents rather than the dull lawyer-to-lawyer stuff, none of what I say is a substitute for getting your own legal advice and talking to your own lawyer.
Thinking of getting a pet, or another pet?
If you’re involved with social workers and they are already expressing worries about your care of the child, you should really think long and hard about getting another pet, and if your mind is made up on having one, about the sort of pet you are going to get. You don’t want to do anything that is going to make life harder for you right now.
Think about the mess that the pet might make, the money it might cost, the time it might take to train and walk and play with and clean up after the animal. Do you really have that time or money to spare?
Can the social worker MAKE me get rid of my pet?
They can certainly ask you to. They can ask you to sign a written agreement saying that you will get rid of your pet. But they have no power to make you give your pet up, or take your pet away from you.
The most that they can do is to tell the RSPCA about your pet, and see if the RSPCA will take any action. Now, they can only do that if there are significant concerns about the condition of your pet and that you are harming it or not looking after it properly.
Can the Court MAKE me get rid of my pet?
Not in Children Act proceedings no. The clue is in the name. The Court can only MAKE you give up your pet or take your pet off you if the RSPCA are the people making the application, and that would be in completely different Court proceedings to the ones about your children.
Can the social worker / Court make it very very hard for me to keep my pet?
Well, yes, they sort of can. If the situation justifies it, it is possible that you would be told “If you don’t get rid of your dog/cat/snake/vulture, the baby can’t stay at home” and then you would have to make that decision. It would be up to your lawyer to make arguments to prevent you getting into that position i.e that you shouldn’t have to choose and you can make changes that would let you do both.
The Court DOES have the power in Children Act proceedings to take your child off you, but the circumstances that would justify that are serious and require good evidence.
Have a look at our posts on key legal principles that explain what the Court can and can’t do.
Why would people WANT me to give up my pet?
It is always fair that if a social worker asks you to give up your pet that they can give you a proper answer to that question.
The possible answers might be
That the pet presents a danger to your child.
Obviously, the more dangerous the animal and the more vulnerable the child, the bigger that risk becomes. It is very unlikely that your pet stick insect is dangerous to your twelve year old, but it is possible that your venomous snake is dangerous to your six month old baby.
IF that is the reason, you would need to think seriously about the danger. Is it genuine? What is there that you could do about it? If it is about a dog that doesn’t have boundaries and jumps up or bites or snarls, could you get some training, or a muzzle? If it is a snake, could you keep the snake in a room or tank that the child can’t get into and the snake can’t get out of? Could you potentially have a less dangerous pet?
Of course, if the danger is not realistic and is an over-reaction, you or your lawyer can argue this in the Court.
That the pet is not being looked after and is causing a health risk
For example, if your dog or cat is weeing or poo-ing around the house and you can’t keep on top of clearing it up, then there’s a risk that your children might be exposed to this. Again, the younger your child is, and the bigger the problem with the mess is, the more this is a genuine problem.
It isn’t healthy, obviously, for a baby to be crawling around in dog or cat pooh or wee, and if it doesn’t get cleaned up properly and regularly, this can create a nasty smell in the house, particularly in the summer and can make the house seem unpleasant. It is possible, when you live in the house that you get used to it and it doesn’t seem as noticeable to you, but it is very obvious for visitors.
Or the animal might have fleas, and those fleas are infesting the house and biting the children, getting into the children’s bedding.
IF that is the reason, you may have to show over a very short period of time that you can fix the problem and keep on top of it, get all the mess cleaned up and keep it clean; get the animal treated for fleas and deal with the infestation. You’ll need to show not only that you can sort it out once, but that you have a plan that you will stick to that stops it happening again.
That you can’t really afford both your pet and your child
Obviously, pets cost money. Children cost money. You aren’t made of money. There’s juggling to be done with the money you have to pay for everything you need. If you are regularly running out of money and have things for your child that you can’t afford (shoes, clothes, toys, heating, food) then it might well be that the social worker suggests that your pet should go, to free up that money.
The more pets you have, and the more expensive their upkeep, the bigger an argument this becomes. Similarly, the more often you are running out of money and not being able to get everything you need for your child, the more likely this argument is to come up.
Sit down and work out how much it does cost to look after your pets. If you are not very good at maths, you can ask for help in working this out, and in working out a budget. Can you show that you can manage both your pet and your child by managing your money better, or by cutting something else out or spending less on it? Can you buy slightly cheaper pet food? Do you maybe have too many animals?
If you can show WHY you can manage both, by doing that budget, and then show that you ARE managing both by not running out of money before your next income comes in, you can nip this argument in the bud.
That you can’t split your time between the pet and the child
If the social worker thinks that you are only just about able to manage to look after your child, and that maybe your level of care goes up and down and is sometimes okay and sometimes not, they may say that you need to put all of your efforts into caring for your child and not be distracted by anything else.
Again, the more animals and the more time those animals need, the bigger that argument is. Also, the more problems you are having in coping with everything that needs to be done in the house, the bigger that argument will be.
If you CAN keep on top of everything, keep the house in good order, spend enough time looking after your child and playing with your child, then this becomes much less of a worry or an argument for giving up your pet. If you need help in getting a household routine, or working out how to make the best use of your time each day, that’s something that you can ask for help with and that you are entitled to help with. You want to find out whether the problem is that there literally aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done, or whether what you need is help to organise things better.
Have an open mind
You obviously wouldn’t want to give up your pet, who is a member of your family, who you love, if the reasons were silly or an over-reaction. But it is important to think very seriously about the reasons that are given to see if there actually is a problem here. If there really is a problem, think about whether you can solve it, or if it is honestly too much for you.
Where would your animal go?
This is a hard one – you wouldn’t want to give your pet away to strangers and never see them again. It would be good if you were able to have them back once you’ve sorted yourself out and are in a better place to manage both your pet and your child.
If there is someone in your family who could look after your pet for a while, whilst you sort things out, that would be a good option. Make sure that looking after this pet isn’t going to get them in trouble with social workers themselves.
If not them, then a friend?
If you absolutely have to give your pet up (and remember, it is ultimately your choice, nobody can MAKE you do it), then it is okay to be upset about this, even angry about it. If you can, explain how it made you feel, and use it as a positive:
I gave up my dog to show you people that you were wrong and that I can look after my child, so I am going to do it.
There is very useful guidance from the BAAF ;‘Dogs and Pets in Fostering and Adoption’ by Paul Adams (BAAF Adoption and Fostering (2015); 978 1 910039 25 0; £9.95; 88 pages)
From the Dogs Clinic there is advice on how to recognise dog’s body language and keep children safe – Kids and Dogs: A Parent’s Guide to Canine Body Language and Safety.