Sarah’s Law

A cross-reporting ordinance for the City of Camden, an East Coast first!

The landmark legislation was officially dubbed Sarah’s Law and it is being recognized as such in the city’s codebooks. Sarah, a dog we rescued in North Camden in October 1992, was the impetus for starting Compassion for Camden. The ordinance will heighten the seriousness of animal abuse. It passed in June 2005.

Modeled after California State law, it will help protect animals and people. Sarah’s Law mandates that the city’s animal control officers, during their course of business, report signs of potential child/human abuse to police and police officers and fire fighters report signs of potential animal abuse to animal control. Read the ordinance in its entirety.

We based the need for such a law on often trivialized or even entirely ignored cruelty, plus the premise that abusers are likely to lash out to people. In addition to common sense, studies confirm that the link between animal abuse, child abuse and domestic violence is real, and often deadly. With that in mind, humane groups like us work tirelessly to influence the community, city hall, police and the municipal court.

Perhaps particularly frustrating was our struggle of trying to motivate city and county law enforcement to investigate and prosecute the sadistic contest of staged dog fighting. Police are well aware that dog fighting is illegal in New Jersey, as it is in all 50 states.

Seemingly unable to move law enforcement, we began attending community meetings. In meeting after meeting, often lasting into the wee hours of the night, we tried to make it clear that dog fighting, or cock fighting, not only involves animal cruelty, but also illegal gambling, guns, drugs and prostitution.

And, because children of all ages are taken to fights, it constitutes child abuse as well. For the kids this newfound enthusiasm for violence and insensitivity to animal cruelty can easily carry over into daily life, conceivably creating another generation of animal abusers. Often when asked, Camden kids are actually amazed that animal fighting is illegal.

At the same time, no city official ever challenged the concept that animal abusers are also likely to abuse people. For example, it seemed that all were aware of studies by government and other agencies that point to a large percentage of violent inmates around the country with histories of animal abuse. But, we saw little or no action, preventive or otherwise.

When considering all animal neglect and abuse in the city, the worst of it happens out of sight. It’s hidden in basements, abandoned buildings and people’s living quarters. In almost all of these cases concerned neighbors, or others, may not have any clue, nor access, or perhaps too little to go on to report. It is in this setting that the most suffering occurs, possibly for weeks and even months. It’s here and now that animals need protection. But help can often only be provided, or be initiated, by police or fire that happen to be on the scene involving other matters.

Having managed to help put in place an animal care and control department in the city, the time had come to do more. (for more on the new department, see “newsletter” link below) The year 2004 marked the first year in decades, or perhaps ever, for the city’s own department staffed with professionals capable to act on police tips. Earlier that year, I went to work drafting an ordinance which was necessary to certify the new department to investigate and to charge potential criminals. I also began researching cross-reporting legislations. Toward the end of the year I presented my final drafts to city officials who scheduled both for passage.

It seems to us that since the passage of Sarah’s Law in June 2005 the city’s municipal court is taking animal neglect and abuse cases more seriously. We see more dialogue and a higher degree of sentencing. Never before have we heard a judge mention a jail term, as it happened in at least one case. As always, more needs to be done.

- Marion Churchill