By Laura Drucker
Each year, more than 1,000 young men and women— but mostly men—enter the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ). Their backstories are both uniquely personal and eerily similar. Many come from broken homes; from communities where violence is introduced at a young age and gun shots are lauded as badges of honor. Getting in is a matter of birth. Getting out requires personal strength and resolve beyond what many of us could imagine. The system is frustratingly pervasive—of those who entered the IDJJ in 2016, more than 80% had at least one prior criminal infraction.
Within the IDJJ system exist a variety of programs set up to provide juvenile offenders with the skills they need to break themselves out of the cycle. Beyond the provisions of a warm bed and three square meals a day (comforts that not all juveniles are afforded outside of the facility), the IDJJ is partnered with the Chicago Public School system to make sure that education is a part of each individual’s day. They also offer extracurriculars, among them a program by Chicago-based non-profit Safe Humane at the Illinois Youth Center—Chicago (IYCC).
The program, Lifetime Bonds, which Safe Humane also runs at two other locations for at-risk individuals, provides young men the opportunity to experience the human-animal bond in a way they may have never experienced before. Through their interactions with dogs, the youths learn important, lifelong skills like empathy, compassion, and patience, with the goal that they will carry these skills with them when they leave the facility, using them to benefit themselves and their communities.
Safe Humane, founded in 2000 by animal activist Cynthia Bathurst, is a non-profit organization dedicated to creating positive relationships between humans and animals. On their own and through partnerships with other organizations across the city and state, Safe Humane works to affect both humans and animals whose lives are overtaken by violence and crime. Oftentimes, these efforts go hand in hand.
Violence against humans and violence against animals are inextricably linked. A study conducted by the Chicago Police Department in the early 2000s found a “startling propensity for offenders charged with crimes against animals to commit other violent offenses toward human victims.” 65% of those arrested during that time for animal crimes had been arrested in the past for battery against another human.
Among juveniles, cruelty against animals is often an early predictor of future violence toward humans. In one study of 36 people convicted of multiple murders, 46% said they committed acts of animal torture in their youth. Another study looking at school shootings in the country between 1997 and 2001 found that every single one of the shooters had a history of animal cruelty.
In neighborhoods where violence is the norm, so too is neglect and violence toward animals. Though a lot of children who grow up in these neighborhoods have dogs and cats of their own, animals, like people, are just one more group enfolded into the violent fray. Often, desensitization toward animal cruelty occurs at a young age.
Lynda Stein is a volunteer of Safe Humane Chicago, and the co-founder—along with Bathurst—of Lifetime Bonds at IYCC, which has been running since 2009. Part of their goal at IYCC is to change these early interpretations of the human-animal relationship.
Stein is a longstanding member of Chicago’s animal welfare community, and has worked with other local organizations, including The Anti-Cruelty Society and PAWS. It was through doing community outreach with PAWS that she really came to terms with the deep-seated connection between animal cruelty and desensitization to violence in general.
“Dog fighting is about more than just dogs being abused,” Stein says. “It’s guns and weapons and drugs. I’ve had third graders tell me about going to a dog fight with their family. [They say] the first two times it’s awful, but then it starts to become pretty cool. Watching it doesn’t affect them in the same way—they lose that horror of violence.”
Many kids in these communities grow up afraid of dogs, and understandably so. The dogs they are exposed to—like many of the children themselves—are in pain physically, mentally, and emotionally. Dogs are chained, neglected, and unpredictable. They are trained to bite. The philosophy behind Lifetime Bonds is that animal compassion can be learned. And once it has, it can change you forever.
Lifetime Bonds conducts four three-month sessions a year at IYCC. It’s one of the facility’s most popular programs. Almost all participants choose to sign on again after their first session.
“We like to teach them as much about a dog as possible,” Stein says. During the first three weeks of each session, the young men work with trained ambassador dogs belonging to Safe Humane volunteers. They learn basic training skills, the proper way to greet a dog, and how to read a dog’s body language. They talk about shelter animals, the importance of spaying and neutering, dog fighting, animal abuse, animal wellness, grooming, and even canine massage. Those that are approved to do so go on a field trip to Chicago Animal Care and Control (CACC).
Eventually, the boys get to meet some Court Case dogs. Safe Humane’s Court Case Dog Program rescues and rehabilitates dogs who have been either voluntarily relinquished by their neglectful guardians or transferred by court order to the City of Chicago.
“At first [the young men] are a little hesitant,” Stein says. “Are we going to bring these vicious, crazy dogs in? Of course they realize very quickly that no, we’re not, and they just absolutely warm up to them. Last week they got to work with court case dogs and I’ve never seen so many smiles in my life.”
Animals connect with us in unexplainable ways. Stein refers to dogs as “silent therapists,” able to reach areas of ourselves that nobody else can. And it’s this part of the Lifetime Bonds program that often resonates so deeply with each of the at-risk participants.
The dogs “allow them to be kids,” Stein explains. “They’re not putting on this façade for the rest of the population or their buddies—it’s just very real. We always make sure at the very end to have quiet time. We just sit in groups and chat, and the dogs will be laying on the boys’ laps. Sometimes we’re talking about the dogs, sometimes we’re talking about them and their lives.”
In juvenile facilities, touching is prohibited. Stein and the other Lifetime Bonds volunteers can’t pat a boy on the back for doing something well or give him a hug when he’s having a bad day. But in every session, the boys get to pet and touch the dogs. To sit with a dog, to pet her and touch her and feel the weight of her body, brings a peace that is denied to these youth outside of these sessions.
“Dogs just know how to be,” Stein says. “They’re non-judgmental; they don’t care if we’re good or bad, they just love us. It’s this love that doesn’t have any barriers, and the boys like that, they get that.”
Stein believes that the program makes a difference in each of the boys’ lives, however small it might be. Safe Humane may not have the power to protect a young man when he returns to the streets or to state housing, and they certainly cannot remove the societal and economic barriers that led to his incarceration in the first place, but they can teach the participants skills that help them feel better about themselves. They can replace desensitization with compassion.
When these young men return to their lives outside of IYCC they are changed as a result of their experience. Stein recalls past participants who have vowed to never again participate in dog fighting, who have hung posters against animal cruelty in their neighborhoods, and who have found solace and excitement in the fact that they too could adopt their own pet one day. “Maybe they’ll become a voice,” she says, and even that is enough.
Safe Humane encourages each participant to contact them when they are released to learn about internship opportunities with the organization. Because of laws around juvenile offenders, they are not allowed to reach out to the boys directly. Despite lots of interest when the boys are in the facility, Stein says only a few get in touch afterwards, but she understands.
“I think their intention to contact us is very high when they leave, but like anything else, they get back into their routines. Life takes over, and we get that.”
Many of the boys are from outside the Chicago area, from towns like Rockford and Moline, where Safe Humane doesn’t yet have programs set up. Stein is hoping that they can partner with other organizations in underserved communities to better facilitate post-release opportunities for those who are interested.
There are, however, some boys who do reach out. Like Hilton, 17, who Stein refers to as their “shining star.”
Hilton participated in a Lifetime Bonds session during his time at IYCC. After his release, he took Safe Humane up on their offer to work with them further, and is now a paid intern with the organization. Three times a week, after school and on the weekends, Hilton takes two buses to CACC to spend time with Safe Humane and the animals.
“I put all my hope into it,” Hilton says of his efforts to reconnect with Safe Humane. And he’s learned that the skills he developed in Lifetime Bonds have enabled him to interact better with dogs and to see them as individuals with their own fears and anxieties.
“I know how to greet dogs now, [and] that barking doesn’t mean aggression,” Hilton says. “I’m learning how to work with them, to train them. I used to think you can’t work with mean dogs. But if you know how to work with them, they will be less scared and [you’ll] know how not to be bit.”
Prior to his experience with Lifetime Bonds, Hilton explains, he used to walk up to dogs without asking and lean into their space. Now, he’s aware of the proper approach, and has even been able to teach friends’ dogs how to sit and lay down.
“Safe Humane needs help to help the animals,” Hilton says. “It’s an opportunity for getting a career to work with dogs and cats.”
Stein says that everyone is really proud of Hilton, and they’re impressed with his resolve to build a strong life and career for himself. And while she wishes more of the young men would follow his lead, she never doubts that the work Safe Humane does is making a difference.
“Chicago’s on this hamster wheel of violence more so than ever,” Stein says, “If we save one kid from getting involved in dog fighting or thinking that animal cruelty is okay, then we will have done our job.”