Systematic Approach to Responding to Animal Cruelty

1:00 PM - 2:00 PM
Location: Chelsea Hotel, Churchill Ballroom

Laura Meyer, Clinical Associate Professor, Graduate School of Professional Psychology, University of Denver
Lavita Nadkarni, Graduate School of Professional Psychology, University of Denver
Courtney Brown, MSW, Senior Community Projects Manager, Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work


The need for a psychometrically valid risk assessment tool is evident given the Colorado mandate for evaluation prior to sentencing (Colorado Cruelty to Animals Statutes, 18-9-201). A recent review of the literature revealed that there are no extant valid and reliable risk assessment instruments (Tedeschi, 2017). The Animal Abuse Risk Assessment Tool (AARAT), created by Professor Philip Tedeschi at the University of Denver’s (DU) Graduate School of Social Work, was designed to assess static and dynamic variables of risk to predict the likelihood of and prevent future animal maltreatment. The tool allows clinicians to design interventions that reduce overall risk level and are rehabilitative rather than purely punitive. The original version of the AARAT has been used to evaluate approximately 20 animal maltreatment offenders at the DU’s Professional Psychology Clinic and Denver Forensic Institute for Research, Service, and Training (FIRST) clinic. In the second phase of tool development, Denver FIRST researchers reworded items for clarity, added new items, revised the coding, and re-categorized some items under different subscales. The revised version of the AARAT consists of 64 items categorized into seven subscales.

Animal maltreatment has gained national recognition as a prominent societal problem in recent decades, with growing awareness of its link to anti-social and violent behaviors (Currie, 2006; DeGue, & DiLillo, 2009). As of 2014, all 50 states have felony animal maltreatment provisions (Berry, 2014), and the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System began collecting animal maltreatment data in 2016. Animal protection scholars and activists have devoted considerable financial and reputational resources to ensuring that animal maltreatment is more aggressively prosecuted, with the presumption that stronger responses from the criminal justice system will result in decreased violence against humans and animals. This reasoning, however, assumes that the criminal justice system’s response to animal maltreatment will somehow render the offender less dangerous. Such an assumption is at war with existing clinical competencies and the practical functioning of our justice system. Currently, there is a paucity of clinicians who are competent to evaluate and treat persons convicted of animal maltreatment; a lack of understanding on the part of the judicial system on how to manage these cases (Kukor, Davis, & Weiss, 2016); and no valid, reliable risk assessment measures for determining relative likelihood of re-offense. 


  1. Understand the utility of the AARAT in assessing risk and diagnostic capability
  2. Understand the nature of the rigorous steps requited to produce a reliable, valid risk assessment tool
  3. Understand how individualized forensic evaluation informs social service

Dr. Laura Meyer
began working at the University of Denver's Graduate School of Professional Psychology in 2007, while completing her doctoral degree in Quantitative Research Methods. Currently, she is a clinical associate professor who teaches courses in statistics, research methods, doctoral paper development, animal-assisted interventions, and animal abuse evaluation and treatment. In 2018, she obtained a grant to develop clinician competencies in animal abuse evaluation and treatment and to continue psychometric work on an animal abuse risk assessment measure. Dr. Meyer also has extensive experience conducting program evaluations and needs assessments, such as the Colorado Department of Human Services' Brain Injury and Criminal Justice Outcomes Evaluation. She has presented her work at international, national, and regional conferences, including those sponsored by the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Law Society, the American Evaluation Association, and the International Congress of Equine Facilitated Programmes.

Dr. Lavita Nadkarni
has a Master's Degree in Forensic Psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Adelphi University. She has been working with forensic populations and law enforcement personnel for over 30 years, primarily providing clinical services (therapy, forensic assessment, expert testimony) and training. Dr. Nadkarni is the Associate Dean and Director of Forensic Studies at the University of Denver's Graduate School of Professional Psychology, and is responsible for providing supervision and training to graduate students in their clinical work with clients who have involvement with the civil, criminal or family legal systems. Dr. Nadkarni's forensic experience has included working at NYU‐Bellevue Hospital's inpatient forensic unit and the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center, and as a court appointed child and family forensic evaluator. She has continued her work conducting competency evaluations as well as other criminal and civil forensic assessments, and has also been instrumental in training judicial and social service personnel on the use of psychological evaluations and the effect interpersonal violence has on family legal disputes. Dr. Nadkarni has been supervising doctoral students in providing forensic evaluation services through our Professional Psychology Clinic and our Denver Forensic Institute for Research, Service and Training since 1999.Dr. Nadkarni is an active member of the American Psychology‐Law Society and the National Council of Schools and Programs in Professional Psychology and has held leadership positions within these organizations, most recently as President of NCSPP. She is also active in Division 29, serving as the Domain Representative for the Public Interest and Social Justice Domain.Her research interests lie in the area of interpersonal violence and trauma, entitlement, graduate clinical and forensic training, animal abuse evaluation and treatment, and diversity issues within psychology. In addition to publications in these areas, Dr. Nadkarni is a textbook, manuscript, and proposal reviewer and Associate Editor of the journal, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice.

Courtney Brown earned a Master of Social Work (MSW) and Animal-Assisted Social Work Certificate from the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work in 2015. Upon graduation, she began working for the Institute for Human-Animal Connection (IHAC) and began managing the Colorado Link Project. Courtney has developed and delivered IHAC’s online and in-person training and provided technical assistance for the Colorado Link Project, which provides resources and information about the frequent co-occurrence of cruelty towards animals and people. This has included working with a diverse array of students, community members and organizations across Colorado, the U.S., as well as a number of international participants. Her work includes the development of IHAC’s Interconnected webinar series focused on the human-animal bond and public health and organization of IHAC’s 2017 conference for multi-disciplinary professionals and organizations working with survivors of domestic violence entitled, Together: Co-sheltering people and animals impacted by domestic violence. Currently, Courtney is working with faculty from the University of Denver's Graduate School of Social Work, Graduate School of Professional Psychology and Sturm College of Law on research to inform evaluation, treatment and criminal justice responses for cases of animal cruelty and neglect. She also has experience conducting program evaluations and needs assessments related to services and programming for persons experiencing homelessness. Her professional interests include exploring the intersections of social justice, environmental justice and animal welfare. She recently co-authored a chapter on Animals and the Environment in Social Work for a publication currently in press by Nova Science.