Among Beacon Hill’s influential, this was an unusual meeting.
At a legislative breakfast in March for a cadre of clients looking to win a moment with Robert DeLeo, speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, two guests stood out from the crowd.
Precocious, persistent, and all of 12 years old, Becca Davis and Emily Marget approached the lawmaker to pitch their case.
For the past year, the two young congregants at Temple Israel of Boston labored to bring attention to Senate bill 682, legislation to give Massachusetts judges power to include family pets in protection orders issued in cases of domestic violence. Like every preteen girl at the Longwood Avenue congregation, their passage into adulthood — the bat mitzvah ceremony next month for which both had been preparing — required an effort of social justice.
Neither was versed in the terrifying world of domestic violence, nor were the girls aware of how a family pet could play into the threats that can be made against victims. But both loved animals, and knew they wanted their project to matter.
“We didn’t know anything,” said Marget, of Newton, who can now recount with her friend in sing-song cadence the meandering journey a bill must take on Beacon Hill. “For us to be working on such a serious bill surprises people. We had to learn what an elevator speech is.”
Last Wednesday the two witnessed the summation of their efforts, when Governor Deval Patrick signed into law the Animal Control Bill, which included the protective language for pets. By the time the governor lifted the last of the three ceremonial pens used to ink the bill into law, the two had raised more than $700 for the Animal Rescue League of Boston from family, friends, and classmates.
“Where others might have seen this as a less compelling issue, they brought to it a passion that I think is quite remarkable and unusual. It moved others to take it seriously,” said Ronne Friedman, senior rabbi at Temple Israel. “There is a combination of innocence and idealism about them that is really refreshing.”
Friedman said the two best friends have embodied the ethos of public service at a level of maturity rarely seen in someone their age.
“It’s definitely unusual for kids as young as this, as early as this, to engage in really effective organizing and advocacy,” Friedman said. “There are significant numbers of kids who do things, but few include actual political organizing.”
The two girls contacted Senator Katherine Clark, a Democrat of Melrose who introduced a similar bill for pets in 2008 and the S682 legislation.
Clark, impressed with both girls’ passion, invited them to testify at the bill’s hearing.
“She said it would shock the committee, that kids as young would care,” said Davis, of Stoneham.
Once inside the hearing room, the lessons sped beyond politics, they were forced to confront the gravity of their topic as advocates and witnesses testified. One was Sue Webb, the animal control officer for the town of Wellesley, who knows personally the anguish of an abusive home. Webb said her former husband, Robert Lee Harvey, used their dog as an instrument of intimidation in their relationship.
“My ex-husband said [he would] take it for a ride and dump it,” said Webb in a phone interview.
Then, one day after Thanksgiving in 1988, Harvey, 31, walked their 6-year-old son, Ben, into the Wayland woods and fatally stabbed the boy with a hunting knife, before attempting to take his own life. Harvey later killed himself while awaiting trial in the boy’s death. Years later, it is still difficult for Webb, 58, to speak about her son.
Webb said as a child there was scant discussion of domestic violence or ways to spot it, skills the girls said they are thankful to have gleaned.
“If we see the start of domestic violence, we’ll know what to do,” Davis said. “The thought is now in place.”
To Webb, who fosters animals from abusive homes, the education is a good start.
The girls’ effort will also ease the strain on people like Webb who take in pets abandoned during domestic violence, and interrupt the cycle in which animals can sometimes play a part.
“A woman who got a restraining order, [after] the guy put a gun to the dog’s head and threatened to kill it in front of their kids,” Webb said of a dog currently in her care. “The abuser isolates the abused, from family and friends, so it’s harder for them to leave. If we can get the pet out, it’s one less reason to go back.”