On November 16, the King County Prosecutor’s Office (KCPO) posted this announcement on its Facebook page saying that “King County’s first full-time courthouse dog, might be the first to arrive already equipped with angel wings for the hundreds, if not thousands, of lives she touched before she died peacefully on her 13th birthday yesterday.”
Ellie, a Golden Retriever/Labrador Retriever mix, was 2-years-old when she was placed in the KCPO to provide emotional support to people in the King County justice system.
The use of Courthouse Dogs in courtrooms and prosecutor’s offices began when Courthouse Dog founder Ellen O’Neill-Stephens was a senior attorney in the KCPO. Her idea for using dogs to help crime victims came to her when she saw how her disabled son Sean was comforted by his service dog, another Golden/Lab mix named Jeeter, and realized that “this type of dog could help people through the legal process.”
In 2003, she began Jeeter to her office on days when no one was home. At the time she worked in juvenile drug court, so “she asked juvenile drug court judge if Jeeter could come to court and help the teenagers in their drug recovery.” His presence was so successful that “other prosecutors in (her) office asked if Jeeter could help children that had been sexually assaulted.”
As demand for Jeeter’s presence grew, Ellen applied for a facility dog from Canine Companions for Independence to work in the KCPO full-time. That dog was Ellie, and she started working there in 2004. She was the first facility dog in the country trained specifically for use by a prosecuting attorney’s office to assist victims of crime during witness interviews and courtroom testimony.
King County prosecuting attorney Daniel Satterberg told Police Chief Magazine “the unconditional love that a dog offers really helps children relax enough to tell us what happened to them. It helps us get to the truth and helps us get to justice.”
Here’s a story that Ellen told distractify.com that should give you an idea of the magnitude of Ellie’s work:
“A five-year-old boy saw his mother severely beaten by her boyfriend. In addition to that, the boyfriend poured gasoline on his mother and him and threatened to set them on fire. The little boy made the 911 call, and he and his mother were soon placed in a shelter for their own protection. However, the little boy was so traumatized by this, that he stopped talking altogether. When pressed, he would put his hand down his throat as if he were trying to vomit. He was brought into the King County Prosecutor’s office to speak with an interviewer about what happened. After his mother explained to the interviewer that her son was unlikely to speak, the interviewer asked the mother if her son liked dogs. She said that he loved dogs. So, he meet a courthouse facility dog named Ellie, and the two of them played together before the interview began. Once they began the interview, Ellie snuggled beside him and he was able to tell the interviewer what happened for the first time. When the boy would struggle for words, she would snuggle in closer. At one point after this happened, he told the interviewer, ‘see, Ellie loves me.’ Because she was there to provide this comfort, he was able to finish the interview, and before they left the room, he kissed her.”
This is just one of hundreds of examples of how Ellie helped crime victims in King County. Page Ulrey, Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney and Ellie’s handler said, “Sometimes, when a child witness was about to take the stand in court, I’d hand the child Ellie’s leash, and I’d say, ‘I need you to watch out for her, okay? You’re in charge.’ It gave them a sense of power when they were so powerless.”
Ellie’s death leaves a huge hole not only in the King County court system, but also in the hearts of the judges, law enforcement officers, attorneys, and most importantly, the crime victims who knew her.
She also leaves behind a formidable legacy. Due to the success her work, there are now 78 courthouse dogs in 28 states in the US. Courts and law enforcement in other countries are using them as well.
Rest in peace, Ellie. Your presence will continue to be felt through the work of courthouse dogs around the world.
Here’s a video of Ellie and Jeeter in action:
To learn more about these amazing dogs, go to the Courthouse Dogs website.