Last month I attended the 2016 International Courthouse Dogs Conference in Bellevue.
If you aren’t familiar with them, courthouse dogs providing comfort and support to crime victims, families, and other people going through criminal justice system.
In extremely stressful situations, the body releases a hormone called cortisol. When it builds up in the body, cortisol causes the higher functions of the body, like speech and memory, to shut down.
Experts have found that having a dog in the room actually counters the effects of a hormone that can prevent a crime victim from talking about abuse he/she suffered.
Courthouse dogs helps calm a crime victims by counteracting cortisol and allowing them to verbalize what happened to them.
The idea of using dogs to help calm crime victims originated with former King County Prosecutor
Ellen O’Neill-Stevens. Because of her work King County was the first jurisdiction in the country to have a dog specifically trained to help crime victims and work full time in a prosecutor’s office or with any government agency.
After she left the Prosecutor’s office O’Neill-Stevens started Courthouse Dogs, a nonprofit with a mission to “promote justice with compassion through the use of professionally trained facility dogs to provide emotional support to everyone in the justice system.”
Courthouse Dogs sponsored the 2016 conference where law enforcement officers, victim advocates, social workers, and others came to learn how courthouse dogs are used in different jurisdictions. Judges, lawyers, and victims of sexual abuse were also there to discuss how these dogs have helped them.
Currently 127 courthouse dogs work in 34 states. About 2 dozen more work in Canada and Chile.
Here are some of the courthouse dogs I met at the conference along with summaries of their incredible work, none of which would have been possible without the hard work and vision of Ellen O’Neill-Stevens and Celeste Walsen.
These woman have revolutionized the criminal justice system. Their work has given crime victims the support they needed to testify against their abusers and put more of them behind bars.
Astro – Director of Canine Services, Monarch Children’s Justice and Advocacy Center Olympia, WA
“Getting up on the witness stand in court can be a scary experience for anyone, especially a child who is facing his or her abuser. Thankfully Astro is there, wagging his tail, to calm kids in the courthouse as they tell the judge and jury about the terrible things that have happened to them.
Astro is a therapy dog, similar to a guide or service dog, trained to assist trauma victims through the investigation and prosecution of crimes. He helps children cope by providing a reassuring presence during interviews, medical exams and therapy sessions at the Providence St. Peter Sexual Assault Clinic and Child Maltreatment Center in Lacey, Wash.” Providence Health and Services
Lucca – Vancouver, BC Police Victim Services Unit
Lucca works in the Vancouver (BC) Police Victim Services Unit help individuals get through traumatic incidents and crisis situations. Lucca provides “a calming presence, a healthy distraction in moments of distress, and a cathartic touch.”
Here is an example from VancouverPoliceFoundation.org explaining how Lucca helps crime victims:
“A 14 year old girl was referred to the VSU by the school counselor. Her brother was murdered 2 years ago, and she was asked by Crown Counsel to write a Victim Impact Statement. She was very anxious about reliving the details and the impact of her brother’s murder. She was unsure about how to write this type of statement. Lucca and the Primary Dog Handler (PDH) met with the client, and her school counselor, for 90 minutes to talk about her feelings and provide support. The client was very interactive with Lucca, patting him and kissing him, and his presence seemed to provide her with some calm. Lucca was a pleasant distraction when she needed a break, which made it easier to talk about such a difficult situation. PDH was subsequently contacted by the school counselor who stated that the client’s experience with Lucca was “magnificent”. The client and her counselor have made another appointment to come and meet with Lucca and the PDH.”
Manny – Sarpy County (NE) Victim Witness Unit and Diversion Services
Manny works with Sarpy County’s Victim Witness Unit and is trained to calm victims and witnesses before they have to appear at pretrial meetings or testify in court. He’s the first Courthouse Dog in the Nebraska court system.
“We bring a child in and we start to talk to them about some horrific experience that has occurred and they don’t talk. But we bring Manny into the situation and the child sits on the floor with Manny and they start to calm down. They start answering questions. We start developing a relationship. It’s amazing watching their whole demeanor change.” Jean Brazda, Manny’s handler and executive director of the Sarpy County Victim/Witness Unit and Diversion Services.
Scottie – Hawthorne Police Department Community Affairs Unit
“Scottie is handled by our Community Affairs unit and comes to work every day with a very specific mission: increase community communication, ease the tension of specific crime victims and children, maintain department morale and assist our officers and families that are experiencing difficulties. Some days Scottie may just calm down an agitated citizen at the front desk. Scottie can pick up and deliver anything that will fit in his mouth, turn on and off the lights, and open and close doors. He is now part of HPD’s family that will literally open doors between the community and the police department.” Hawthorne Police Website.
Ken – Bonner County (ID) Victim Witness Unit
Ken works in Sandpoint, ID and specializes in making children and vulnerable people more at ease during the criminal justice process in Bonner County.
Unit Coordinator Peggy Frye said “Ken can help witnesses provide clearer statements from the onset of a case, which can increase the chances of resolving a case before a costly trial is conducted.
“If he can get a victim to speak from the beginning and tell what happened to them, the likelihood of going to trial with that child decreases,” said Frye, who boards Ken at her residence.” Bonner County Daily Bee
Ottimo – Harcum House/Child Advocacy Center of FairfieldCounty (OH)
Ottimo assists crime victims, witnesses, and others during child forensic interviews, forensic medical exams, and legal proceedings.
“We’ll have the kids shake his hand,” Ottimo’s hander told the Lancaster Gazette. “It just provides a sense of calmness to the family and the kids are excited to come back and have him in there with us. He’s here as a form of security. When he’s calm, the kids tend to be calm. And the teenage kids will either just sit there and pet him and stare at him, but then they’re disclosing either sex abuse or physical abuse.”
Molly B – Role Model
Molly B works with Courthouse Dog Founder Ellen O’Neill Stephens and Executive Director Celeste Walsen, DVM “as a role model for how a courthouse facility dog can meaningfully help hundreds of people during a working career.”
Molly B accompanies them on their travels “to help at conference presentations by demonstrating the type of training needed to be a successful facility dog. When not on the road she does volunteer work at the Dawson Place Child Advocacy Center and is on call to assist at courthouses in King, Snohomish and Skagit Counties when needed.” Courthouse Dog website.
Mary Beth II – Yamhill County (OR) District Attorney’s Office
Mary Beth II was the first courthouse dog placed in Oregon. Her job is to provide emotional support and comfort to victims and witnesses as they go through the criminal justice system.
Within her first few days on the job in February 2014, she was providing comfort to the family of a murder victim during jury deliberations, assisting domestic-violence victims and attending a sex-abuse sentencing with the child victim.
Duvall – Terrebonne Parish (LA) District Attorney’s Office
Duvall assists victims, witnesses, and others during forensic interviews, counseling, and additional services though the Parish’s Children’s Advocacy Center.
“Last year, we got Duval and we have gotten a whole new perspective,” said Tommy Beeson, chief investigator for Terrebonne Parish District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. “When something traumatic has happened, Duval helps the child to talk about it. The dog is somebody here for them. He gives (children) the feeling, ‘I can tell him anything because he acts like he cares.’” Houma Times
Hilani – Eastern Washington University
Hilani recently joined EWU’s Police Department to help comfort victims in need, specifically those who have been victims of sexual assault.
“About three years ago, I started a sexual assault prevention program where I go into dorms, fraternities and sororities, and I talk about consent. Typically, after the class, I get disclosures,” Officer Tiffinni Archie (Hilani’s handler) said. “Having a dog will help us when we have victims too nervous or uncomfortable to disclose and need that extra help, so that’s what Hilani is here for.” Eastern 24/7
Caber – Delta (BC) Police Victim Services Trauma K9
Caber was the first courthouse dog in Canada. His job is to provide comfort and care to people who have been victimized by crime and trauma.
Here are some examples of his work:
“A female domestic violence victim arrived at the Delta Police Department looking for help for herself and her children after deciding to leave her common-law spouse. After talking for some time she became quite emotional. When she began to cry, Caber got up from where he was playing with her child, approached and laid his head in her lap. She was incredibly touched by the fact that he reached out to her. “He just knows,” she said.
An extremely difficult client was proving to be very challenging. He wasn’t receptive to assistance and criticized anyone attempting to help, including police. Through his contact with Caber he became more receptive. The first thing he now asks staff and police is if Caber is available. When the dog is there, he calms down and accepts support and help.”
“The impact of Caber’s empathy for Delta’s victims of crime and trauma has proven to be exceptional,” said Kim Gramlich (Caber’s handler). “We look forward to deploying him in many other situations to determine how else he can positively influence the lives of our citizens. Dogs aren’t judgmental. They don’t see your religion, race, age or sexual orientation. They are unbiased and unconditional in their support. Caber brings out the best in all of us.” Blue Line Magazine
Maisy – CDIT (Courthouse Dog in Training)
After completing her training Maisy will be a Courthouse Dog in the Santa Rosa (CA) District Attorney’s Office.