2013 Courthouse Dogs Conference
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he send forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” Robert Kennedy, 1966
As I sat in the King County Courthouse last Friday for the 2013 Courthouse Dog Conference looking at dozens of participants and dogs from all all over this country (and Chile), that quote from Robert Kennedy kept going through my mind.
The first “ripple of hope” these specially trained dogs created occurred in 2005. That’s when King County Prosecutor Norm Meleng approved with the placement of 2-year-old Labrador retriever/golden retriever mix Ellie, in the Prosecutor’s Office.
Ellie was the first dog in the country to be specifically trained to help crime victims and work full time in a prosecutor’s office or any government agency.
You can’t make a ripple without throwing a rock
The idea of using trained dogs to help abuse victims originated with former King County Prosecutor Ellen O’Neill-Stevens. She developed this concept by:
- Taking her son Sean’s service dog Jeeter with her to work when he couldn’t be with Sean, who has cerebral palsy, at one of his activities.
- Allowing another attorney to take Jeeter to an interview with an 11-year-old boy abused by his mother and wouldn’t to talk to anyone about what happened.
- Seeing how playing with Jeeter relaxed the boy and allowed him to give the other prosecutor enough information to put together a case.
- Allowing that same prosecutor to use Jeeter in another case involving sexually abused twin girls. Jeeter’s presence on the stand while the girls testified helped the prosecutor get a guilty verdict.
- Convincing Canine Companions for Independence to train a dog specifically to provide comfort to crime victims as they navigate the court system.
- Convincing former King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng to approve the use of a full time courthouse dog in 2005.
Courthouse dogs replicated in other cities
In Hebrew, the word Dayenu (dah-yay-new) means “it would have been enough” or “it would have sufficed.”
It applies Ellen because if she did nothing else after convincing King County to get a full time courthouse dog, it would have been enough.
But it wasn’t enough for Ellen.
Instead, the success of the program convinced her to replicate it in other jurisdictions.
Her first success in expanding the program was convincing the Snohomish County District Attorney’s office to get a black Labrador Retriever named Stilson. He was the second courthouse dog in the country to work full time in a prosecutor’s office.
Soon prosecuting attorneys and victim advocates across the county began to hear about the success of the courthouse dogs in Washington and call Ellen to ask for help/advice starting similar programs in their own courtrooms.
As the requests began to pile up, she worked with veterinarian Celeste Walsen to create the nonprofit Courthouse Dogs to help attorneys and victim advocates get their own dogs.
Amazing examples of how dogs help abused kids
What I saw in the King County Courthouse last Friday was the result of the initial ripple Ellen created. Victim advocates and attorneys provided dozens of examples of how their courthouse dog helped abuse victims.
Here are a few of the things the people at the conference said about their dogs:
“The presence of a dog can mean the difference between a conviction and an acquittal when kids are on the witness stand.”
“The dogs pave the way for victims to unburden themselves.”
“One child said, ‘I’ll tell the dog but I won’t tell you and I don’t want you in the room.'”
“Kids were able to keep calmer during medial exams in abuse cases by holding on the dog’s leash. It cut the time of these stressful exams from 60 to 20 minutes.”
“The dog positioned itself between the parent and child to diffuse the tension building in the room.”
“The dog greets the kids at the courthouse, walks with them up the stairs, and helps them during visitation.”
“The kids learn non-violent control when they handle the dog.”
“Dogs calm people down, make everyone nice, and make us more human.”
Dogs counter stress hormone
Experts have found that having a dog in the room actually counters the effects of a hormone that can prevent a child from talking about abuse he suffered. In extremely stressful situations, the body releases a hormone called cortisol. As its levels increase, cortisol causes the higher functions of the body, like speech and memory, to shut down.
Now imagine how stressed out an abused kid is when he walks into an interview room or a courtroom. He’s is not just in a strange place; he also has to tell someone he doesn’t know about a horrible, embarrassing experience.
And if he’s in a courtroom, he may have to talk while in the presence of the person who abused him. The amount of cortisol released in a child’s body during this scenario must be off the charts.
But we now know that the presence of these courthouse dogs counteracts the cortisol and allows children to verbalize what happened to them.
The best testament to the effectiveness of courthouse dogs are the lengths at which defense attorneys will go to distract or upset the dogs so a judge will remove them from the courtroom.
Some conference attendees said they witnessed defense attorneys drop something to make a loud noise to scare courthouse dog. Others said attorneys have deliberately knocked over a glass of water on a dog so it will disrupt the trial.
But because these dogs are bred to remain calm and ignore distractions, these theatrics don’t work.
Courthouse dogs: Putting more child abusers behind bars
These courthouse dogs don’t just help abuse victims tell their stories. They also help authorities put more child abusers and other violent offenders behind bars.
As more and more prosecutors hear about the undeniable, overwhelming success these dogs have achieved, the demand for having courthouse dogs in more jurisdictions will continue to rise.
And it all started because a Seattle attorney threw a rock that made that first ripple of hope that turned into a raging current of justice.