MAGGIE: the dog who changed my life

MAGGIE: the dog who changed my life
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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Therapy Dogs Go To Court

After reading several articles about dogs being used in courtrooms therapeutically to help calm victims of violent crimes, I'm all the more proud of my black lab, Maddie, and her work as a therapy dog with the kids at the juvenile center.

"The young woman in Seattle was having second thoughts about testifying in the 2008 trial of a man accused of abducting and raping her," states Kathleen Gray in her February, 2010 USA TODAY article. That was until Ellie, an 8-year-old Labrador retriever used by the King County prosecutor's office was brought in. Ellie helps to calm victims and witnesses of violent attacks.

According to Ellen O'Neill-Stephens, the senior prosecuting attorney and founder of Seattle-based Courthouse Dogs LLC, Ellie helped the victim stay calm, her presence helping the victim describe the attack. The attacker was found guilty. Stephens feels that the specially trained dogs provide a non-threatening presence for such victims, who may find it difficult to talk to about a violent crime. The courthouse dogs go through about two years of training at centers such as Canine Companions for Independence.

In Houston, the district attorney's office started its own courthouse dog program called Paws and Order: SDU (special dog unit). Volunteers bring the dogs to the courthouse once a month and meet with children who have witnessed domestic violence according to Harris County Assistant District Attorney Donna Hawkins. Their stress lessens after playing with the dogs.

In southern Missouri, therapist Diane Silman regularly uses Simon, her 2-year-old black Labrador, to help create a non-judgmental atmosphere during interviews and court testimony of abused children and domestic violence victims.

A similar program is being started in the Honolulu Prosecutor's Office to help victims and witnesses -- especially traumatized children -- to navigate their way through the criminal justice system. Courthouse Dogs founder Ellen O'Neill-Stephens flew in from Seattle to help establish the program in Hawaii according to a November, 2010 article in Hawaii News Now. Honolulu's first courthouse dog will be Pono, a 3-year-old black Labrador female provided through Hawaii Canines for Independence, who is training Pono. An  example of how Pono can help is a young girl who refused to tell a forensic investigator about the abuse she suffered but gave a graphic description to the courthouse dog who was in the interview room, reports Hawaii's Star Advertiser last month.

Courtroom dogs are also helping teenage drug court participants and in adversarial plea bargaining sessions, reports the Star Advertiser. They greet jurors, and and their parents arriving for traumatic court proceedings. Courtroom dogs also sit in the witness box next to young and elderly victims and witnesses. And it seems the prosecutors and defense attorneys find themselves petting and stroking the dogs to calm their own nerves.

Kelley McMillan reports in in a September, 2010 article that New Mexico will soon be bringing one such dog, Cooper, a 2-year-old golden retriever, to Lea County. Cooper will be the first courthouse dog placed with any organization in New Mexico. Several other New Mexico agencies will quickly follow suit for courts in Roswell and Taos.

Dogs help us with so many things. Now, add to the list that they are helping victims of violent crimes and abuse, young and elderly alike, to get through difficult, painful testimony on the witness stand. According to O'Neil-Stephens, having the dog with a child in court can make the difference between a guilty verdict or an acquittal.

Posted By:
Dawn Kairns 
Author of MAGGIE the dog who changed my life A Story of Love
"They stay in our lives for a while, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same." -- Author Unknown
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1 comment :

Anonymous said...

That is a fascinating story, and an innovation that I think is long overdue. Underage victims have a hard enough time in our legal system, with the law requiring them to face their accusers; anything we can do to level the playing field is a good thing, in my view, and I love that it's the calming presence of a dog that seals the deal.
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